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Tiger in the Kitchen's Cheryl Tan returns to her roots in the world's most food-obsessed country

Tiger in the Kitchen's Cheryl Tan returns to her roots in the world's most food-obsessed country

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Author Cheryl Lu-LienTan Photo courtesy of Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
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Ayam masak merah, a Malay-Singaporean dish of deep-fried chicken that's then stir-fried with a sweet and spicy gravy made with fresh and dried chilis, tomato sauce and palm sugar. Photo by Cheryl Tan
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Kong Bak Pau (braised pork belly sandwiches). This is one of Tan's mother's specialties — it's a Fukienese dish of steamed Chinese bun filled with chunks of pork belly that's been braised in dark soy sauce. The recipe can be found at Photo by Cheryl Tan
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"Tiger in the Kitchen," Hyperion, $14.99.
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Otak, a steamed spicy mackerel mousse that's wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled so it has a slight char. (Recipe is in the book.) It's like a spicy pate that's eaten on bread or over rice. Photo by Cheryl Tan
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Mee Siam, a Malay-Singaporean dish of vermicelli noodles, a hard boiled egg, tofu and bean sprouts in a slightly sour spicy broth. Even though this is not Chinese, it's part of Tan's family's repertoire. Photo by Cheryl Tan
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Beng Kway, steamed glutinous rice cakes filled with shallots, peanuts, pork and garlic stir fried with soy sauce and white pepper. Tan's family typically makes these cakes during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, which takes place in August. At this time, the Chinese in Singapore believe that the gates of Hell are opened and ghosts are allowed to roam the earth. In order to keep them happy so they don't wreak havoc on your lives Singaporeans feed them, setting out plates of food and fruit out for the ghosts to "eat." These pink cakes are served because pink, like red, is a lucky color. Photo by Cheryl Tan
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My late grandmother's Gambling Rice — this is a dish that my grandmother made when she was so poor that she started running a little gambling den in her living room to make some money. She didn't want her gamblers to get hungry and leave so she started to cook for them. This rice dish is particularly easy to eat because it's a one-dish meal that comprises shredded cabbage, pork, mushrooms, dried shrimp, garlic and shallots stir-fried together and then cooked with the rice. Gamblers could hold the bowl in one hand — and keep gambling with the other. So, Gambling Rice! Photo by Cheryl Tan
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Bak-Zhang, a pyramid-shaped rice dumpling filled with pork stir-fried with mushrooms, shallots and garlic. These are made during the Dumpling Festival (also known as the Dragonboat Festival) in June. Dumplings are a symbol of family unity. Photo by Cheryl Tan
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
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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 Motherbut 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:
4 pineapples
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.