A Tiger in the Kitchen: Q&A with Cheryl Tan

Cheryl Tan-John Searles
Cheryl Tan © John Searles

Last night Cheryl Tan met with Brooklyn, New York's BookMark Shoppe book club to discuss her memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. Just after, she posted to Facebook, "A little surreal to meet with a book club that read Tiger so closely that they a) corrected me on my own family history as I was telling a story and b) jumped in to say, when someone mentioned being embarrassed about making meatloaf, 'But Cheryl loves meatloaf!!'"

In her book, learning to make basic meatloaf alongside her husband-to-be as they fell in love represents the beginning of her late-blooming culinary awakening. Although she grew up in food-obsessed Singapore, Tan's own young adult cooking repertoire was limited by her ambitious focus on building a career as a New York City journalist covering mostly fashion for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and InStyle, among other publications.

Like many women of her generation, Tan assumed that you could choose one: life in the kitchen or life out in the world. It wasn't until she realized the irony in coming from one of the world's great food cultures and spending most of her time writing about people who avoid eating that she decided to return to her Chinese-Singaporean roots to learn the cooking rituals of her mother, late grandmother, and aunts. By listening to stories shared around simmering pots and over kneading dough, Tan discovered her place in the world. She joins us here to chat about her book and to share one of its summery recipes inspired by Singapore's tropical climate -- her grandmother's Pineapple Tart, which started the whole journey.

Signature: Your book's accessible tone and emphasis on a strong community of women seems to make it a hit with book clubs. What has it been like to engage with these groups?

Cheryl Tan: I've Skyped in and answered questions over email and Facebook, or book clubs will come to a reading I'm doing, and I'll arrive half an hour early to meet with them. A few times, book clubs have invited me to dinner. In one case, each woman made a family recipe, and they created a booklet so I could leave with all of them. They all spoke about their own experiences trying to get these recipes from the women in their families, and although my book is about a family in Singapore, it's also universal. If you put five Italian grandmothers in a room, each has a different recipe for sauce. It's important to ask the keepers of those recipes for them while they still remember them.

SIG: What do you think is gained through learning recipes, beyond creating great meals?

CT: Those tidbits of family history often reflect the stories of women in the family, and it's important to preserve them. Growing up in an Asian, patriarchal country, I grew up emulating the men who were out working. I always thought men were the ones with the stories, but the women's stories -- about family opium addictions, illegal gambling debts, and so on -- those came out while they were cooking. It was great to collect them and realize that perhaps I had gotten it wrong all along. The women were the strong ones holding it all together. A lot of history is told through the eyes of men, but using food and cooking, you can tell it through the eyes of women.

SIG: Do the women you've met through book clubs seem to have a similar experience within their own families?

CT: Yes, very much so. Our generation of women has really focused on work rather than being in the kitchen, and a lot of the women I've met regret not spending that time learning how to cook with their mothers and grandmothers. They vicariously go on this journey with me, even if it's to an Asian country many of them have never been to. The story is universal to men and women of this generation -- it's about a yearning for home and what home means. Even if you have very little in common with your mother and grandmother, you remember the food they cooked for you. My grandmother and I had a language barrier, but I knew that she loved me, because she always made the food that she knew I loved and made sure that I had a container to take home. So although most of the women I've met in book clubs are not Asian-American, they have very similar stories. A guy in Seattle actually told me that my grandmother cooked just like his -- by guessing at amounts, not measuring anything. Or "cooking with some," as his grandma used to say.

SIG: I read that you finished writing Tiger over seven weeks at Yaddo, and I know that you recently completed a month-long residency at The Studios of Key West. What has been your experience at arts colonies?

CT: The research for Tiger happened over one calendar year, from Chinese New Year 2009 to Chinese New Year 2010. I was traveling a lot, spending weeks at a time in Singapore. I tried to hit the major festivals there. For Chinese New Year, of course, my family makes 2,000 pineapple tarts. Over the month of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, we set out cakes for the ghosts roaming the earth. So after a year of hitting the festivals and learning to make the corresponding food, I had all this material and a tight deadline. The book was due in April 2010. I spent seven weeks at Yaddo, and without that time there, locked up alone in the woods with limited Internet access, not talking to anyone, I wouldn't have made my deadline. The book was the only thing I had to worry about all day.

In Key West, I was working on two projects. I'm editing an anthology called Singapore Noir, a collection of dark stories to be published by Akashic in April of 2014. From the start, I was very focused and sent off the manuscript on my fourth day in Key West, which felt pretty magical. I was also working toward finishing a novel. It's called Sarong Party Girls and is set in modern-day Singapore. That's all I can say about it for now.

I had such a wonderful, productive, and creative time in Key West, and it was such a happy time, partly because the climate is a lot like Singapore's. It wasn't that the writing was easy, but some days I just felt like I was flying. I believe that there's something in the fertile magic of the soil and water there. I read a great quote on the Key West Literary Seminar web site: David Kaufelt said something about our most fertile creative time happening when we're children, and in Key West, we're all children going around on bicycles in shorts and flip-flops.

My Grandmother’s Pineapple Tarts

Pineapple Tarts

(Recipe first appeared in the Wall Street Journal)

Ingredients

Yields about 100 tarts

To make the jam:

4 pineapples
at least ½ kilogram sugar (at least 2 ½ cups, depending on desired sweetness)
2 to 3 pandan leaves* knotted together
1 long cinnamon stick, broken in two

  • Peel the pineapples, dig out the eyes and chop into chunks. Run the chunks through a juicer. Place the pulp in a large wok or pot with a large surface area and heat on the stove. Add the juice until the mixture has the consistency of porridge or grits; add the knotted pandan leaves and cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil and keep it there for a total of three hours, stirring often. Halfway through, taste the jam, and add sugar by the half cup until it is as sweet as you desire. (Note: The amount of sugar needed will vary greatly depending on how ripe the pineapples are.)
  • The jam is done when the pineapple mixture has changed color from bright yellow to brownish ochre and most of the liquid has evaporated, leaving a dense but moist jam.

For the pastry:

375 grams salted butter (3 sticks plus 2 ½ Tablespoons) at room temperature
600 grams flour (about 4 ¾ cups)
4 egg yolks, plus 1 yolk for brushing onto pastry

  • With a mixer on low speed, combine the butter, flour and four egg yolks, mixing for 3 to 5 minutes.
  • Place dough in a cookie press fitted with a disc featuring a circle of diamonds. Press cookies out onto greased baking sheets. Form small
    balls of dough and press each one into the hollow of a cookie, forming the base of the tart.
  • Beat the remaining egg yolk with ½ teaspoon of water. Brush the rim of each tart generously. Take a scant teaspoon of pineapple jam (more or less, as desired) and form a ball, then press into the hollow of each tart. Pat the sides of the jam to create a small dome.
  • Bake for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees, until golden brown. Remove cookies from sheets and cool on a rack.