Travel literature review: A Tiger in the Kitchen

A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Jani Patokallio

A Tiger in the Kitchen is subtitled A Memoir of Food and Family, and fans of South-East Asian cooking will definitely want to get their hands on this book.  The idea behind the book is simple: author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, American fashion journalist and amateur cook, heads back to her native Singapore to learn to make the all the classic Teochew dishes she'd eaten as a child.  Her culinary misadventures and apprenticeships in the kitchen are told with wit and verve. The loving descriptions of food - the 'intoxicating fog of turmeric and lemongrass seeping into the air' from a freshly steamed batch of otah, steamed bak-zhang glutinous rice dumplings with pork filling 'a shade of bittersweet chocolate' or the 'deliciously grassy and vanilla-like' scent of pandan-skin mooncakes - get the salivary glands racing. A passing familiarity with Singaporean cuisine will increase the hunger pangs, although the book remains quite readable even if you can't quite tell tau yew bak from bak chor mee. Best of all, the book includes ten detailed recipes, so you can even take a stab at making them yourself.

The family side of the memoir is a bit of a mixed bag.  Tan's claims of being a rebellious tiger are somewhat undercut by her childhood of posh private schools and social clubs, coupled with a mildly irritating habit of brand name-dropping (a shopping trip to Stella McCartney in Paris here, a dinner at Per Se there).  For her supporting cast, the very first page of the book has a family tree boasting 35 people, each of whom has several nicknames and forms of address, and attempting to keep track of the various Gong-Gongs, kukus, Tanglin ah-mas and aunties soon becomes an exercise of Dostoyevskian proportions.  Fortunately, you don't really need to, as they are mostly only there to spice up the story with anecdotes and recipes and the lightweight plot is easy enough to follow.

All in all, a deep travelogue this is not, but if you'd like to vicariously eat your way through Singapore, take a peek inside a Nonya kitchen and have a nifty stack of recipes left over, add this book to your shopping cart.

Jani Patokallio spent over 7 years devouring the food in Singapore and remains petrified by the thought of having to cook the stuff himself.

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