Fate has a funny way of throwing people over the edge, then catching them just before they land. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan would agree that this is just the Universe's way of telling them that things happen for a reason.
So when the New York-based fashion writer was laid-off from the Wall Street Journal, she went numb for about five minutes and then, quickly reinvented herself. Her gambit paid off, resulting in a tantalizing book, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family that is receiving national attention, including an NPR interview that propelled the book up Amazon's best seller list.
Tan will discuss her book at an Asia Society Texas-sponsored event 7-9 p.m. Wednesday at the United Way of Houston auditorium.
The most shocking family secret that I came across was probably that my two grandmothers — complete saints — were so poor at some point they had illegal gambling dens in their living rooms to make some money!
As a girl growing up in Singapore, Tan loved food but never learned to cook. When she entered her 30s, she found herself not only craving the flavors of home, but yearning to reproduce them in her New York apartment.
Tan had left Singapore in the early 1990s to study in the United States. After graduation from Northwestern University, she went to work for the Baltimore Sun then landed in New York at InStyle magazine and the Wall Street Journal, reporting on fashion and home design. Career came first. Food was an afterthought until a restructuring at the Journal gave the 36-year-old writer the push she needed to return to Singapore to write her food memoir.
While there, she mastered such dishes as salted vegetable duck soup, tender stewed pork belly, Hainanese chicken with ginger-and pandan-scented rice and her grandmother’s buttery tart topped with pineapple jam. But along with acquiring newfound culinary skills, Tan uncovered dark family secrets and emerged roaring with confidence.
In a CultureMap interview, Tan discussed her book and an important ingredient to life that she learned in her aunties’ kitchen.
CultureMap: Amy Chua gained notoriety with her New York Times bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but you actually came up your title in 2009, about two years before Tiger Mother was published. How did you come up with the title and what does it mean?
Cheryl Tan: I was born in the year of the tiger. Tigers are known to be headstrong, ambitious go-getters, so throughout my life, I’ve been guided and applied these traits to my career but not in my cooking. So for a year, I applied those qualities to my cooking, so it’s a little bit different than other tiger books out there.
CM: How is Singaporean food different from other Asian cuisines?
CT: It’s a century-old fusion food. The island is so small. If you drive from one end to the other, it only takes you 90 minutes. It’s about the size of Rhode Island, and it’s very tropical. The food is a mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay with a little bit of the British and Dutch thrown in. Over the years the flavors from these kitchens merged, resulting in a very unique cuisine that is very hard to find outside Singapore.
CM: Give us an example.
CT: One of my favorite dishes is Roti John. Roti is bread and John is what we used to call the British soldiers. It is eaten for breakfast. Basically, it’s a baguette, sliced lengthwise and soaked in an egg mixture of onions, garam masala and minced mutton. It is fried, so it’s like a savory French toast with chile sauce.
CM: Wow. You got a real palate tap-dance going on there with influences from Indian, Malay and British. No wonder Singaporean food is a cuisine of all stripes. What are some key pantry ingredients?
CT: I would say dark soy sauce. You can find it at most Asian stores, but it’s sweeter and thicker. It has a molasses consistency. I use it to kick everyday dishes up a notch, such as grilled burgers. White pepper is used more than black pepper. It’s sharper and great for marinating fish. Pandan is another ingredient. It’s used a lot in South Asian desserts. It’s kind of like vanilla, but more complex and slightly grassy.
CM: Your book touts Singapore as the most food obsessed country in the world. Tell us more.
CT: Food is really a sport in Singapore. We always say that Singaporeans don’t eat to live, we live to eat. It’s so true.
CM: The catalyst for your book was your grandmother’s pineapple tarts. They must taste amazing.
CT: She died when I was 11, but people still request tubs of them. My aunts would make 3,000 of these buttery tarts every Chinese New Year. My grandmother and I were limited by ability to communicate because of my lousy Teochew, my family Chinese dialect. How we communicated was through food.
CM: Through food you reconnected with your heritage, aunts and family secrets. Which shocked you most?
CT: The most shocking family secret that I came across was probably that my two grandmothers — complete saints — were so poor at some point they had illegal gambling dens in their living rooms to make some money! That and the opium addiction of my great grandfather -- and the fact that he used my aunt to be his opium courier because who would suspect a little girl making trips to pick up sketchy packages?
CM: Your aunts taught you how to cook many favorite childhood dishes on your year-long journey. But they also taught you some valuable life lessons. Do you have one that you plan to pass on to your children?
CT: I’m very precise, measuring everything. My aunts approached cooking differently. They would always tell me to "agak-agak." It’s a Malay word that means, “guess, guess.” You don’t write things down. You taste and you guess. I realized that is applicable to life as well, so be open to life’s possibilities and see where life takes you. It might be off the beaten path, but it might lead to higher rewards as well.
Hear the NPR interview with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan:
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Recipe for Pineapple Tarts
Yields about 100 tarts
To make the jam:
at least ½ kilogram sugar (at least 2 ½ cups, depending on desired sweetness)
2 to 3 pandan leaves* knotted together
1 long cinnamon stick, broken in two
*Leaves from the pandan tree, also called screw pine, can be found frozen in some Asian grocery stores.
Peel the pineapples, dig out the eyes and chop into chunks. Run the chunks through a juicer. Place the pulp in a large wok or pot with a large surface area and heat on the stove. Add the juice until the mixture has the consistency of porridge or grits; add the knotted pandan leaves and cinnamon stick.
Bring to a boil and keep it there for a total of three hours, stirring often. Halfway through, taste the jam, and add sugar by the half cup until it is as sweet as you desire. (Note: The amount of sugar needed will vary greatly depending on how ripe the pineapples are.)
The jam is done when the pineapple mixture has changed color from bright yellow to brownish ochre and most of the liquid has evaporated, leaving a dense but moist jam.
For the pastry:
375 grams salted butter (3 sticks plus 2 ½ Tablespoons) at room temperature
600 grams flour (about 4 ¾ cups)
4 egg yolks, plus 1 yolk for brushing onto pastry
With a mixer on low speed, combine the butter, flour and four egg yolks, mixing for 3 to 5 minutes.
Place dough in a cookie press fitted with a disc featuring a circle of diamonds. Press cookies out onto greased baking sheets. Form small balls of dough and press each one into the hollow of a cookie, forming
the base of the tart.
Beat the remaining egg yolk with ½ teaspoon of water. Brush the rim of each tart generously. Take a scant teaspoon of pineapple jam (more or less, as desired) and form a ball, then press into the hollow of each tart. Pat the sides of the jam to create a small dome. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees, until golden brown. Remove cookies from sheets and cool on a rack.
Excerpted from A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Tan. All Rights Reserved.