Tag Archives: memoir

book review & book signing: “a tiger in the kitchen” by cheryl lu-lien tan

I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!

After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.

Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.

Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.

Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.

Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.

The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).

One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.

book review: “shark’s fin & sichuan pepper” by fuchsia dunlop

The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France.  It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was  nonetheless a challenge.  However, France is one thing; China is quite another.  I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture.  Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing.  Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others.  She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and  to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan CookingRevolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time.  In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies.  She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek.  Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns.  Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst.  She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.

In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners.  In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female.  However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.

The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school.  Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes.  Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation.  The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed.  Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat.  In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.

I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food.  In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best.  Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”.  Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal.  Dunlop describes it thus:

Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me.  When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:

Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
[…]
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)

The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them.  They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).

Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc.  At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted.  In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind.  If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.

book review: “climbing the mango trees” by madhur jaffrey

Although signs of spring are finally here, it was somewhat cold and gloomy the past couple weeks.  Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India was just the book to transport me to balmier climes as I read about Madhur Jaffrey‘s rather idyllic childhood in Delhi in the 1940s.  I bought this book a while ago when it first came out in paperback, but with my backlog of must-read books, it took me a while to get to it.  However, I’ve been on somewhat of an Indian food kick lately, so, to the top of the pile it rose.

The book was a wonderful example of the memoir-with-emphasis-on-food genre.  The stories flowed naturally, and the mentions of food were neither stilted nor overly sentimental.  The daily routine in her household compound included meals with 50+ people at a time- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and the patriarchal paternal grandfather (Babaji) at the helm of it all.  In the Indian tradition, adult children (i.e. the male sons and their families) were practically required to live under the same roof as the grandfather, so Jaffrey grew up with dozens of cousins to run around with.  Even still, she describes feeling lonely at the center of all that familial chaos.  Jaffrey was a bit of a tomboy, but also portrays herself as a “sensitive soul”, which would probably explain her getting into acting in her teens (Jaffrey had a career in film and television before becoming a world-renowned cookbook author).

The family must have been wealthy by Indian standards, as the daily meals described sound like nothing short of a feast. Prepared by servants, with the women of the house contributing some dishes, the meals typically contained several courses, accompanied by an array of chutneys and freshly prepared flatbreads such as parathas and pooris.  Dinners were preceded by what the French call l’apéro: drinks and light snacks such as nuts.  Eventually, upon Babaji’s cue, the clan would proceed to the dining table, which was so long that you could barely see who was at the other end.  The gatherings would continue on into the evening, sometimes with a musical performance or poetry reading, ending only when Babaji was sated.

Jaffrey grew up during a fascinating time in Indian history.  The book is set against the backdrop of British colonial rule, the rise of Gandhi and the strife of Independence and Partition.  Jaffrey’s family was fortunate to survive that tumultuous period relatively unscathed, but she wistfully describes how the changes affected her young life, such as the fact that most of her Muslim school friends were forced to leave Delhi.  In spite of the many unsettling and disruptive aspects of Partition, Jaffrey strikes a positive chord describing all the new foods that that were introduced to Delhi as a result of the migrations of groups from other parts of India.  Jaffrey describes the “exotic” foods shared with her by classmates of different religious and ethnic backgrounds- Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc.  Of course, their food always seemed more appealing than what she had brought in her own lunch box!  The popular Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal opened during this time period as well, introducing many of the foods that would become Indian restaurant staples in the U.S.

At the end of the book is a section of family recipes.  I made Tahiri (rice & peas) from this book, as well as Aloo Gosht (Meat & Potato Curry) and Kale in Mustard Oil from two of Jaffrey’s other cookbooks.  All were absolutely delicious- follow the link above for my post on the Aloo Gosht.