Author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan grew up in food-obsessed Singapore, surrounded by family and her rich Asian culture. By the time she was in her twenties, she had moved to the United States and became a successful fashion writer living in New York but unable to cook. After 16 years in the US, Cheryl comes to a disturbing realization that she is ang moh (a Chinese term that means “read hair,” implying Westernized). She begins to daydream of her grandmother, Tanglin ah-ma, coming to her bearing cherished recipes. With this daydream, she decides to journey home to Singapore to rediscover her heritage – “finally ready after all these years to learn to cook, to learn about my family and to learn to be a woman.”
What follows is a rich and intriguing memoir of a woman retracing her life history and heritage through the eyes of different family members, their stories and the food and recipes that belonged to the women of the family. Cheryl tries desperately to put in writing what her aunts and uncles have learned to cook intuitively. Each success and failure is poignant and rich with cultural tidbits of personal and cultural history. We see how cooking is an inheritance to dutiful daughters. Those who neglect their duties forfeit the cooking knowledge: “One of the dishes I desperately wanted to know how to make was tau yew back, a stew of pork belly braised in dark soy sauce . . .It looked simple enough.” After she attempts to make the dish, Cheryl reveals: “The end result wasn’t perfect – the meat could have been more tender and I completely forgot the tofu.” Cheryl then resolves to ask her auntie Khar Imm, who “played the dutiful daughter in law, helping my grandmother in the kitchen.”
The author’s rebellious nature and her desire to leave her country to become a writer rather than follow the path of a dutiful daughter is explained by the fact that she was born in the year of the Tiger – hence the title of the book. The author’s mother is considered defiant and disobedient by her parents when she becomes an airline stewardess, which in turn leads to her being shunned by her own mother, the author’s Tanglin ah-ma, for many years. Subsequently, both mother and daughter lacked the joy and expertise to cook, and were also unable to share with one another. The author shows how this lack of cooking knowledge impacted not only their place in the whole family but also negatively impacted the mother-daughter relationship in several generations, thereby revealing the power that food and cooking has in people’s lives.
After being laid off from her writing job in America, the author is free to journey back to Singapore, which opens the door to more journeys and stories within her family: “You know, years and years ago, my grandfather left his family in China as a young man to travel to Singapore and seek a better life,” her father tells her. “And now, years later, here you are. My daughter left Singapore to travel to America and seek a better life... our family’s journey continues.”
Cheryl’s cultural differences as a Singaporean woman but also as an American woman are evident in the contrast between her recipes and cooking in America, where she begins cooking every recipe in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and the dishes she is striving to create when she is with her Uncle Simpson in the US or when she is cooking with her aunties in Singapore. The journey is not only about the cultural transitions as she travels from the US to Singapore, where in the US fashion world, she covers a ‘world obsessed with not eating,’ to Singapore, which is ‘all about eating,’ or from a baking recipe that is followed exactly to a family dish that is created intuitively. This is a story about how Cheryl finds a way to connect all the idiosyncrasies of the cultures and make peace within her own heart for all her rich history through perfecting her cooking.
As the author gives deliciously detailed accounts of the cooking process for recipes, such as the pineapple tarts or the bak zhang (rice dumplings), she also recounts rich stories about the family members and their history. “As we kneaded, brushed, and rolled, I gently prodded my aunties to tell me about my ancestors.” Stories told about relatives give glimpses into tradition and culture through history, from opium-smoking friends of grandparents, to how the flavors of food changes through history from the British colonies in the 19th century to additions of flavor from Malaysia to India, to marriage and funeral rituals in Singapore, to how her grandmother had agreed to marry a man, not realizing that he was already married, and how she dealt with the first wife, to name just a few examples.
The author paints a vivid, warm and poignant picture of her journey to not only find her heritage, but to learn to slow her life down so she could ‘watch, listen and learn’ and cook ‘with her heart.’ A Tiger in the Kitchen is a rich culinary adventure filled with history and culture from many countries as well as mouth-watering accounts of the creation of various dishes. For adventurous epicureans, some of the recipes are listed at the back of the book for you to experience firsthand. Highly recommended.