Cooking Tiger, Smoking Dragon

Cheryl Tan is the tiger in the kitchen. A Singaporean born in the year of the tiger and the oldest child in the family, she was raised by her father to excel in academic and professional pursuits. Eschewing domestic pursuits, she carves out a successful career in New York as a fashion journalist.

When she decides that she wants to reclaim the kitchen, it begins with western food, in particular the meat loaf. Very soon, she looks to her family in Singapore with their exotic mix of dishes as a mountain to conquer. One year is spent travelling between New York and Singapore to learn the recipes that she ate in her childhood.

As the year rolls on, punctuated by traditional festivals such as Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, Cheryl is guided by her family members through preparing and cooking many dishes such as mooncakes and the pyramidal bak-zhang. Showcasing the traditional dishes, in the prelude to preparing them, is a vehicle for exploring the legends and myths that provide the backdrop for the festivities.

Making Aunty Khar Moi’s Snow-Skin Mooncakes

The family stories that Cheryl knew from her childhood are peeled away like an onion to reveal deeper truths. With trust built through shared cooking experiences, older family members bond with Cheryl and show her how the family as it is today came to be. The passions, the quirks, the prejudices that are handed from grandparent to parent are teased forth in conversational manner and provides a window into the social and political norms of the Singapore’s early days.

Beyond the prism of Singapore’s history, there are side trips that dig into other cultures and demonstrate life’s little lessons; how cooking for a loved one can sunder cultural and formal values when Cheryl visits her Korean mother in law; a visit to Cheryl’s ancestral village in China that show how people are products of their current social and political environment and even a little jaunt with friends in the heart of America demonstrate the true power of chicken rice, no matter how poorly it is made.

Adventuring with friends to discover food is a common and theme that riddles the book. The need to find the best foods, shared by the stereotypical Singaporean, leads Cheryl to befriend some of the best chefs in Singapore and other mere mortals. Together they come, they see, they eat, they comment, they share recipes and it is detailed with a whole lot of fun. Passion, energy and the excitement of the food hunt and the joy of discovery is as close as it gets to what it means to be a Singaporean.

So do you want to salivate over this book? Moderate English fluency is handy for appreciating the little gems that are secreted into the accessible passages. Some very good recipes are handily unveiled at the back of the book that should provide inspiration for Dear Reader’s next cooking adventure. It is also interesting to see how one can turn the act of cooking into a novel format, something that stands out in literary landscape dominated by crime, fantasy, conflict and romance.

A Tiger in the Kitchen exposes what it means to be a Singaporean and how it works in practice. There are threads that run from our forefathers to us, and food is a daily ritual where we reinforce the legacy and use it to thread with the people around us. This is Cheryl’s journey of exploring her roots and offers many practical tips on how to win friends and influence family.

Let us tuck in!