If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, then you’ve probably seen my monthly Twitter #LetsLunch posts, Friday virtual get-togethers with my food-obsessed pals around the world. It all started with Cheryl Tan, who made a comment – rather, a Tweet — to me about bacon, and soon, we were both in our kitchens (in Brooklyn and in Paris) cooking up bacon-stuffed sandwiches and posting them on our blogs…and it took off from there. Our little group has grown, and as it has stretched from Los Angeles to Australia and back, we’ve all been busy with our real jobs, too.
In Cheryl’s case, that meant working on her first book, “A Tiger in the Kitchen.” We were with her, cheering her on, as she flew from the U.S. to Singapore numerous times, cooked, took notes, and then stitched her experience together in a wonderful, funny, and heartfelt memoir.
So when Cheryl emailed me not long ago and told me that she was coming to town for the Paris Cookbook Fair, I was so excited I could hardly stand it — through her book, I already felt like I knew her whole family, and had, already, in fact, met her sister when she was in town a few months back. It seemed like a good time to find out what she’s been up to since her book was published, and how it’s changed her relationships with food, her own kitchen, and her family. (For those of you who haven’t read her book yet, you must, and if you’re in town this weekend, come and see her at the Paris Cookbook Fair — I’ll be there, too!)
You’re now in the fourth printing of your food memoir, “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” which came out last year. Congrats on your huge success! Tell me, though, why do you think the book resonates with readers?
Thank you! I’ve been so surprised and so grateful over the interest that readers have shown in the book. From the emails I’ve gotten, I think readers have responded to the story of the search for family and the meaning of home through excavating and recording old family recipes. Longing for home — and for your grandmother’s cooking — and what that all means is a very universal feeling. I’ve heard from many who just wanted to share stories of their grandmother’s sugar cookies or their mother’s fried rice. We all have those dishes in our lives that tug at our hearts — and stomachs — in a special way. Also, I think the way that my grandmother and aunties cook — without recipes or measurements; purely by instinct — seems to be very similar to how others’ families cook as well. An Italian-American man came up to me in Seattle and said: “My grandmother cooked just like yours. She called it “Cooking with Some — I don’t know what goes in it. Just some of this and some of that!”
I love how you transitioned from working as a serious journalist to reporting fashion for the Wall Street Journal, then when you lost your job, you would up writing about the food from your childhood in Singapore. What do you think this says about food, family, its ability to comfort us…and how deeply connected we all are to our past because of it?
I think it’s natural to reach back to the familiar, to the comfort of simpler times, when things are hard. For me, the start of the recession was an intensely stressful time, largely because I was covering it from the retail standpoint for the Wall Street Journal and also witnessing it on the personal level as I heard about friends losing their jobs. My first trip home to cook happened while I was still at the Journal — I was tired, burnt out and out of that came this very sharp memory of my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts, which are a buttery shortbread cookie topped with pineapple jam that Singaporeans serve around Chinese new year. I remember how she used to make these amazing pineapple tarts and push them toward me in her home because she knew I loved them. And then I remembered with intense regret how I had never learned how to make them while she was alive. These tarts really propelled me to begin this journey. I think food is an incredibly powerful connector — to family, to your past, to your home. No matter how old or how far from Singapore I am, I will always think of my grandmother whenever I look at a pineapple. And it’s a thought that comforts me, no matter where I am.
The book chronicles your yearlong journey back and forth from the home you share with your husband, Mike, also a journalist, to learn how to make the dishes of your childhood, such as your grandmother’s pineapple tarts and bak-zhang, steamed pork and rice in banana leaves (which sounds a lot like a tamale!). What did you discover along the way – either about the food, your family, or yourself – that surprised you?
It is indeed very much like a tamale! Cooking with the women in my family ended up being a truly rich way in which to extract many family stories and learn about the characters I’d only heard about very superficially and it made me realize just how strong a lot of the women in my family were. I learned how hard my family had it at various times — they suffered a great deal during World War II, my paternal grandfather was a gambling addict and womanizer who squandered away his family’s money, my great-grandfather was an opium addict who used his young granddaughter as his opium courier. All of these stories only truly came out over lengthy periods of time spent with various family members, often in the kitchen—when you’re chopping a mound of shallots or making 3,000 cookies, after all, what are you going to do but share stories? In the end, I realized that I had gotten it wrong all along — as a child, I had grown up emulating the men in my family, as they were the ones who got to go out of the house and have great careers. The women were the ones who had to stay at home and cook. My year of cooking taught me how first of all, how hard it was to cook the dishes I had always loved and had completely taken for granted. And also, how no matter how hard times were, how poor my family was, my grandmothers always found a way to make some money and put a good meal on the table and their strength and love for their family really bound everyone together. I was surprised to discover that I really had gotten it wrong — I should never have underestimated the women in my family. I should have emulated them.
You admit early on in the book that you weren’t exactly a natural in the kitchen while growing up. How did your family react when you told them you wanted to come visit, learn how to make these recipes and write a book about the experience?
They were very surprised. Many of them — the ones who had never visited me in New York — had never seen me lift a finger in the kitchen before. I was always more likely to be the one with her nose in a book, waiting for dinner to be put on the table before I moved! So when I first expressed interest in coming back to learn, they were just floored. After they got over their shock, however, they were incredibly welcoming. Some of my aunties haven’t cooked with their own children — my generation in Singapore simply doesn’t do a lot of that. So they were very happy to have someone to impart their recipes to — this way we have it all written down. If anyone ever needs my family’s recipes, I suppose I am the keeper of them now, for my generation anyhow.
What are some of the techniques (and maybe tricks) that you learned from your aunties that translate to other things?
The main thing that I learned from my aunties was the power of “agak-agak,” which is a Malay term that means “guess-guess.” Whenever I would ask them how much sugar or salt to put into something, their answer would be the same: “Just taste, taste, taste — then agak-agak.” This frustrated me at first because, as a neurotic New Yorker, I expected cooking to be precise. I had always cooked from recipes; I was often glued to my Blackberry at the stove, reluctant to veer from any instruction without a great deal of research. However, watching the women in my family cook with grace and great ease—slitting open giant bags of sugar, hoisting them over woks and just giving a hefty jiggle, for example—I simply couldn’t understand their method. Over time, however, I began to embrace the agak-agak. And I learned that this lesson also applied to life as well—I had lived a life in which I was wedded to precision in everything from my career to my personal life. Through watching the women in my family cook, however, I learned the importance of relaxing, going with the flow and being aware of and open to the possibilities that life presents you. Sometimes things don’t turn out the way you’ve planned but if you trust yourself to agak-agak, all will be fine. If not, you just have to taste, taste, taste—then agak-agak again!
How has the process of writing this book changed how you see the kitchen?
It’s made me fear it less — I came in as a novice, really, someone who followed recipes very closely and didn’t experiment much. Since writing the book, however, I’ve become more daring and open to experimentation, just opening the fridge and creating something with no guidelines at all. If my grandmothers could do it, I figure, why not give it a shot? It’s been very freeing.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I’m currently working on my second book — a novel! I can’t say more right now but hope to be able to share some news on this front very soon.
What will you demo at the Paris Cookbook Fair?
I will be making popiah, which is basically a Singaporean summer roll. It’s julienned jicama, shrimp and various other ingredients stir-fried together into a mound of deliciousness then wrapped into a rice paper roll. It’s very Fukienese, or Southern Chinese. My grandmother makes amazing popiah and so does my cooking “Uncle” in New York City — Simpson Wong, a Malaysian chef (WONG, Cafe Asean), who was the first person who taught me how to make Southeast Asian dishes.
Anything on your list of what—or where — you’d like to eat in Paris, or what you’d like to stuff into your suitcase to take home?
The list is just endless — I adore the countless fromageries and patisseries you have and wish we had them on every corner here in New York City. Berthillon is a must for me — I don’t care how long those lines are or how cold it is, I have to have a cone (or three) when I’m there. Bistrot Paul-Bert is an old favorite and I have to make sure I make it to Shakespeare & Co. this trip. What a lovely place to browse and while away an afternoon.
Cheryl will be cooking and signing her book, “A Tiger in the Kitchen,” at the International Show Kitchen at the Paris Cookbook Fair at 12 noon on Sunday, March 11. (I’ll be helping out, so come by and see us both!)