Earning her stripes

It's the Year of the Tiger — not according to the Chinese lunar calendar, but in the world of publishing.

"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua has made waves with an account of super-striving Chinese parenting. "The Tiger's Wife," a first novel by Tea Obreht, appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review this month. And now there's "A Tiger in the Kitchen," Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's account of returning to her native Singapore to learn cooking, family history and a bit about herself.

The coincidence is a little amusing to Tan, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, but also a little troublesome. Having your "Memoir of Food and Family" confused with the better known, but widely reviled "Tiger Mother," whose extremely strict parenting style has drawn comparisons to child abuse, has its downside.

"I had a few friends post my Amazon link, and, 'Oh, no, I hate that book! That woman sounds crazy.' And they have to explain, 'No it's not the Tiger Mother book,'" Tan said, speaking by phone from her home in New York.

Tan, who comes to Baltimore on Thursday for a 6 p.m. reading and book signing at Red Canoe Bookstore & Cafe (4337 Harford Road), is a very different sort of tiger than that maternal enforcer of obedience and discipline.

"The tiger symbol has always been of rebellion, aggression, pushing the boundaries," said Tan, who is thought to embody those traits because she was born in the Year of the Tiger. She used her tiger qualities first in the world of journalism, then in an unlikely yearlong cooking quest.

That quest was inspired by a craving for a particular childhood treat, the pineapple tarts her grandmother used to make, and for Singapore cuisine in general. The fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavors is hard to find in the United States, in part because relatively wealthy and well-educated Singaporeans have not gone the way of so many other immigrant groups, starting out in America doing restaurant work with the hope of sending the next generation to college. Singaporeans often come to the states to attend college or go straight into white-collar professions.

"The Singaporeans who move overseas tend not to open restaurants," Tan said. "They tend to go overseas and go into finance or be doctors."

She added: "Who knows, maybe the next generation will want to be the Singaporean Thomas Keller?"

Though it is traditional for women to learn to cook in Singapore, Tan never spent much time in the kitchen before moving to the United States to attend Northwestern University.

"I really started very slowly, Shake 'N Bake and Campbell's soup recipes," said Tan, 36. "I love fried chicken, so I started trying fried chicken. When it came to food I grew up eating, it was very intimidating."

But in her 30s, she got a hankering for the buttery, pineapple jam-filled tarts that her paternal grandmother used to whip up for Chinese New Year. She traveled to Singapore to learn how to make them herself.

Tan's grandmother died when she was 11, so she turned to a group of "aunties" to school her. Over the course of a weekend, she picked up bits of family history, along with instructions for mixing, kneading and shaping dough. She wrote about that experience in January 2009 in The Wall Street Journal, where she then covered fashion.

"I got this flood of responses from readers," Tan said. "I was surprised at the time. This is a very Asian story. … A lot of them weren't from Asian people."

She heard from readers still pining for grandma's sugar cookies, or the sloppy Joes they devoured as kids. The response led her to two conclusions. One: "Everybody has this kind of thing in their lives, that yearning for that childhood dish." And two: There might be a book here.

Tan met with a book editor in New York, who was interested. But when the editor asked how long a sabbatical Tan could take from the Journal for more traveling and cooking in Singapore, Tan figured she was at a dead end.

"I was very disappointed," Tan said. "There was no way I could ask for sabbatical."

Two days later, amid great turmoil in the newspaper industry, Tan was laid off.

"My first thought was, 'This is terrible,'" Tan said. "And my second thought was, 'Now I can do this book.' … I feel very fortunate. Everything happened very seamlessly."

Over the next year, Tan made several trips to Singapore, learning family recipes for dishes such as popiah, a shrimp summer roll, and beng gway, a pink, teardrop-shaped rice cake filled with pork belly, mushrooms, dried prawns and peanuts.

Along the way, the novice cook who initially pestered her aunties for precise measurements that they themselves didn't use, began to trust her instincts in the kitchen. Tan came to embrace "agak-agak," a Malay word for estimation.

Tan, now at work on another book she's not at liberty to describe, also picked up quite a bit of juicy family history. She discovered that one of her great-grandfathers had been an opium addict who used his granddaughter as a drug courier, and that both of her grandmothers had run gambling dens in their homes to make ends meet.

Tan said she never would have picked up on those stories during the "two rushed weeks a year" she typically spent visiting family in Singapore.

"When you're in the kitchen, waiting an hour for something to steam," she said, "that's when the stories come out."


Kaya (coconut jam)

From "A Tiger in the Kitchen" by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

10 eggs

1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on how sweet you like it

Milk from shredded pulp of 1 coconut (coconut can be shredded in a food processor, then placed in cheesecloth, which is squeezed to extract milk)

3 pandan leaves, tied in knots*

Crack the eggs in a bowl; whisk them together. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar and coconut milk and mix it up well. Transfer mixture to a glass bowl, add knotted pandan leaves, then perch that bowl atop a steaming rack in a wok.

Steam the mixture for 45 to 60 minutes, untouched, until the desired consistency is reached.

When you remove the kaya from the steamer, stir it, let it cool, and spread it over toasted bread. The consistency should be smooth and creamy.

*Available in the freezer section of Asian groceries and online.

Restaurant suggestions

About the closest thing to Singapore cuisine in this area is Malaysia Kopitiam (1827 M St. N.W., Washington), Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan said. Though technically a Malaysian restaurant, it has some of the foods Tan writes about in her memoir, including summer rolls. "It's really good," she said.

A few of Tan's Asian favorites in the area:

Nam Kang (2126 Maryland Ave.) "Great soups!"

Bangkok Kitchen (1696 Annapolis Road, Odenton) "I loved the Tiger Cried so much I kept going back — thin slices of beef tossed in a spicy sauce (lemongrass, chilies etc.)," Tan said. "So very good."

Joss Cafe & Sushi Bar (195 Main St., Annapolis, and 413 N. Charles St., Baltimore) "Darling little place with a great selection of sushi," Tan said, referring to the Annapolis location. (The Baltimore restaurant opened after Tan left town.)

Thai Landing (1207 N. Charles St.) "Excellent Thai food," she said.