Food is part of the culture wherever we come from.
Some places have a more intense relationship than others with culinary delights, Singapore happens to be one of them.
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan took a break from her busy American life to reconnect with family and learn her favorite childhood recipes during an extended stay in Singapore.
She shares the experience and a few recipes in her memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen (Voice/ Hyperion, February 2011).
Cheryl took the time to speak with me last week.
Here's our conversation.
Q: Cheryl, your book 'A Tiger in the Kitchen' is a memoir where personal connections and food are intertwined, was your lack of appetite for practicing family recipes a way to distance yourself from that?
It wasn't so much distancing myself from my family as I was close to my family when I was growing up in Singapore -- it was more about looking at cooking as a sign of weakness, something that generations of women before me were required to learn in order to be good wives, and rejecting that notion by refusing to learn. Later on in life, though, I do realize with some regret that I do not know how to make the dishes I grew up loving -- and that's what inspired the journey.
Q: Why did you make the decision to move to the US to study and then stay to practice journalism?
It was a very difficult decision for me to move to the U.S. as I love my family dearly -- it was hard to leave them. But career to me has always been hugely important, something my parents have impressed upon me all my life, so even though the decision was hard, it was clear.
Q: Did you ever serve one of the recipes, Birds Nest Soup, to unsuspecting guests?
Absolutely not! It's an acquired taste -- and very expensive and time-consuming to make, to boot. I would never waste it on people who don't appreciate it. Plus, I'm a big believer in people knowing what they're putting in their mouths before they eat it. If someone's going to feed me a spleen sandwich, I'd much rather know it before I dig in.
Q: Tell me more about bitter gourd you mention? Is it used on other occasions than weddings?
It's bitter gourd -- also known as bitter melon sometimes. It's not a wedding food -- we just happened to use it in the "buying of the bride" part of my cousin's wedding because we wanted to find something super bitter for her groom-to-be to eat to show his love for her! You can see it in Chinese stir fries, though -- it's particularly lovely stir-fried with beef and served with rice.
Q: I noticed Razor Clams on your site, is it a popular item in Singapore?
Razor clams are definitely eaten in Singapore -- seafood is a big part of Singaporean cuisine because the country is an island. You'll see shellfish and fish in Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes -- one of my favorite Singaporean dishes is barbecue stingray, which is skate slathered with a thick coating of super spicy sambal chili, wrapped in a banana leaf and then grilled over hot coals. Once that's done you spritz a little lime juice on top, grab your chopsticks and pick it apart. It's incredibly delicious -- particularly with an ice-cold beer on a sweltering tropical day.
Q: You enjoy Bak-Zhang rice dumplings for breakfast, name other popular breakfast items in Singapore?
Singaporeans eat very hearty breakfasts -- one of my favorite breakfast dishes is nasi lemak, which is a Malay dish featuring coconut rice paired with deep fried crispy anchovies, turmeric-coated fried fish or chicken wing, fried egg and gobs of spicy sambal chili. This rice is often wrapped up in banana leaves and packed up in little balls, sitting at hawker stands in the morning, ready for people to just grab them and go. I also love chwee kueh, which is a small disc-shaped Chinese steamed rice cake that is topped with diced preserved radishes and served with chili sauce. The jello-like rice cake is a lovely canvas for the salty radishes and super spicy sauce that comes with it.
Q: Why use tapioca flour for Kueh Bangkit cookies? Are they a traditional Chinese New Year treat?
These are a traditional Chinese new year treat -- tapioca flour is commonly used in Singaporean desserts so it's no surprise that it pops up in this cookie.
Q: While visiting your family, you get street food at hawker centers. Is what you buy from them similar to what you cook at home?
It's very difficult to replicate the taste of Singaporean street food in your home -- partly, I suspect, because you wouldn't want to use the amount of lard, salt and possible MSG that is sometimes required to amp up the tastes of the dishes to the desired levels. Also, hawkers in Singapore often spend their whole lives perfecting and making just one dish -- it's not like a restaurant where a hawker will do 15 or 30 items on a menu. Very often, they'll specialize in just one dish -- so naturally they become very good at it and it's hard to compete with that level of skill. What my family cooks at home tends to be more simple comfort food dishes -- Teochew braised duck, steamed egg custard, salted vegetable and duck soup. You can read all about it in the book and I hope you enjoy it.
Q: You list 'Holland Village' as an expat corner. Do expats contribute to the local food scene? Are they influenced as well?
Expats have always been big contributors to the Singapore food scene -- the cuisine was founded by expats, after all. Singapore's dishes, which tend to be a hybrid of Malay, Indian, Chinese and European influences, only really came together after the British created a settlement on the island in the 19th Century and started inviting traders from all over to immigrate. So it's really a centuries-old fusion cuisine formed on the shoulders of expat influences. That combination of disparate flavors can be seen in dishes like the roti john, named after British soldiers who were referred to as "johns." It's basically a western baguette topped with curried spices, beaten egg and lamb, fried and served with a chili sauce. That's a classic example of expat influences in Singaporean cuisine.
Q: If you were to describe Singaporean cuisine, what are its strong influences and distinct characters?
Singaporean cuisine, as I mentioned, is a centuries-old fusion cuisine that combines Indian, Chinese, Malay and European flavors. A lot of it is very spicy and filled with the taste of turmeric, fried shallots, curry powder, white pepper, pandan leaf, which is a tropical leaf similar in scent to vanilla. It's a very complex cuisine -- even in curries, you'll find several different kinds in hawker centers as there are Malay, Chinese and Indian curries that all are variations on the same concept. Satay, too, is far more varied than you would think -- one of my absolute favorite dishes, for example, is Hainanese pork satay, which is satay in which piece of lean pork are interspersed with big chunks of fat and threaded on a stick and grilled on a charcoal stove. What makes this satay particularly distinct is its dipping sauce -- the spicy peanut sauce is mixed with a giant scoop of sweet crushed pineapple so you have the combination of sweet and savory in the dip. It's just delicious. Sadly, this kind of satay has become rather hard to find, even in Singapore. I wrote about a mobile hawker who does a lovely rendition of this for the Atlantic Food Channel .
Q: On page 74, you note your aunts irritation at your focus on minutiae (quantity, time), are recipes you tried to learn more general guidelines rather than exact science?
The women in my family cook the way many women of a certain generation do -- by instinct, so they did get a little frustrated when I tried to pin them down regarding the exact amounts that had to go into each recipe. My aunts kept saying to me repeated, just "agak-agak," which is the Malay word for "guess-guess." And it's true that the best cooks do rely on that -- if something needs to be sweeter, you'll know by tasting it and then deciding that you need to add more sugar (or not). They didn't learn how to cook by relying on printed out recipes and cookbooks -- they learned by watching and practicing. After a few months of them urging me to agak-agak, I tried to start doing the same.
Q: How did you live the transition from fashion to food and 'professional' writer to freelancer? Do you still sleep with your Blackberry on?
I often say that I went from covering an industry that was about avoiding eating to one that was all about eating -- on its face, the two topics are that different. But fundamentally, they're both filled with creative characters who are all incredibly passionate about their art, so that's the unifying factor of the two. I've since switched to an iPhone simply because it takes better pictures, allowing me to snap shots of food I'm eating, even if I don't have my Canon on me. But yes, I do still sleep with my iPhone right by my bed -- it's a habit I haven't been able to shake!
Q: What was the synergy between 'A Tiger in the Kitchen' blog and book project?
The blog was started just as I was starting my research for my book -- as I was traveling and eating and cooking, I knew that there was no way that I could fit everything I was learning in my 90,000 word manuscript. So I decided to start the blog as a way to try out my voice as a food writer and tell some of the interesting stories I was gathering that I knew I probably wouldn't have space for in the book. It's been a lot of fun -- I've enjoyed sharing my favorite places to eat (and ones to avoid) in New York City and Singapore -- and I've also enjoyed sharing some of the non-Singaporean recipes I've discovered and liked along the way.
Q: Dumpling Festival (Duan Wu Jie) celebrates a poet and patriot, does every food in Singapore tells a story?
Food has tremendous symbolism in Singapore and in Chinese culture as well. At Chinese new year, many foods are eaten because the words for them are homonyms for lucky words -- fish, for example, must be eaten because the Chinese word for it sounds like the word for "surplus." Noodles are eaten on birthdays and at the new year as a sign of longevity. And at various special days of the year -- the Chinese new year, the winter solstice -- tang yuan, which are small round glutinous balls served in a sugary soup, are a popular dish for families to share because the roundness of the balls is a symbol of family unity. When I was growing up in Singapore, I thought some of these stories were kind of silly but now that I'm older, I do find beauty in this symbolism.
Q: Are common dishes in Singapore seasonal or do most foods stay the same throughout the year?
Because Singapore is so close to the equator, the weather is unchanging for most of the year so the foods mostly stay the same. I'd say that's a good thing, however -- I'd hate to have to go months without eating some of my favorite dishes in Singapore!
Q: Last, what would be a good time to visit the city and best area to stay if you want to have an authentic experience?
Anytime except for the summer months, when the temperatures really skyrocket, are best. I personally like the cooler monsoon months -- to me, few things beat the smell of a tropical rainstorm clearing the air and the sound of super fat raindrops hitting the roof as you're taking a long post-lunch nap.
If you are still hungry after reading her book, visit A Tiger in the Kitchen (the blog) for extra helpings.
(* Photos of 'Birthday Noodles' and 'Hainanese Pork Satay' by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan)