Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Tiger in the Kitchen

Title: A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family
Author: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Themes: food, cooking, family, heritage, culture
Rating: *** 1/2

Plot: Born in the year of the Tiger (a rebellious sign), Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left Singapore at age 18 to attend Northwestern University. More than a decade later, as a 30-something living in New York City, she was suddenly gripped with a sense of loss at the knowledge that she was, indeed, "Ang Moh" (a Chinese term that implies "Westernized"). Tan did not know how to make the food of her people, and as any Singaporean will tell you, they don't eat to live-they live to eat. In the tiny Southeast Asian country that straddles the equator, food is both a national obsession and their way of bonding. As a way to pass the time while in the kitchen, they tell stories.

Now, Cheryl Tan invites readers to join her on a quest to recreate the dishes of her native Singapore as a way to connect food and family with her sense of home. As Tan begins cooking with her family, she learns not just about food, bit about her family history and her heritage. She finds that home is rooted in the kitchen and the foods of her Singaporean girlhood. A Tiger in the Kitchen is a charming story about being a Chinese-American and a food exile, and finding a place for one's heritage in a modern life.

My Thoughts: I was extremely excited to read this book for a few reasons, namely (1) it was a free Early Reviewer copy (I just love those uncorrected proofs), (2) it featured Singaporean food which I have never read about, and (3) I felt connected to the author because I also put off learning to cook until adulthood because I felt like I needed to be doing something less "housewifey" (which is just silly I know).

But I was also hesitant to dive right in because I feared (what I see as) an overemphasis on Singaporean/Non-Western culture versus the "vacuum" of American culture. I hate reading stories where becoming "Westernized" means losing culture, that only non-American/Western peoples have culture and that we (I am Western/American) are somehow lacking our own culture-happy just to suck it out of everyone else. I just feel like this approach cheapens everyone's sense of culture, and is a negative world-view in general. I am happy to report that Cheryl Lu-lien Tan handles her discussion of culture with nuance and grace-and I enjoyed every page of A Tiger in the Kitchen.

With that said, I feel I need to justify loving this book (I am a graduate student, I need to justify every claim after all). First of all, the writing is lovely. When Tan writes it feels both personal and professional-you feel like she is talking directly to you, but in a well planned and polished manner. The book flowed surprisingly well, with transitions and events leading into each other in entertaining ways. One would assume a book about learning to cook your family's food would be fairly tedious, but Tan brings together multiple food experiences from New York, Hawaii, China, and Singapore into a cohesive narrative that describes her reconnection to her family and country of origin. Yes it is a food memoir. But really the food is merely a tool to reconnect to family and address a difficult time in Tan's life, with every dish she loving describes and every cooking lesson she shares Tan is sharing her family's love and dedication-as well as its scandals and skeletons. If anything, it seems all the more intimate for its connection to food.

Keep in mind that this book will make you hungry. I have only read two other "food memoirs" but neither of them made me want to cook or eat as much as a single chapter of Tan's did. She describes dishes with such loving detail, I can just smell the pandan leaves and ginger and duck...and I appreciate the recipes at the back of the book just for this reason.

Recommendation: I highly recommend A Tiger in the Kitchen to anyone interested in Asia, food, or memoirs because of Tan's impressive writing, her thoughtful and amusing reflections on food and family, and the bittersweet connection she makes between family long gone through cooking.

Similar Reads: Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, Fannie's Last Supper by Chris Kimball

Tan, Cheryl Lu-Lien. A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family. New York: Hyperion, 2011.

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