A toothsome distraction from the recent Tiger Mother hunt, journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan offers A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, which takes readers from Carnegie Hall into fragrant kitchens, trading threatened stuffed animals for pineapple tarts, Prokofiev for pandan.
Tan’s strong-willed tiger streak had kept her “deftly” out of the kitchen, growing up privileged in Singapore, but fueled her academic excellence, her solo immigration to the United States at 18, and her eventual glamorous New York City career as a fashion writer.
Despite comical culinary inexperience marked by “rather unfortunate episodes,” Tan was convinced that with “a Singaporean grandmother who was both a force of nature and a legendary cook … I believed it was in my blood to excel in the kitchen – or at least kill myself trying.”
A serendipitously timed layoff from her Wall Street Journal job – mixed with concern over her parents’ family-splintering later-in-life divorce – sends Tan to Singapore on and off for a year, where her relatives generously welcome her, not only to satisfy her culinary quest but also to feed her heart and soul with lost and forgotten family stories. As Tan masters her favorite childhood dishes, she also realizes “that the point hadn’t truly ever been the food.”
Between braised ducks and moon cakes, Tan learns of gambling ancestors, opium addiction, abusive first wives, and foundling uncles. Her Tiger is fiercest when recording such familial histories, albeit occasionally weakened with quips about ruined manicures and designer shoes. Her debut fare proves a light appetizer, but with promise of a substantial meal yet to come.
Review: San Francisco Chronicle, March 6, 2011