A Tiger in the Kitchen

A Memoir of Food and Family


By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

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“Starting with charred fried rice and ending with flaky pineapple tarts, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan takes us along on a personal journey that most can only fantasize about–an exploration of family history and culture through a mastery of home-cooked dishes. Tan’s delectable education through the landscape of Singaporean cuisine teaches us that food is the tie that binds.”
–Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles After growing up in the most food-obsessed city in the world, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan left home and family at eighteen for America–proof of the rebelliousness of daughters born in the Year of the Tiger. But as a thirtysomething fashion writer in New York, she felt the Singaporean dishes that defined her childhood beginning to call her back. Was it too late to learn the secrets of her grandmothers’ and aunties’ kitchens, as well as the tumultuous family history that had kept them hidden before In her quest to recreate the dishes of her native Singapore by cooking with her family, Tan learned not only cherished recipes but long-buried stories of past generations.A Tiger in the Kitchen, which includes ten authentic recipes for Singaporean classics such as pineapple tarts and Teochew braised duck, is the charming, beautifully written story of a Chinese-Singaporean ex-pat who learns to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of the Singaporean kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself. Reading Group Guide available online and included in the eBook.



I distinctly remember the moment that I knew: I should have been less of a rebel.

I was in my twenties. I was feeling on top of the world as a fashion writer for the Baltimore Sun, a paper I had aspired to work at for years.

And I had decided to teach myself to cook.

Even though I had grown up in Singapore, a somewhat traditional place despite its modern, impressive skyline and reputation as a Southeast Asian economic powerhouse, I had deftly managed as a child to avoid setting foot in the kitchen to learn the wifely skills that my girlfriends were encouraged to pick up.

Instead, I had poured my teenage energies into raku pottery, ballet, Chinese brush painting. Basic fried rice? I hadn’t the faintest clue how to put that together.

Nevertheless, I had a Singaporean grandmother who was both a force of nature and a legendary cook. And so I believed it was in my blood to excel in the kitchen—or at least kill myself trying.

What unfolded was a series of rather unfortunate episodes. Fried rice was so burned that brown, charred chunks of rice seared themselves almost permanently to the wok. (How was I supposed to know that nonstop stirring action was essential to the process?) A stab at fried noodles yielded an inedible, gelatinous mass. (Periodically peering into a pot of boiling water, apparently, was not the way to tell if noodles were getting gummy and overcooked.) An Oreo cheesecake pie I attempted for Thanksgiving turned out so lumpy that one guest gently inquired if I owned a whisk. (Hello, if I needed one, perhaps the recipe printed on the back of the piecrust label should have said so?)

The pièce de résistance, however, was a dish of hello dollies I very enthusiastically attempted after spying the recipe on a bag of chocolate chips at the grocery store. All morning one Saturday I slaved, opening cans, mixing and assembling. As the bars baked in the oven, the heady smell of chocolate, condensed milk, and coconut started filling my Washington, D.C., kitchen. I began to envision the afternoon that lay before me: I would walk into my friend’s home perhaps wearing gingham oven mitts and a matching red and white apron, bearing my baking dish of delicious hello dollies. My friends would inhale the bars, grabbing at seconds—thirds, even! But when they showered me with compliments for my baking, I would merely blush, coyly turn my head, and wave them away with the elegance of Princess Diana.

This, I thought to myself, would be what they call “nailing it.”

Naturally, this was not how it went. In a frantic rush, I had gotten to my friend’s apartment with no mitts and no apron. And when I sliced into the pan to cut up the bars, my knife emerged dripping with a slick, brown and taupe goo flecked with bits of white coconut. As I watched my friends politely lick at the liquid mounds of chocolate and condensed milk I had scooped onto paper napkins—I had avoided serving plates, having had a fervent, if misguided belief in the solid nature of my bars—I realized, I am not the cook my grandmother was.

Growing up in Singapore, I had taken my Tanglin ah-ma for granted.

My paternal grandmother, whom I called Tanglin Ah-Ma because she once lived in the Tanglin neighborhood of Singapore, was a true legend in the kitchen. A slender, birdlike woman with a nest of short, wavy hair that she kept pulled back from her face with black bobby pins, my Tanglin ah-ma was a mystery to me when I was growing up. We rarely visited her, and when we did, my inability to speak any Teochew, the Chinese dialect that she spoke, meant we mostly sat around with me feeling her eyes scan over me, inspecting this alien, Westernized granddaughter she had somehow ended up with. During these visits, I would learn small things about her—that she kept a wooden, rectangular block that functioned as a pillow, for example. It was a habit that Singaporean Chinese of a certain generation, who had had no access to plush feather pillows, were clinging to. However many times I saw or touched her wooden pillow, though, I never understood it.

While we didn’t have the words to communicate, Tanglin Ah-Ma spoke eloquently to me, to her family, by feeding us all. She would routinely rise in the early hours of the morning to fire up the charcoal stove in order to put breakfast on the table. Soy-sauce-braised duck, hearty salted vegetable soups, and even tricky bak-zhang, the pyramid-shaped glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves that require such work few women bother to make them at home anymore—Ah-Ma churned them out with such skill that an ever-growing circle of relatives, friends, and then friends of friends would regularly request them.

The crowning moment for my Tanglin ah-ma, however, was Chinese New Year, a time of great feasting in Singapore when people devote entire days to hopping from house to house, catching up with friends and relatives while stuffing themselves with platters of noodles, candy, and above all, cookies.

Amid the sanctioned bacchanalia, one indulgence was supreme for me: pineapple tarts. Each year, I looked forward to the bite-size cookies that are the hallmark of the festivities. And I considered myself a connoisseur of the treats, which comprise a buttery shortbread base topped with a dense, sweet pineapple jam. As we traveled from house to house, I would attack the tarts first, choosing not to sully my palate or waste calories on other, lesser snacks. And at each home, I would, inevitably, be disappointed. The tarts would always be too crumbly, too salty, or not crumbly enough. None compared to my Tanglin ah-ma’s tarts—this was, simply, fact.

Despite my love for the tarts, however, I never bothered to learn how to make them. As a child, I had been steadfastly determined not to pick up any womanly skills, least of all cooking. I was more intent on reading, writing, learning about the world—and plotting how I was to eventually go forth and conquer it.

Cooking, I thought, could always come later. Blithely, I assumed that I would someday ask my Tanglin ah-ma to teach me how to make her pineapple tarts. And then, when I was eleven, she died.

Watching the disaster that was my hello dollies unfold that afternoon in Washington, I felt a sudden pang of regret.

Over the next ten years, as I ventured more deeply into the kitchen, growing ever more ambitious—and, I’d like to think, skilled—this kernel of yearning would only grow. Each stew I made, each cookie I baked only made me wonder what my Tanglin ah-ma would have thought. Nothing I baked or cooked, of course, compared in my mind to anything she made.

I had missed the opportunity to get to know her recipes, to get to know her. By now, I’d achieved the success I’d craved as a child—I was based in New York City, covering fashion for The Wall Street Journal, one of the largest newspapers in America. And yet, no matter how high I climbed, the hole stubbornly remained.

I started to think about home—which, to me, isn’t just New York, or Singapore, or anywhere in between. Home, rather, is rooted in the kitchen and the foods of my Singaporean girlhood—the intoxicating fog of turmeric and lemongrass seeping into the air as bright orange slabs of otak, a curried fish mousse, steam on the stove, or the scent of sliced mackerel and minced ginger doused in white pepper drifting out of the kitchen, heralding a hearty breakfast of fish porridge.

After almost sixteen years in the United States, I realized I had, indeed, become ang moh (a Chinese term that means “red hair,” implying Westernized). I did not know, after all, how to make these dishes, the food of my people. They aren’t recipes that you’ll find in Chinese cookbooks; many are uniquely Singaporean and, in some cases, regarded as not “special” enough to put on restaurant menus. 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.

In the dead of winter, in a city that’s just too far away from the sound of banana tree leaves rustling in the tropical breezes, I started to dream. In my daydream, my Tanglin ah-ma is there. She’s come to me with a piece of paper bearing her cherished recipes. When I open my eyes, it becomes clear that it’s time.

And so I decided to take a leap. I journeyed home to Singapore, finally ready after all these years to learn to cook, to learn about my family, to learn to be a woman—but intent on doing it on my own terms.

On the other side of the world were my maternal grandmother, my aunts, my mother. Patiently, they stood by with arms open—ready to welcome me into the kitchen.


I was born in the year of the Tiger with a lucky star over my head and a knife in my hand.

Based on the time I was born and the fact that I was a dynamic and aggressive Tiger, I was already destined to be sharp, intelligent, and incredibly ambitious. But with the additional star to guide me, I was headed for a sparkling future, one that I would sail through with ease, gathering money and a great deal of success along the way.

Instead, the moment I pushed into this world, growling and crying, I took the knife in my hand and stabbed at the star, snuffing it out. In that moment, a fighter was created—a person who knew she would have to work doubly hard to compensate for her dead lucky star, often stubbornly wandering off, heeding no one, and charting a path of her own.

This is the story that my family’s fortune-teller tells. And for years, much of it appeared to be true.

Despite the fact that I’m female, I’d always been raised to be somewhat masculine.

Before I was born, my parents chose my name: Brendan.

Because I was the firstborn of the eldest son in a traditional Chinese family in Singapore, there was plenty of hope that I would be male. A son who would carry the family name, a child in whom my father would nurture his ambitions.

Well, I’m female. So my dad, Soo Liap Tan—a practical man who ended up with two daughters—made do with what he got.

Singapore, an island city-state of almost 5 million that straddles the equator, for all its modernity remains a rather old-fashioned Asian society in some ways. Boys are valued. But while girls aren’t bad things, you generally don’t expect too much of them.

My father believes this to a certain extent, but he’s also ambitious. So when his firstborn arrived and it was a girl, he adjusted accordingly.

When I was six, he gave me a dictionary of legal terms. “You don’t have to look at it now,” he said. “But if you want to look anything up, it’s there.” I never touched it, but the message was clear. I was headed for law school. My father pressed me to read voraciously, to be good at math, and never once told me I had to clean or learn how to cook in order to be a good wife. He never let me beat him at Scrabble and raised me with all the love a Chinese parent wasn’t supposed to show. He challenged me to be outspoken, to question authority, and to always, always let creativity be my guide.

But above all, he told me stories. As much as he encouraged me to shirk my female role in society, he wanted me to know and understand my culture, my heritage, my family. He wanted me to be Chinese, to never forget from where I came.

From the time I was a child, it had been impossible to escape the tales of my ancestors. These oral history outbursts often came when I least expected them. “Dad, I landed this big interview today—” I would start, before being interrupted with his pleased response to praiseworthy things. “Yes! You are Teochew. Aiyah, don’t you know, our people are known for being pirates, smugglers, and great businessmen. [The Hong Kong billionaire] Li Ka-shing is Teochew, you know!” (I always thought Dad was exaggerating until we visited Shantou, China, many years later and I realized that the area my father’s family is from is like the Sicily of China. Some of the major triads in Asia first blossomed in Guangdong.)

Much later, when I was in my early twenties and called to tell my parents about a new boyfriend, there was a sudden silence after I mentioned his name. “Nakamura . . . ,” my dad said quietly. “My two sisters were killed by the Japanese, you know!” (I would have to tell him several times that the boyfriend was a third-generation American and could not possibly have been responsible for the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II.)

But the longer stories of my father’s boyhood, of his family’s hopes and dreams for all he’d become, would emerge as we huddled over late-night suppers of take-out noodles from Singapore’s hawker stands after my mother and sister, Daphne, had gone to bed. The slippery fried shrimp noodles we adored came sprinkled with chewy circles of squid. The noodles, wrapped in industrial-strength wax paper, were generally so greasy that the oil penetrated the paper, filling it with dark spots. I always looked forward to the moment when we would carefully peel back the wax paper and steam would rise, fogging up our glasses. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t see—we just grabbed our chopsticks and stabbed away at the mound. When the noodles disappeared and the toothpicks were put aside, Dad would begin. “When I was a boy, my grandfather used to hoist me onto his shoulders and lead me through his banks and factories and say, ‘All this will be yours one day.’ ” As the firstborn son of the eldest son, my father had been expected to succeed my great-grandfather. “And then the war came,” Dad would continue. “We lost all the money when he died.”

These unfulfilled dreams and childhood disappointments were threads that had raced through my father’s life for decades. We could never drive past pockets of Singapore without him sighing and murmuring, “My grandfather’s company used to have warehouses along this whole stretch, you know! Aiyah . . . you could have been born into a rich family.” Specters of this unled life fueled my father’s ambitions, leading him to plunge into a lucrative career working for a string of beverage and luxury goods distribution companies after casting aside an early dream to spend his life teaching high school mathematics at Saint Joseph’s Institution, the alma mater that had been his refuge from a tumultuous home life. The more his father—a man whose major accomplishment in life was to drink and gamble away the family money—beat him, the more my father had turned to schoolwork and idyllic Saturdays building campfires and volunteering as a Boy Scout. “I saved all my pocket money and bought my father a birthday card once, you know,” my father said late one night as we sat in the kitchen, mirroring each other with our legs propped up, still rubbing our bellies over the feast we had just had. “You know what he did? He tore up the card and slapped me for wasting money! You are so lucky your father is not like that.”

And indeed, he wasn’t. The kind of father he was was involved in showing me a world beyond the one most children would know. With insomnia as a shared affliction, we would stay up way past my bedtime, sitting in our bright living room, quietly reading. We discussed international politics, the economy, whether Liverpool or Arsenal was going to win the English Premier League that year. One afternoon, I emerged from my first-grade classroom in a weathered colonial building along busy Victoria Street near downtown Singapore to find my father’s car waiting for me just outside the gates. “Come, we’re going for lunch,” he said, whisking me into the car. I assumed we were going to a hawker center for a quick meal before he had to jet back to work. Instead, minutes later, I found myself sliding into a chair at the Western restaurant of the posh Dynasty Hotel, nervously smoothing down the starched, white tablecloth before me as I wondered why we were there. It wasn’t my birthday—or his. And I couldn’t think of any special reason that would have earned such a treat. We were simply having lunch, it turned out—an excuse to show me what it was like to eat at a nice restaurant without my mother ordering for me or family members grabbing pieces of chicken with chopsticks and filling my plate. Terrified that I might do something wrong, I ordered the item on the menu that I had eaten and understood before—a large bratwurst. I remember it being delicious, but not as delicious as the feeling of being an adult, sitting with my father, talking about school, about work, as we leisurely had lunch.

When I was nine, my father took a job in Hong Kong, commuting to Singapore for long weekends just once every three weeks. I missed him terribly. This was a man who occasionally chased me around the dining room table with a cane in hand just to get me to practice the piano. But the same man would sometimes wake me up in the mornings by standing quietly at the window, peering out very intently, until I sleepily asked, “What’s happening outside?” “OH,” he’d reply. “There’s an elephant walking down the road,” which would always prompt me to jump out of bed and run to the window for a peek. (It took me many years to figure this one out.)

When my father left for Hong Kong, I might have lost my partner in insomnia, but I gained a pen pal. Dear Cheryl, he wrote to the ten-year-old me. Thank you for your two letters. I’m sorry I have not written lately. You can imagine how busy I’ve been. . . . When I next return to Singapore, can you remind me to order the Reader’s Digest for you? Meanwhile, I am always dreaming of the beautiful sunshine in Singapore and our swimming pool. Love, Papa.

September 20, 1984, on hotel letterhead bearing the words “Honey Lake Country Club” and “Shenzhen, China”: Dearest Cheryl, I am now in China for the first time in my life. This evening I spent my time walking around the town to see how people live. The streets are full of bicycles as people here are too poor to afford cars. There are so many bicycles moving in the streets that you worry very much about being knocked down by a bicycle—just imagine that!! Today I visited two towns or cities—Shekou and Shenzhen, both very close to Hong Kong. These two areas are industrial areas—many factories. We are negotiating to buy three factories—a flour mill, biscuit factory, and a feed mill. I hope one day that I can bring all of you to visit China. China is famous for beautiful sceneries, and also it is a chance for you to see how poor people are. With lots of love, Papa.

Sometime the following year, on stationery from the Prince Hotel in Hong Kong: Many thanks for your letters and postcards. When I read the letters and cards, I can feel how strongly you love me. Papa is very happy and proud. So proud and happy that I will continue to be a good papa to you and Daffy. . . . I am sad to realise that when I was in Singapore during the Chinese new year holidays I have not heard you play the PIANO ONCE!! What a pity! Especially when Mummy and I struggled so hard to buy you a piano! I’m ashamed. Cheryl, Papa and Mummy love you and want you to enjoy your life and work. Love and good luck, Papa.

Shortly after that, when my parents had bought me my first computer: Dearest Cheryl, While the computer may do wonders for you, I still prefer to read your letters in your own handwriting. Your handwriting reflects to some extent your personality. So I hope I will not miss my dearest daughter’s handwriting. What do you think of my personality from my writing? Confusing?

April 15, 1986, a year after my parents bought me a dog, a shih tzu my sister and I named Erny: Looking back at your letters, you keep mentioning ERNY. Shouldn’t we be tired of talking about him now—after more than 1 year? (Or less?) . . . Went to a movie “Out of Africa” last night. Do you know that it won 6 Academy Awards or “Oscars” as they call it in the movie world? The movie’s great but I think would be boring for you. It shows or rather teaches us FORTITUDE and DETERMINATION. Love, Papa.

On religion, and my growing curiosity about Catholicism: It is not easy to understand or appreciate the Taoist religion that my family has practiced and followed for generations. (To confess, I don’t quite understand it either.) But I guess that since Mum and I embraced it when my father passed away in 1976 as a matter of duty to my father and mother . . . the Taoist faith has become a part of our lives. That does not mean that you are bound by tradition to follow the same course. Having a religion is important in life—whether it is Buddhism, Catholic, Islamic etc. We are all children of God and religion helps us to communicate better with God. So feel free to believe in the Catholic faith if it helps you to communicate with God better. . . . Well, this is a rather long letter. I love you, Daphne and Mummy & miss you all. (Ooops. I forgot Erny.) Love, Papa.

September 6, 1987: Dearest Cheryl, Please forgive if my handwriting does not look steady. I am having a sore eye and have been applying eye lotion. . . . I have to keep the affected eye closed to allow the lotion to work. . . . Before I go on, I must be frank that I am shocked that you have not mastered the art of “paragraphing” yet—or at least not in the letters you write to me. A good and well written letter deserves at the same time proper paragraphing—it strains the eyes of the reader! Now, I have just found out the reason for my sore eye.

Each of my father’s stories had a point. He was determined not to be the father that he had had. He wanted to show me the world and all its possibilities. And while he had a tremendously successful career—at one point becoming the director of marketing for Vitasoy, one of the largest beverage companies in Asia—he was even more determined that his firstborn would go further than he himself had, having had the advantages of a loving, supportive father that he had so craved. But as I got older, I broke my father’s heart and chose journalism over law. Then I broke my mother’s heart by insisting on coming to the United States for college. My family protested. I would be too far, I was a girl, and why journalism? But my father had always told me I could be and do anything, and he wasn’t going to stop me. He simply asked, “How much will it cost?”

On occasions such as these, my mother often would sigh, shake her head, and blame the fact that I was born in the year of the Tiger. “Why did I have to have a Tiger daughter?” she would lament. “So stubborn and rebellious. If you were born in the olden days in China, you would have been killed at birth!” Sometimes, however, faced with my horrified looks, she would end on a reassuring note: “You know,” she once said, “with Tiger girls, they used to pull out one of her teeth so she wouldn’t be so fierce and eat up her husband. But don’t worry, I didn’t do that with you.”

Once I moved to the United States, my father visited me at least twice a year. We didn’t have the fried shrimp noodles, but we started having a beer after dinner some nights. Now, during my college years, my Singaporean male friends—and even less so my female ones—were hardly ever granted the privilege of bonding with their dads over a beer. (Nice girls didn’t drink.) But in my father’s eyes, my independence in school, in building my career, had given me the license. Even so, our bar visits often began with “Your mum would kill me if she knew,” and “I won’t tell her if you won’t, Dad.” (We also never told her about the cigarettes we would smoke surreptitiously.)

As I built my own career, my father’s ambitions became my fuel. And I could never shake the feeling that he was disappointed, somehow. In my early twenties, as I grappled with the guilt I felt over having chosen to stay in the United States, where I saw far greater opportunities in journalism than anywhere in Asia, I looked forward to his trips all the more, for the smallest sign or assurance that I continued to do him proud. The lectures continued—how was my job at the Baltimore Sun


On Sale
Feb 8, 2011
Page Count
288 pages
Hachette Books

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

About the Author

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based writer who has covered fashion, retail and home design (and written the occasional food story) for the Wall Street Journal. Before that she was the senior fashion writer for In Style magazine and senior arts, entertainment and fashion writer for the Baltimore Sun. Born and raised in Singapore, she crossed the ocean for college in the U.S. after realizing that a) she wanted to be a journalist and b) if she was going to be as mouthy in her work as she was in real life, she’d better not do it in Singapore.

Learn more about this author