Friday, December 14, 2012

A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan

This is Vietnamese food, not Singaporean, but it's what I had for lunch after Cheryl Tan and Fuchsia Dunlop's Lit Fest talks about food writing left me absolutely starving.


A New York City writer returns to her home, Singapore, to learn how to cook from her extended family.


Cheryl Tan spent her childhood in Singapore, but she has since become a thoroughly Americanized fashion journalist. She doesn't usually cook, and she resents any implications that, as a woman, she should have to. However, like any good Singaporean girl, she loves food, and she dreams of the dishes that made her grandmother a legend in their neighborhood. In this memoir, Cheryl decides to return to Singapore and collect the recipes and wisdom of the women in her family before she misses her chance.

This memoir takes place over one year during which Cheryl makes numerous visits to her family in Singapore. She shares their stories over boiling pots of curry and armfuls of doughs. The women in her family have taken vastly different paths, and it is interesting to see how Cheryl, as a liberated, modern woman, relates to them. Her efforts are clumsy at first, but she begins to understand the cooking processes and the women's choices better throughout the course of the year. She explores her own attitudes and prejudices towards family, motherhood and women's roles as she trails after her aunts and grandmother in the kitchen.

The writing style is very chatty and sometimes sarcastic. There are some very warm scenes between the family members, and it is interesting to see how the author teases out the stories of the family she didn't know as well as she thought. Her enthusiasm for eating is evident, and of course she includes recipes at the end of the narrative. The stories of Singaporean cooking are interspersed with Cheryl's attempts to make bread in her New York apartment as part of a blog challenge, which I found distracting, but it did provide a counterpoint to the whirl of dumplings, pineapple tarts, moon cakes and curries. I'm going to Singapore next week for the Christmas holiday, and this book definitely whet my appetite for some great food.


Cheryl Tan's blog
My reflections from Cheryl Tan's writing workshop at the HK Literary Festival


I bought the paperback at Cheryl's HKILF event. The Kindle edition is $8.


What special dish do you associate with your own extended family? For me it's a type of chicken curry, a recipe that actually came from Singapore originally.

1 comment:

  1. I love your review! I read her book last year after I met her at a reading (complete with a dinner based on her recipes!) at a Chicago-area bookstore. It was so much fun.

    That's so cool you'll be in Singapore next week. I spent the week of Christmas there a whopping 18 years ago when I was 24 (with my parents). Your curry recipe sounds wonderful. For my family, it was a hot and sour soup that was light and peppery without the thickeners I find in Chinese-American restaurants. I'm not sure where my parents got that recipe, but they made it at all their dinner parties in the 80s.


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