Read A Tiger in the Kitchen Online
Authors: Cheryl Tan
A Tiger in the
a memoir of food
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
For Daddo, Mommo, and Daffo,
who loved me enough to let me go.
And for Mike,
who caught me on the other side.
TANGLIN AH-MA’S PINEAPPLE TARTS
AUNTIE KHAR IMM’S SALTED VEGETABLE AND DUCK SOUP
AUNTIE ALICE’S TEOCHEW BRAISED DUCK
AUNTIE KHAR MOI’S PANDAN-SKIN MOONCAKES
A Conversation with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
I distinctly remember the moment that I knew: I should have been less of a rebel.
I was in my twenties. I was feeling on top of the world as a fashion writer for the
a paper I had aspired to work at for years.
And I had decided to teach myself to cook.
Even though I had grown up in Singapore, a somewhat traditional place despite its modern, impressive skyline and reputation as a Southeast Asian economic powerhouse, I had deftly managed as a child to avoid setting foot in the kitchen to learn the wifely skills that my girlfriends were encouraged to pick up.
Instead, I had poured my teenage energies into raku pottery, ballet, Chinese brush painting. Basic fried rice? I hadn’t the faintest clue how to put that together.
Nevertheless, I had a Singaporean grandmother who was both a force of nature and a legendary cook. And so I believed it was in my blood to excel in the kitchen—or at least kill myself trying.
What unfolded was a series of rather unfortunate episodes. Fried rice was so burned that brown, charred chunks of rice seared themselves almost permanently to the wok. (How was
supposed to know that nonstop stirring action was essential to the process?) A stab at fried noodles yielded an inedible, gelatinous mass. (Periodically peering into a pot of boiling water, apparently, was not the way to tell if noodles were getting gummy and overcooked.) An Oreo cheesecake pie I attempted for Thanksgiving turned out so lumpy that one guest gently inquired if I owned a whisk. (Hello, if I needed one, perhaps the recipe printed on the back of the piecrust label should have said so?)
The pièce de résistance, however, was a dish of hello dollies I very enthusiastically attempted after spying the recipe on a bag of chocolate chips at the grocery store. All morning one Saturday I slaved, opening cans, mixing and assembling. As the bars baked in the oven, the heady smell of chocolate, condensed milk, and coconut started filling my Washington, D.C., kitchen. I began to envision the afternoon that lay before me: I would walk into my friend’s home perhaps wearing gingham oven mitts and a matching red and white apron, bearing my baking dish of delicious hello dollies. My friends would inhale the bars, grabbing at seconds—thirds, even! But when they showered me with compliments for my baking, I would merely blush, coyly turn my head, and wave them away with the elegance of Princess Diana.
This, I thought to myself, would be what they call “nailing it.”
Naturally, this was not how it went. In a frantic rush, I had gotten to my friend’s apartment with no mitts and no apron. And when I sliced into the pan to cut up the bars, my knife emerged dripping with a slick, brown and taupe goo flecked with bits of white coconut. As I watched my friends politely lick at the liquid mounds of chocolate and condensed milk I had scooped onto paper napkins—I had avoided serving plates, having had a fervent, if misguided belief in the solid nature of my bars—I realized, I am not the cook my grandmother was.
Growing up in Singapore, I had taken my Tanglin ah-ma for granted.
My paternal grandmother, whom I called Tanglin Ah-Ma because she once lived in the Tanglin neighborhood of Singapore, was a true legend in the kitchen. A slender, birdlike woman with a nest of short, wavy hair that she kept pulled back from her face with black bobby pins, my Tanglin ah-ma was a mystery to me when I was growing up. We rarely visited her, and when we did, my inability to speak any Teochew, the Chinese dialect that she spoke, meant we mostly sat around with me feeling her eyes scan over me, inspecting this alien, Westernized granddaughter she had somehow ended up with. During these visits, I would learn small things about her—that she kept a wooden, rectangular block that functioned as a pillow, for example. It was a habit that Singaporean Chinese of a certain generation, who had had no access to plush feather pillows, were clinging to. However many times I saw or touched her wooden pillow, though, I never understood it.
While we didn’t have the words to communicate, Tanglin Ah-Ma spoke eloquently to me, to her family, by feeding us all. She would routinely rise in the early hours of the morning to fire up the charcoal stove in order to put breakfast on the table. Soy-sauce-braised duck, hearty salted vegetable soups, and even tricky
the pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves that require such work few women bother to make them at home anymore—Ah-Ma churned them out with such skill that an ever-growing circle of relatives, friends, and then friends of friends would regularly request them.
The crowning moment for my Tanglin ah-ma, however, was Chinese New Year, a time of great feasting in Singapore when people devote entire days to hopping from house to house, catching up with friends and relatives while stuffing themselves with platters of noodles, candy, and above all, cookies.
Amid the sanctioned bacchanalia, one indulgence was supreme for me: pineapple tarts. Each year, I looked forward to the bite-size cookies that are the hallmark of the festivities. And I considered myself a connoisseur of the treats, which comprise a buttery shortbread base topped with a dense, sweet pineapple jam. As we traveled from house to house, I would attack the tarts first, choosing not to sully my palate or waste calories on other, lesser snacks. And at each home, I would, inevitably, be disappointed. The tarts would always be too crumbly, too salty, or not crumbly enough. None compared to my Tanglin ah-ma’s tarts—this was, simply, fact.
Despite my love for the tarts, however, I never bothered to learn how to make them. As a child, I had been steadfastly determined not to pick up any womanly skills, least of all cooking. I was more intent on reading, writing, learning about the world—and plotting how I was to eventually go forth and conquer it.
Cooking, I thought, could always come later. Blithely, I assumed that I would someday ask my Tanglin ah-ma to teach me how to make her pineapple tarts. And then, when I was eleven, she died.
Watching the disaster that was my hello dollies unfold that afternoon in Washington, I felt a sudden pang of regret.
Over the next ten years, as I ventured more deeply into the kitchen, growing ever more ambitious—and, I’d like to think, skilled—this kernel of yearning would only grow. Each stew I made, each cookie I baked only made me wonder what my Tanglin ah-ma would have thought. Nothing I baked or cooked, of course, compared in my mind to anything she made.
I had missed the opportunity to get to know her recipes, to get to know her. By now, I’d achieved the success I’d craved as a child—I was based in New York City, covering fashion for
The Wall Street Journal,
one of the largest newspapers in America. And yet, no matter how high I climbed, the hole stubbornly remained.
I started to think about home—which, to me, isn’t just New York, or Singapore, or anywhere in between. Home, rather, is rooted in the kitchen and the foods of my Singaporean girlhood—the intoxicating fog of turmeric and lemongrass seeping into the air as bright orange slabs of
a curried fish mousse, steam on the stove, or the scent of sliced mackerel and minced ginger doused in white pepper drifting out of the kitchen, heralding a hearty breakfast of fish porridge.
After almost sixteen years in the United States, I realized I had, indeed, become
(a Chinese term that means “red hair,” implying Westernized). I did not know, after all, how to make these dishes, the food of my people. They aren’t recipes that you’ll find in Chinese cookbooks; many are uniquely Singaporean and, in some cases, regarded as not “special” enough to put on restaurant menus. Because of recent generations of women just like me who were intent on avoiding cooking, some of these recipes are slowly fading from the culinary awareness.