Cheryl Tan: Food, family and recovering from a layoff

Feb 16, 2011

Author Cheryl Tan will be online Feb. 16, at 1 p.m., to discuss her new book, "A Tiger in the Kitchen," and to answer your questions about recovering from a lay-off, rediscovering your passion, reconnecting with family and ultimately moving forward in life.

Have a question? Ask now.

Greetings everyone and happy year of the Rabbit!


Everyone has a recipe or dish they grew up loving -- but not many of us take the time these days to actually go back and rediscover that childhood dish. After getting laid off in 2009 at the Wall Street Journal, where I had been writing about fashion, I decided to trade in my fashion week stilettos for cooking flip-flops and travel back to Singapore, where I grew up, to learn about my family by cooking with them. It was a lovely year of rediscovering my family and my culinary heritage -- and learning about myself in the process. I've written about my journey in a new book A Tiger in the Kitchen, which I hope you enjoy. I learned a great deal in that year -- resilience, courage, bouncing back and, of course, some fantastic home-spun recipes as well.

I'm happy to answer any questions you have so ... ask away!


A bit about my little book:


A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN: A MEMOIR OF FOOD AND FAMILY: By slowing down her fast-paced lifestyle to learn to prepare Tanglin Ah-Ma’s pineapple tarts, Auntie Khar Imm’s salted vegetable and duck soup, and Auntie Khar Moi’s pandan-skin moon cakes, Cheryl embarks on a study of culinary anthropology in which her family’s roots are revealed along with its recipes.  Cheryl pieces together her family’s history, dotted by secret gambling dens, opium addictions, womanizing, and deep family schisms.  And in the kitchen, Cheryl—a thirty-something longing to reconnect with herself and the flavors of her youth—learns to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of her Singaporean heritage.

A TIGER IN THE KITCHEN has received praise from People magazine (which gave it a three-star review), Los Angeles Times and Kirkus Reviews among others. Jeffrey Zaslow, coauthor of The Last Lecture,  writes of A Tiger in the Kitchen, “we see our own families—and the memories of the meals that help define who we are." Library Journal calls it “a warm, witty chronicle of growing up and finding one’s place between cultures,” and Kirkus Reviews writes: “Written in the tradition of two classic but different memoirs, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) and Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia (2005), the book is a recipe in itself—a dash of conjuring the ancient stories of one’s past, a sprinkling of culinary narrative. The result is a literary treat.”


When you were laid off, how did you choose food as a way to rediscover yourself?

Food has always been hugely important to me -- in Singapore, we often say that we don't eat to live, we live to eat. Cooking, however, was something I only got into later in life -- in my twenties, when I was living in Washington, D.C., and many of my dishes tended to start with the base of a can of Campbell's Soup. (Have I mentioned I was a total rube? A mouse in the kitchen, one might say.) The more I ventured into the kitchen, however, the more I realized that I didn't know how to make the dishes that I grew up loving -- I started to think about the cookies, soups and stews that I ate as a girl in Singapore and a longing to learn how to make them began.

I had already been wishing that I had the time to travel back to Singapore to learn how to make these dishes and reconnect with my family when I was suddenly laid off. After the initial shock wore off, I realized, hey, I suddenly do have the time to do this one thing that I've been thinking about for years. So I decided to travel back to Singapore for a lunar calendar year to learn how to cook.

How did you feel mentally during your period without work? Did you find you have any depression or feelings of hopelessness (or near hopelessness) and how did you react to whatever feelings you had?

When I first walked into that room with the human resources person and saw the stack of crisp envelopes on the table outlining all our severance packages, I mostly felt numb. It's a hard feeling to process -- you feel rejection, failure and all sorts of emotions that may not even be based in reality. And then panic sets in. I was lucky, however, that I had already been wishing I had the time to travel to Singapore to spend time learning how to cook, so in the short time that it took me to walk back to my desk after my fashion bureau had been laid off, I already realized what I wanted to do next. And that did give me hope.

I was fortunate but I know that getting laid off is never easy -- my key advice is to not panic. People make terrible decisions when they panic. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to have that high-school guidance counselor moment with yourself -- really ask yourself, were you happy doing what you were doing before? Do you want another job doing the same? What do you really want to do with your life? And then, don't wait! Figure out a path that can take you there. Being laid off can actually be a very liberating thing -- think of it as a second chance.

If you had named your book "A Tiger Mom in the Kitchen" might get you some different type of publicity. Still, as your book considers family matters, what is your impression of strict parents, how were you raised, and how do you believe children should be raised?

I think it's ironic that so much attention has been paid recently to the notion of Tiger moms being strict and regimented when the Tiger sign to me has always been a symbol of aggression, rebellion and independence. (My book is named A Tiger in the Kitchen because I was born in the year of the tiger -- these fiery, out-of-the-box qualities have always governed my life.) I do think that it's important to be strict in some senses but also have a lot of flexibility -- my parents were tough on me, pushing me hard in school and in after-school Chinese brush painting, ballet and piano classes as well. But they also were flexible enough to really listen to me when I said, look, I don't think I'm a piano prodigy, I'd really rather spend the time reading and writing instead. I wouldn't be where I am today if they hadn't listened. And that's important.

Cheryl, love your book. Got done with it and now I want to hop on a plane to Singapore. Where would you go eat if you had, say, 24 hrs in Singapore? Tan Vinh, Seattle, WA

If I had 24 hours in Singapore, for starters, the decision would have to be made not to sleep at all -- there'd be too much eating to be done! There are several dishes -- most sold in hawker centers, which are inexpensive open-air food courts -- of which good versions are hard to find outside of Singapore. I often begin my days in Singapore with two breakfasts: first, tameepok, a tagliatelle-like noodle that's perfectly al dente, topped with fishballs, slivers of pork and fish cakes, minced pork and crispy chunks of fried lard, and tossed in a spicy chili oil. I'll chase that with Indian roti prata, a flat bread, sometimes topped with a fried egg and dipped in spicy curry. Breakfast is capped with a hot ginger tea. You can get these at any number of hawker centers in Singapore but my favorite place for these two breakfasts is the cluster of coffeeshops in Singapore's Simpang Bedok neighborhood.


Other musts: Fukienese-style prawn soup noodles at River South Hoe Nam (the broth here is amazing -- it's a lovely deep brown from hours of simmering pork ribs with prawn shells), murtabak, essentially an Indian calzone that's stuffed with minced mutton and onions that have been seasoned with Indian spices, at Zam Zam, beef ball noodles at Original Popular Hock Lam Street Beef Kway Teow (the noodles are served swimming in a thick, beefy gravy that's been seasoned with star anise, cinnamon and other spices and the dish is topped with chopped preserved vegetables which lend a lovely saltiness to the noodles when you mix them all up), Hainanese curry rice, which is rice doused with curry and paired with breaded and fried pork chops, sometimes topped with a sweet tomato sauce, and harjeong gai, which is chicken coated with fermented shrimp paste and deep fried. And if you've never tried it before, you must do nasi padang, which is a Malay lunch of rice paired with various dishes -- beef rendang, a coconutty curry with beef so tender it can feel like it's melting on your tongue, squid topped with sambal, Malay fried chicken. Geylang Serai market has dozens of stalls that serve fantastic Malay food -- I like Hajjah Mona for its nasi padang offerings. It's tucked in a corner of the market -- just look for the super long line and you'll find it. 

I hope you discuss how to make this dish in your book. I have never found any restaurants, Singaporean or Malaysian, make it anywhere close to those you can find in a Hawker center in Singapore. What's the secret? And, where can you find an authentic one here in DC or in NYC?

I do indeed discuss Hainanese chicken rice in the book -- my Auntie Alice in Singapore teaches it to me, in fact. Sadly, I've not found good versions of Hainanese chicken rice anywhere in DC or NYC. The rice is really the main part of this dish and it is hard to pull off well -- in Singapore, the best versions come with grains of rice that are each coated with a slick layer of chicken fat and the taste of garlic, ginger and pandan, a tropical leaf that has a vanilla-like taste. It's hard to do well and sadly, I haven't found a decent version I can recommend. My Auntie Alice basically advises you to snip off as much of the chicken skin as you can, save it, then fry that up to a crisp and use the oil from that to fry up garlic etc and then fry the rice in that before cooking it in your rice cooker. Make sure you get a chicken with lots of fat so your rice is more flavorful. Good luck!

From your adventures in cooking, what was your favorite dish to make? And why? Do you still make it?

One of my favorite dishes as a girl in Singapore is this dish called tau yew bak, which basically means soy sauce meat. My late grandmother used to make this with pork belly or duck and it's basically meat braised for hours in a stew of dark soy sauce (which has the consistency of molasses and is rather sweet), cinnamon sticks, star anise, sugar and garlic. The flavor is out of this world and it's so good poured over white rice. My family also adds cubed tofu and hard-boiled eggs to this stew -- you want to cook it long enough so that the tofu cubes are saturated with the gravy and the eggs are the color of milk chocolate. Now that I know how to make it, it is part of my regular rotation in New York -- I don't often make it with duck, though. (Putting my hand in the cavity of a duck is still not one of my favorite things.) I'll do it with cubed pork loin, pork belly or, if I'm feeling lazy, ground beef or pork and cubed tofu. People often think Southeast Asian cooking is daunting because the recipes sometimes have many steps and ingredients -- I like to look at the recipe, try to understand the flavors of the dish, why they work together and figure out how I can simplify it for an easy weeknight meal. That's what I've done with my grandmother's tau yew bak.

In your travels and research for the book, is it safe to say that women generally are better cooks than men? I was also wondering about the street food in Singapore -- are the vendors mostly men or is it about 50/50? Thanks, -Ed

It's interesting but many of the best street food hawkers -- and noteworthy chefs -- in Singapore are indeed men. But you'll usually see women (usually family members, in the case of hawkers) right there helping along. I don't think you can generalize and say men or women are better cooks -- I do think that their approaches to cooking may be different. Men may approach a dish with the mindset of trying to figure it out, for example, while women may be more open to imprecision. At least, that's how it's done in my family. 

Cheryl: My family has been unexpectedly shy in sharing family histories about recipes. Any tips on encouraging shy family members to share their recipes and, just as importantly, their memories about the recipes they learned from previous generations?

Roll up your sleeves -- you need to be in the kitchen with them. After years of asking my various aunties how they made dishes and not really getting satisfactory answers, I realized it was because they don't cook using recipes or even thinking about techniques -- they cook by instinct. And you aren't going to understand how to put it all together unless you're right in the trenches with them, helping out.


My family members were thrilled to teach me when I asked if I could help out -- who doesn't want more help in the kitchen, after all! That was a great way to get them to open up about their recipes -- and themselves as well. When you're waiting an hour in the kitchen for something to steam, after all, there's often little else to do than sit around and chit-chat. That's how I heard some of the best family stories from the women in my family.

I know your book probably chronicles this, but what is your favorite memory from this time?

I had decided sometime during my year of learning to cook in Singapore that I would try to bring my family together and make a meal for them. The idea was to apply everything I learned -- and see if my family thought I "passed" or not! I had thought it would be somewhat manageable -- I had made elaborate Thanksgiving meals for up to 16 guests before, after all. But this didn't go as seamlessly as I thought -- you'll have to read the book for the details. But at one point, when my immediate family starts seeing the panic washing over me, they just jumped right in and helped out. I have a photo of my sister and father -- whom I had never seen cook at all -- sitting at the dinner table, concentrating hard on diligently rolling dumplings. And looking at that photo always makes me tear up -- that moment spoke volumes of how much they loved me and wanted me to succeed.

Someone pointed out---and I ask if you agree or disagree with this observation---that many foreigners and Americans view each other as being the strict parents. Some (not all) Chinese parents have more regimented routines and verbal discipline yet they would never hit their children. Americans (some, not all) tend to give their children more freedoms yet they spank much more often. Each views the other as being more strict.

I don't think you can really generalize -- every culture, every parent, is different. My parents, for example, were strict in the sense of pushing me hard to succeed in school and various art classes -- I (rather fondly -- now) remember my father chasing me around the dinner table with a cane in hand, trying to get me to sit down and practice the piano each day. But they were also flexible enough to understand that not all children are alike and that sometimes you have to give your child a little freedom to discover themselves. I've seen some Western parents who are like that and many who aren't. It really depends on the individual, I believe. Parents will be strict and flexible in entirely different ways.

What's your favorite thing to make? What about on night's when you don't feel up to cooking (aka lazy nights)? What's your ideal comfort food meal?

I'm a little ashamed to admit it but it's meatloaf. I've been obsessed with meatloaf since I moved to the United States as a college student -- I'd never encountered it in Singapore as a child and it instantly seemed like such a brilliant concept. A loaf -- but made of meat! When I'm feeling lazy, I take out a package of Lawry's meatloaf mix -- after years of experimenting with various meatloaf mixes, this brand is my absolute favorite. (I have to special order this by the box because I can't find it in New York grocery stores.) But I'll add some extra touches -- beaten egg, gobs of soy sauce, a generous dash of sesame oil, white pepper, milk etc. -- to make it more my own. (Basically, whatever spices you have on hand and feel like adding -- garam masala, I've found, is a terrific addition to any meatloaf.) It's so easy and you're guaranteed to have leftovers for meatloaf sandwiches for lunch. A win-win situation.

What is your advice to unpublished authors who, like you, have intriguing family histories and legacy recipes with abundant love and hospitality to share? A. D. Tejada

Everyone's family is unique -- I would think hard about what makes yours special. What is their story? Why is it important? Why must it be told? I struggled a little bit with some of this as I was researching and writing the book -- I adore my family and I think they have amazing stories. But I did wonder whether people who didn't know them at all would be remotely interested in these little things they had to say. But I realized that these are precisely the kinds of stories that must be told -- the small details that won't get chronicled in history unless you, who know these people so intimately, sit down and do it. I'd say, spend some time with your family, ask lots of questions and just reimmerse yourself in that culture. You'll probably be surprised at what you discover. (In my case, that would be illegal gambling dens, multiple wives, a great-grandfather who was addicted to opium.) And be sure to write everything down!

Now that you've traveled, connected with your family and gotten a book deal (yay!), what's next for you?

Thanks! I've been freelancing travel, food and fashion stories for various publications throughout my book research -- the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire. I love being a journalist so I'll definitely keep that going -- but I've also started working on my second book. I'm not allowed to say much about it except that it's about women in their thirties. I hope you enjoy it whenever it comes out!

That sounds FANTASTIC! Is the recipe in your book?

The book has ten recipes but the exact recipe for tau yew bak isn't one of them -- my Auntie Alice's braised duck recipe is in it, however. The gravy is very similar -- just use pork belly or some other kind of meat as a substitute for the duck and use whole star anise and cinnamon instead of five spice powder. Good luck!

Do you have plans to return to Singapore?

I'll be in Singapore in late October for the Singapore Writers Festival, where I'll be speaking at a few workshops -- come check it out! I do hope to return for another trip before then, though. I miss the food far too much.

Your book makes me remember how great a cook my mom was. But I had to teach myself to cook, since she really didn't let us in the kitchen. And my grandmother made some great dishes, too, and I was visiting her one day and thinking: oh, I need that recipe! so I have it scribbled on a piece of paper - a pinch of this, add this if you have it, etc (and where did they really get potato flakes in turn of the (last) century greece???). But I realized that while I have all these memories of food, I don't have memories of actually cooking while growing up.

I love this story! Thanks for sharing. The way your grandmother cooks is exactly the reason that so many family recipes don't get passed down. Unless someone is in the kitchen writing down "Add a pinch (that sort of looks like a 1/2 teaspoon) of salt" as grandma cooks, these recipes tend to die off. I love that you did that with yours. Brava!

Alright everyone, we're just about out of time. Thanks so much for joining me today -- it's been a pleasure. Good luck, happy cooking and buon appetito!

In This Chat
Cheryl Tan
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York City-based food and fashion writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, InStyle, Marie Claire, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Family Circle, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and many other outlets. She is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Food Channel. Born and raised in Singapore, Tan graduated from Northwestern University and completed two residencies at Yaddo, the artists? colony. A Tiger in the Kitchen is her first book. Follow her at:
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