In her food memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen, Cheryl Tan reconnects with her Singaporean family and culture after a devastating job loss. Tan spends the next year visiting her aunties to learn the ins and outs of family recipes and lore. As a child, Tan was kept out of the kitchen. As a first-born, tiger child, she was put on the path of education and financial success — she was encouraged to leave behind traditional female domestic responsibilities, but as a result lost pieces of her heritage that were tied to the kitchen.
“Because of recent generations of women just like me who were intent on avoiding cooking, some of these recipes are slowly fading from the culinary awareness.”
I can relate to Tan in this way. Most of the family and food lore resided in my great-grandmother, Nanny, who never wrote anything down. I only spent fleeting weeks with her over the summer. I soaked up as much as I could, but there are some recipes and family stories that are lost to me now that she is gone. In the recipes section Tan points out, “Quantities aren’t exact. My aunts don’t use a recipe, and they laughed at me the first ten times I asked them for this one.” I try to be better for my kids so they will not lose out on my food knowledge, but for somebody who cooks by taste, it is difficult to record exacting quantities. Sometimes it is just about the look, the feel, the smell in my kitchen.
On the pineapple tarts…”I’d enjoyed them while eating them, sure, but I’d never considered making them, having dismissed knowing how to cook as one of those things that weakened you as female. And yet there my grandmother had been, cooking with a ferocity that I should be so lucky to have.”
Tan’s memoir is very approachable in language and experience. It is the story of a person of two cultures, two food stories, but it is also a story of generational knowledge. She takes the reader along as she fumbles through learning her family’s ways in the kitchen. She also recognizes how food is a conduit for so many other aspects of our lives. “These dishes had long ceased to be just food, having been wrapped up for years in the tangled mysticism of my family, of its history.”
I also appreciated Cheryl Tan’s attention to history. Each chapter includes some nuggets of Singapore’s rich culture. She often provides these details alongside her personal experience like in her chapter that discusses the Festival of Hungry Ghosts, or Moon Festival where moon cakes were staples. Tan describes her penchant for just buying the moon cakes in a store and her hesitancy to try the family recipe with yam, but then realizes what she had been missing by not engaging in the family practice of preparing the food for these festivals.
As her year of food exploration comes to a close, Tan realizes, “Each time I went back to New York…I was returning with more and more of my true home. Bits of my family, dishes that I now knew how to make.” What could have been a devastating time after her job loss turned into an excavation of her own true self, and a kindling of familial relationships far more valuable than a salary.