|Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, photo by John Searles|
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is the author of the memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, about spending time with her family in Singapore while learning to cook. Tan, who was born and grew up in Singapore and now is based in New York, has reported for The Wall Street Journal, In Style magazine, and The Baltimore Sun. Her blog is found at atigerinthekitchen.com.
Q: You write, "I should have been less of a rebel." Although you may have been referring to the fact that you didn't learn to cook when you were growing up in Singapore, do you think you were a rebel in other ways too?
A: Oh, I was a rebel in many ways -- the way I was raised, and with the belief that I was a stubborn and rebellious Tiger, I found myself questioning authority all the time. This led me to avoid the kitchen and all "womanly" lessons and focus instead on reading, writing and creating a creative career path for myself that veered far from the more usual ones that I'm sure my family wished for me.
I saw how the generations of women before me in Singapore and Asia had been very limited in their opportunities and I was determined to not have that define me. I am grateful for that, though, as it led me to pursue my love for writing, which landed me on the journey to ultimately writing "A Tiger in the Kitchen."
Q: What surprised you the most when you spent more time as an adult with your family in Singapore?
A: The most surprising thing for me was discovering how I'd gotten it wrong for so many years. Growing up in Singapore, I'd emulated the men in my family, believing that they were the strong and dynamic ones, the people who got to go out and have careers, run companies, make their marks in the larger world.
What I realized in my year of learning how to cook with my aunties, my grandmother and my mother in Singapore though, was that I had underestimated the women in my family all along. They were the strong ones in my family -- through all the hardships, from immense poverty to dealing with difficult situations like multiple wives and families, intense poverty, opium addictions and more, they were the ones who held the family together.
And no matter how bad things got, they were the ones who rolled up their sleeves and put food on the table every day -- and what terrific food it was, too! The dishes I learned to make, the same ones I had taken for granted all my life -- some of them were very challenging. And yet these women just whipped them all together with ease and finesse -- and what fueled them in doing that was one singular thing: love for their family. I found their spirit and their energy to be so inspiring and I was glad I learned this lesson in that year.
Q: You were born in the Year of the Tiger -- what Tiger qualities do you feel you have, and why did you call the book A Tiger in the Kitchen?
A: My mother often told me as a child that I was fortunate not to have been born in ancient China, where Tiger girls were pariahs. Because the Tiger spirit is supposed to be very ferocious, dynamic and headstrong -- qualities girls certainly not prized in girls -- she said Chinese families would sometimes pull out one of their Tiger daughter's teeth so she wouldn't be so fierce and "eat up her husband."
She was always afraid that I might have these qualities, making me "unmarriageable" perhaps. And her fears turned out to be true -- I embrace these Tiger qualities though and they have always defined me, fueling me to work hard, climb as high as I could and more. This is why I called the book "A Tiger in the Kitchen" -- I realized that I had always applied these qualities to my career path but never in the kitchen. This book is about the year that I learned how to do that.
Q: What is your favorite family recipe that you learned to make, and what about it do you especially like?
A: There are so many family favorites that I learned in the book -- first of all, my late grandmother's delicious pineapple tarts, a buttery cookie topped with dense, sweet homemade pineapple jam, which my family still makes every Chinese new year because pineapples are gold, which is a very prosperous color, making this a lucky food to eat to usher in the new year.
But the recipe I probably loved the most was my late grandmother's recipe for gambling rice. All too often, the versions of history that get preserved are the ones told by men. I thought it was important to hear from the women in my family, and food ended up being the vehicle that really allowed for these stories to be shared.
Gambling rice is an example of that -- it's a dish that my late grandmother created when she was running an illegal gambling den out of her home because the family was rather poor.
She didn’t want her gamblers to get hungry and leave so she started to cook for them. She made this one-dish meal of stir-fried pork belly, shallots, mushrooms, garlic and shredded cabbage cooked with rice. The point of it was that it was easy to eat –gamblers could hold a bowl of this rice in one hand and keep gambling with the other.
That one dish says so much of my grandmother and really encapsulates my family history — it speaks of how poor my family once was and it shows how resilient and smart she was in addition to being a great cook.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I've just turned in the manuscript for Singapore Noir, an anthology of noir fiction set in Singapore that Akashic Books is publishing in April 2014. The collection is terrific -- featuring stories from award-winning Singaporean authors as well as terrific writers like mystery writer extraordinaire S.J. Rozan, the wonderful British novelist Lawrence Osborne and fabulous food writer Monica Bhide. But I'm also finishing my second book -- a novel -- titled Sarong Party Girls. It's set in Singapore and it's been a trip to write. I can't wait to share it with the world.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have a short story in a great anthology coming out this summer called The Marijuana Chronicles -- it's a collection of terrific stories by writers including Joyce Carol Oates and Lee Child and I have a little story called "Ganja Ghosts" in there. I hope everyone will check it out in July!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb