I spent many happy hours reading this fascinating, funny, heart-warming book. Tiger in the Kitchen is a great choice for anyone interested in Singapore, travel, culture, families or food.
Like Amy Chua who wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan was born in the Year of the Tiger which is supposed to make her dynamic and aggressive. It is certainly true in Tan's case. As a child in Singapore she was always ambitious and never interested in girl pursuits like cooking, but her fondest memories of growing up all involve eating. When Tan was eighteen she defied her family's wishes by traveling far from home to study journalism at an American college, but once there she found she missed the foods of Singapore. Their multilayered flavors were hard to duplicate in America. The British had established a busy trading port at Singapore early in the nineteenth century so its food are unique with influences coming from all over, including China, Malaysia, India and Europe.
After college Tan stayed in America and in the fall 2008 when the financial crisis in full swing she was working at the Wall Street Journal. Because she covered fashion and retail, her days were spent on devastating stories of closures and bankruptcies. Many of her New York friends were losing their jobs. By early 2009 Tan had migraines so intense her doctor thought she might be having a stoke and she knew she needed a change. With Chinese New Year approaching, Tan's aunts in Singapore would be baking up a storm so Tan decided to take a break, fly to Singapore, and learn how to make the pineapple tarts she had loved as a child.
Cooking with her aunties just whet her appetite for more. She fantasized about returning to Singapore for more extended sessions of cooking instructions, weeks or even months long, but with the financial crisis still wrecking havoc it was completely impractical to think of taking that much time away from work. Fortunately, she was laid off. For the next year, Chinese New Year to Chinese New Year, Tan traveled back and forth from New York City to Singapore so she could spend time with her extended family and master the art of cooking the foods she remembered from childhood.
Tan started out approaching this project like the true tiger woman that she is, trying to simultaneously participate in, photograph and write down the often overwhelmingly elaborate recipe steps her aunts carried effortlessly in their heads. She spent the early days frantically begging those aunts for exact measurements of everything, which made them laugh because it wasn't how they cook. Tan had to learn not to be squeamish when ingredients included whole ducks, heads and all, or pig belly with some bristly skin still attached.
The subtitle, A Memoir of Food and Family, is apt because her story is as much about getting to know her extended family better as it is about their food. Tan culminated her year of cooking classes from her grandmother and aunts by preparing a family meal for them all during the Chinese New Year celebration. While not every dish turned out as perfectly as she had envisioned, family members who had previously been estranged were now sitting around the table together laughing, talking, and enjoying food.
Recipes for several of the foods Tan learns to cook, including the pineapple tarts from her first lesson, are in the back of the book. The March 23, 2011 edition of the Washington Post has one more, her grandmother's recipe for "Gambling Rice". During Tan's year of family and food she learned to her great surprise that both of her sweet but shrewd grandmothers had run illicit gambling dens in their homes to earn needed money for their families. Gambling Rice was a convenient meal that could be eaten right at the card table so the gamblers didn't have to stop playing when they got hungry.