RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
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."
CHERYL TAN: 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: Tan spent a year traveling back and forth to Singapore, learning to master family recipes that come from a unique cooking tradition.
TAN: 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.
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?
TAN: 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.
TAN: 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.
TAN: 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.
TAN: 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.
TAN: 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.
TAN: 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.
TAN: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: And you can see Cheryl's recipe for pineapple tart by visiting npr.org.
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