Singaporean Cuisine Of All Stripes, Courtesy 'A Tiger'
In Singapore, celebrations of Chinese New Year center around food and family in a culinary event that author Cheryl Tan describes as a Thanksgiving-like holiday lasting up to 15 days. Tan's new memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, shares some of the dishes that can be made during that extended holiday — like lucky noodles (with long noodles for longevity, vegetables and a moss called faat choy, which means prosperity in Cantonese); or pineapple tarts (with a shortbread base and homemade pineapple jam topping made with pandan leaves).
"When you ask any Singaporean anywhere in the world what they miss the most, it's usually food first and family second," Tan tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne. "If they say otherwise, they're lying."
Tan lived in Singapore as a child and now works as a journalist in New York. Born into the "Year of the Tiger," she was told by her mother that the headstrong and ambitious qualities associated with that symbol would be detrimental to her ever getting married. She followed her ambitious instincts and moved across the U.S. for a career in journalism, but found herself longing for the food her grandmother used to make.
To learn how to really cook the dishes she missed from her childhood, Tan traveled back and forth to Singapore for a year and spent time learning from aunts and other relatives. A Tiger in the Kitchen collects the recipes, which have the unique Singaporean influences of Malaysia, China, India and Europe from its trading port roots.
That combination of differing flavors can be seen in dishes like the roti john, named after British soldiers who were referred to as "johns." Tan describes it as a western baguette topped with curried spices and lamb, fried and served with a chili sauce.
Singapore's unique cuisine inspired journalist Calvin Trillin to remark that Singaporeans are the most culinary homesick people in the world; Tan certainly felt that draw to return to the dishes she loved as a child. But beyond getting a list of ingredients and instructions, cooking in kitchens with her family members for a year allowed Tan to gather family members' memories about the idiosyncratic ways her late grandmother would cook dishes.
"They're not going to really think about it when you're kind of sitting around watching TV," Tan explains. "But when you're in the kitchen waiting for something to steam or something to come out of the oven, they're like, 'Oh, you know, your grandmother used to do this.' "
When her grandmother made a special kind of tapioca cookie called kuih bangkit, for instance, she'd pay special attention to how the flour was prepared. Instead of toasting it in an oven to dry it, Tan's grandmother would put her charcoal stove in the apartment corridor and fry it in a wok, tossing it into the air.
"The neighbors used to get so upset," Tan says, "because there would be flour everywhere — on their doorknobs, all over the floor — but my grandmother would just keep frying because the important thing is that the flour has to be just right or the cookie's not going to work."
Learing to accept improvisation and imprecision challenged Tan, who tried to measure exact quantities of ingredients that her aunts would toss into a mixing bowl and measure by how the recipe tasted.
"I had to really learn how to embrace that, because I was so used to people saying OK, well, one tablespoon goes into this or, you know, two tablespoons," Tan says. "But you know, just sort of relying on your own instinct — that had to come a little later in the year."
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