For many cooks, receiving recipes and culinary knowledge from past generations is crucial to their personal development. Some are lucky enough to have their family's recipe book ingrained at a young age; others strike out on their own without their mother's lasagna or chicken soup recipe. Journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan spent much of her young adulthood not knowing how to cook. The story of how she embraced her Singaporean heritage and traveled to her home country in search of her delicious memories is detailed in A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.
After nearly two decades of living independently in the U.S., Tan realized that she had never really learned how to cook. Sure, she could whip up pasta or an occasional cake, but the spicy, hearty, delicious dishes of her Singaporean youth were fading from memory. Something of a rebellious child, she had chosen to study hard and play with her friends rather than learn how to prepare a home. As she came to realize that her kitchen disasters were more a chronic condition than a 24-hour bug, she decided it was time to take action.
Tan led a whirlwind lifestyle as a fashion columnist, traveling all over the world and spending long days researching, writing, and snagging interviews with elusive designers. The stress caused her hair to fall out and her patience was wearing thin—and then, she lost her job. While certainly thrown for a loop, Tan didn't despair. She seized the opportunity to dedicate a year to traveling to Singapore, reuniting with her family, and learning how to cook from her aunties and grandmothers.
Initially, she was not well-received. Not only had she left Singapore for the United States and lost touch with her roots, but she also returned home without a child for her aunties to coddle. She struggled with unpracticed Mandarin and even rustier Teochew, hoping that her voyage would yield the culinary insights she was seeking. Slowly, the aunties began welcoming her into their kitchens, revealing the secrets to fresh summer rolls, salted vegetable and duck soup, mooncakes, and her grandmother's famous pineapple tarts.
Tan tried desperately to scribble measurements in her notebook, but was consistently chided for her efforts. She was told to "agak, agak!", or "guess, guess!", adjusting ingredients to taste rather than according to a recipe. Tan was at first terrified, but soon became more confident in her ability to prepare these dishes on her own. Her culminating project was a Chinese New Year dinner prepared for her whole Singaporean family. She slaved over the traditional items, which were approved by her aunties with groans of delight.
Many of us wish to return to our culinary roots, to rediscover the recipes and tastes of prior generations. Tan flew halfway around the world, leaving her husband for weeks at a time, to glean as much knowledge as she could from her aging relatives. Her book concludes with just a few choice recipes, including the delectable pineapple tarts. She provides wonderful description of the Singaporean kitchens, ingredients, and chatter amongst the strong-willed women of her family. Her passion and appetite left me craving nothing more—except perhaps some great homemade mooncakes.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.