A Tiger in the Kitchen

A bowl of porridge – a hallmark of traditional Teochew cuisine – appeared. The water was just slightly milky, the grains of rice soft, yet still separate and not so soft that they were mushed together, as they often can be in lesser versions. The porridge was simple and clean – a lovely canvas for the subtle dishes that would follow. A giant steamed fish came prepared with silvers of ginger and swimming in a slightly sweet broth with tinges of the tomatoes and sour plums that had been steeped in it. A crunchy beggar’s purse erupted in an avalanche of diced chicken when sliced open. Perfectly fried prawn balls were crunchy outside and hot and juicy inside. Goose legs and wings were braised in sweet soy sauce to such softness that the meat was like cotton puffs on our tongues.

Being part Teochew myself, I salivated over the many Teochew and Singaporean dishes that Tan, who lives and works in the US (and blogs here), consumes and learns to make from her family in Singapore. I longed for more, much more. I got some, with my fill with her tales of making pineapple tarts, rice dumplings, duck soup. But to be honest, in the end I was a little disappointed.

With a myriad of food-related memoirs out there, it’s a tough market. This book’s hook – Singapore food. A rojak of Singapore food. There’s Chinese New Year pineapple tarts, duck soup, a Malay dish, and plenty of bread baking. Reading A Tiger in the Kitchen made me think of home, it made me think of my late grandmother, whom I would find sitting in the kitchen when we visited for Sunday dinners. ‘Mama’ I would greet her and nose around the dining table to check out what we were having for dinner (of course the kids ate at the plastic table on the front porch, not with the adults at the rosewood table). I would request for her kong bah (stewed pork belly with steamed buns) and prawn fritters for my birthdays. But what I miss most are her rice dumplings, orh nee and braised duck, the recipes of which have been lost forever.

Reading this book made me think of the wonderful times spent with my mum inΒ  kitchen, helping her chop and wash and cook, helping her whack out the snowskin mooncakes from their wooden moulds. It’s been so long since I’ve had her mooncakes, her simple yet delicious quiche, her sayur lodeh (a vegetable curry). I can’t wait till August when she and my dad come to visit! Hopefully she won’t mind doing some cooking when she’s here! So in that respect, all good. A book that brings up such fond memories, that stirs up the appetite – what could be better?

But there was this sense of disconnect in A Tiger in the Kitchen. Tan’s from Singapore, but lives in the US. First a fashion writer, then a food writer. She starts out quite clueless but thanks to help from her family in Singapore, and her friends and ‘uncles’ in the US, she begins to learn to cook and bake. The book isn’t just about Singapore food, as Tan is fond of baking and breadmaking. And sometimes it’s a bit too back and forth. In Singapore, in the US, cooking Singapore food, baking bread. I mean I understand it’s not all about making mee siam and nasi padang, life in Singapore is very ‘rojak’, but it left me feeling like tighter editing might have come in handy. This book is also a story about her family. However I felt that while bits of her family are revealed, there is much more left unsaid. I can understand, Singapore is a small country, somehow it always seems like there are less than six degrees connecting each other, and I wouldn’t really want people to read about my life! So I kept having this impression that I was always just skimming the fat off the surface of the soup (yeah those food metaphors were just prepped and ready to be used). I wanted to plunge my spoon in deeper, to dig to the bottom of the soup bowl for all the good stuff, to learn more about her family, her passion for food.

I know photos can be a little overdone when it comes to memoirs/food-related books, but just to have a hint of the food in the recipes would be better, especially for those who are unfamiliar with Singapore food. And then there’s the cover. I really hate this whole ‘oriental’ rubbish. This is a book about food, so why the red cheongsam? It’s as if they searched ‘Asia’ or ‘Oriental’ and used the first image they found. Then added the chopsticks to signal that this book is not just ‘Oriental’, it is food-related. So why not a picture of food? While I don’t have pictures of duck soup and pineapple tarts and rice dumplings (oh actually I do have pictures of rice dumplings! see below) for you, here is some of the food I had in Singapore.

Chicken wings, fried vegetarian bee hoon, satay

Kaya (coconut jam) toast (with slabs of butter) and kopi (Singapore-style coffee – sweetened with condensed milk)

Orh nee (yam paste with pumpkin and gingko nuts)

(from bottom left) Nasi lemak, chwee kueh, soya bean milk, rice dumplings (bah zhang)

A Tiger in the Kitchen may have its flaws (which book doesn’t) but it did something that few books have. It made me long for home, for my family, for my food.

This is my first read for Foodies Read 2.

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12 thoughts on “A Tiger in the Kitchen

  1. That passage you posted is lovely, and it certainly leaves me wanting to read more. I can understand some of the frustrations you voiced here, but I’m glad it was an effective book for you, even if it did leave you longing. This is something I’d REALLY like to read. πŸ™‚

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  2. I had to look up snow skin mooncakes because that is simply an awesome name for a dish. Love all the food pictures. And I’m with you on the tiresome habit of publishers using lazy image shorthand for any book that has anything to with Asia. A book with a loving close-up of food would have been so much better.

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    1. Plenty of recommendations! The only problem is their availability perhaps, especially if you’re looking to borrow them from your library.

      Mrs Lee’s Cookbook (or the ‘modernised’ version titled The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook)
      – books by Terry Tan
      – Sylvia Tan’s books, I especially like Taste: Healthy, Hearty Asian Recipes, which was a gift from my mom
      – one that would definitely be available is James Oseland’s Cradle of flavor: home cooking from the spice islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore

      Or you can also check Rasa Malaysia for recipes!

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