RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
The American writer Calvin Trillin�has called people from Singapore, quote, "the most culinary homesick people in the world." Cheryl Tan knows exactly what that feels like. She grew up in Singapore before striking out for America to become a successful journalist. And she has written a memoir that's as much about food as family.
MONTAGNE: It's out just in time for Chinese New Year, and it's called "A Tiger in the Kitchen."
Ms. CHERYL TAN (Author, "A Tiger in the Kitchen"): I was born in the year of the Tiger. And in Chinese culture, that's a good thing for boys, but not necessarily a good thing for girls. So I remember when I was growing up, my mom would always say, you know, it's so terrible that you were born in the Tiger year. No one's going to want to marry you. You're so headstrong and so ambitious.
MONTAGNE: Which is one of the reasons Cheryl Tan never learned to cook, but focused instead on her career. Her own mother didn't like to cook, either, preferring a glamorous job as an airline stewardess until Cheryl came along.
So when Cheryl Tan was living in New York and yearning for the food of her childhood - especially her grandmother's specialties - she had to turn to her aunts back home.
Tan spent a year traveling back and forth to Singapore, learning to master family recipes that come from a unique cooking tradition.
Ms. TAN: Food in Singapore is very complex. You know, its origins go way back a few hundred years. And it really started because the British established a port there and invited traders from all over to come. So you had traders from India, from China, from all over Southeast Asia coming. So the cuisine there is really a fusion cuisine that dates back 200 years. It's a mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European touches, as well.
There's a popular dish for breakfast called Roti John, for example. It takes a Western baguette, and it puts sort of, like, curried spices and, like, lamb on it. And you'd kind of fry that and you'd serve it with a chili sauce. And it's named after British soldiers, who were called Johns at the time.
MONTAGNE: And I take it that people in Singapore love, love their food.
Ms. TAN: It's pretty much a national motto that we say that we don't eat to live, we live to eat. And all we do is talk about food. When you ask any Singaporean anywhere in the world what they miss the most, it's usually food first and family second. If they say otherwise, they're lying.
MONTAGNE: And Chinese New Year, Singaporean style, what is the equivalent of, you know, the turkey, that you'd have to do exactly right?
Ms. TAN: Well, fish is a very big thing, and the yu sheng, of course, the fish salad. But it's also several other kind of lucky things that people eat. One of the things that my family always makes every year is this dish called chap chye. And it's basically various vegetables, with noodles for longevity, kind of thrown together.
And my mom likes to add this moss in it. It looks like human hair. It's a little odd. And I don't like it so much. But she's, like, you know, it's for luck. You have to put it in. And it's called fat choi, which means prosperity in Cantonese. So it's a whole salad of very lucky things that you have to eat every year.
And, you know, when you go to anyone's house, you know, Chinese New Year's a big time of visiting for people. You visit your family, your friends, your business associates. And when you go to their houses, they'll set out lots of food. This holiday's all about eating. It's amazing. It's like Thanksgiving, but spread out over two or 15 days, depending where you are. And they'll set out sweets, because they want to wish you a sweet year ahead.
MONTAGNE: One of those sweets is your grandmother's tiny tapioca white cookies. And, as you tell it, the flour has to be just right.
Ms. TAN: Right. They're called kuih bangkit. And the tapioca flour has to be super dry. And a lot of cooks, I think they'll just put the flour in the oven. They'll put them on a tray, and they'll toast it in the oven.
But my grandmother was a traditionalist, so she would haul - she used to live in this apartment building. And she would haul her charcoal stove out into the corridor. And she would put her big wok on the stove. And she would just sit there and just fry this tapioca flour and just toss it high in the air.
And the neighbors used to get so upset, 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.
MONTAGNE: And the cookie - the specialness of the cookie, it's literally mouthwatering.
Ms. TAN: It is. When done right, it literally - when you put it on your tongue it kind of sort of starts to melt. So it's really delicious. And I just love the story that came with that about my grandmother, which I actually didn't know until I went back for the year to learn how to cook with my family.
You know, when you're in the kitchen with them, that's when these stories start to emerge. You know, they're not going to really think about it when you're kind of sitting around watching TV. 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.
And that was a really great part of the year, just being in the kitchen with them and having these little stories emerge that were really fantastic.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about the final cooking lesson, the dish that you made.
Ms. TAN: It was a dish that my late grandmother had made that she called gambling rice. And it was - at some point, my family was so poor, that my grandmother ran, like, a little gambling den in her home to make a little bit of money.
And, you know, she didn't want these gamblers to get hungry and go off and eat and not come back. So she would make this rice that she called gambling rice. And it's basically pork belly, mushrooms, shallots, a bunch of other ingredients - dried shrimp. You'd kind of stir fry it all together, and then you'd put it with uncooked rice in a rice cooker, and then you just turn it on.
She made this for the gamblers because it's a one bowl thing. So they can have the bowl in the one hand and they can eat and they can keep gambling so they're not leaving the table. And that was the last dish that she taught me and it's great.
MONTAGNE: It does seem like for many of these dishes there's a fair amount of eyeballing the ingredients and tasting and not really being that precise about the measurements.
Ms. TAN: Yes. That was something I also had to get over. I was used to a very precise schedule here. You know, when is something going to happen? When do I have to be there? And going back, you know, being in these kitchens, I was like, I was very determined to get exact recipes or the year would be wasted.
So I would watch my aunt like take a huge bag of sugar and just snip it open and just start pouring. I'm like wait, wait, wait we have to measure that. And she was like no, just guess, you know, like you just put a little bit in and taste and taste, and then see if you need more. And I had to really learn how to embrace that because I was so used to people saying okay, well, you know, one tablespoon goes into this or, you know, two tablespoons. But, you know, just sort of relying on your own instinct, that had to come a little bit later in the year.
MONTAGNE: But in the end you did, right? You're family actually said you've done it.
Ms. TAN: It was a great moment. At the end of the year, I made a big dinner for my aunts who had taught me how to cook. And I was really nervous about this dinner, and I was in a panic for the days leading up to it. And I was so panicked that my whole family pitched in to help, which was great. I'd never seen my dad cook in his entire life but there he was, you know, making dumplings along with the rest of us.
But at the end, you know, when I set out all the food, I was terrified to come out of the kitchen and watch them eat. And so I remember my sister was coming back with reports like, you know, oh, they're eating this and like, you know, this person took a second helping of that. And then I came out and they were really great. And my aunt, the one who taught me a lot of dishes, said to me at the end of the night, you've passed, which was great.
MONTAGNE: Cheryl Tan's memoir of family and food in Singapore is called "A Tiger in the Kitchen." Thank you very much for joining us.
Ms. TAN: Thanks for having me.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And you can see Cheryl's recipe for pineapple tart by visiting npr.org.
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