It seems like most of the subway car empties at the Grand Street stop in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. Just as the last person makes it off, the conductor announces, “Stand clear of the closing doors, and Gong Hey Fat Choy! Happy Chinese New Year!” It’s the first day of Chinese New Year and I’m on my way to meet Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family (Voice, Feb.), for lunch.
Tan’s book is about going back to her native Singapore to learn how to make the food she grew up eating. The restaurant she’s chosen, Nyonya, is actually Malaysian, but Tan says Malaysian cuisine is very similar to Singaporean cuisine. She orders us Roti Canai, a crispy pancake with a curry dipping sauce; Kang Kung Belacan, a kind of spinach called “water convolvulus” sautéed in a spicy shrimp paste sauce; and Beef Rendang, beef simmered with cinnamon, cloves, lemongrass, and coconut milk.
Although the meal is delicious, it’s a far cry from the Chinese New Year celebrations of Tan’s girlhood, which entailed entire days devoted to party-hopping and, of course, lots of food. Tan’s madeleine? Pineapple tarts. Each year, she looked forward to the bite-size cookies that are a hallmark of the festivities, and they were the reason she went back to Singapore, where she hadn’t lived since she was a child, to learn her grandmother’s recipe.
A journalist by trade, Tan wrote a story about learning the recipe for the Wall Street Journal. After the piece ran, her inbox was flooded with emails from readers saying they’d wished they’d asked their relatives for meaningful family recipes before it was too late. So Tan delved deeper into her family culinary history, and along the way learned a lot about her ancestors and the way they showed their love for each other.
But, she says in between bites of Kang Kung Belacan, whipping out a recorder and taking notes while her grandmother rattled off family stories wasn’t an option. “If you sit my grandmother down and ask her questions about her life, she’ll be like, ‘Ugh, why are you asking? Don’t bother,’” says Tan. “But if you’re in the kitchen with her and you’re chopping vegetables or she’s trying to teach you something and you’re there for hours because you’re waiting for something to steam—that’s when the stories are going to come out. It was a really useful way to extract stories.”
Tan comes to Nyonya when she needs a “fix,” since there aren’t many Singaporean restaurants in New York. “It’s hard to find, because it’s hard to do well,” she says. “If you know the cuisine, you know that it’s pointless to try.” Is that why she wrote a memoir and not a cookbook? She mulls that over, wondering out loud how interested Americans would be in a Singaporean cookbook, though she does concede she’s “less afraid” of cooking Singaporean dishes after learning from her family. The real reason Tan wrote a memoir, she says, is because of the stories she gleaned as she was learning her family’s recipes. She says the book is about her search for “a deeper, richer sense of self and family.” Eating pineapple tarts, vegetable and duck soup, and beef and pork dumplings? Well, those were just a delicious fringe benefit.