By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Journalist Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan stood in front of the wok clutching her Blackberry, admittedly scared that if she diverted from the recipe, she’d make a mistake. This is an uncharacteristic sign of insecurity not often seen by those who know her.
She was born into a traditional Chinese family — from a long line of first-born sons that ended with her — and born in the year of the Tiger, bestowed with fierce and headstrong qualities that are considered unlucky for girls, qualities likely to scare off potential suitors.
“My father kind of raised me like a son. He never set limits, never told me that I had to cook to be a good wife,” said Tan.
“Singapore is very modern, but also very traditional. The men tend to be the ones to go off and have careers, and the women stay home and cook for the family. I chose to avoid the kitchen as a result. Whenever someone would want to teach me how to cook or make something, I always thought, ‘Well, maybe some other time.’ ”
Tiger meets journalism
Tan’s love of reading and writing led her to journalism and an internship after high school at the metro desk of The Straits Times in Singapore, where she wrote an expose on a dog farm that kept dogs in abhorrent conditions.
“After the story ran with photos, the government swooped in and sanctioned the farm. Right away, as a 17 year-old, that was powerful to realize, the power of the press, the power of the word. So I was pretty much hooked on journalism from that point,” said Tan.
She moved to the United States the following year to study journalism at Northwestern University. Determined to see as much of the country as possible, Tan took on various internships, from the Chicago Tribune to a post in Topeka, Kan., to the Portland Oregonian. She reported on varied topics such as Harley Davidson rallies and gypsy burial rights.
“I just love the fact that journalism gives you a path into all these different worlds,” said Tan.
A veteran journalist by her 30s, there wasn’t a world out there Tan wasn’t able to tap into. After years of working on the Sunday cop shift beat at the Baltimore Sun, Tan was asked to cover New York Fashion Week.
“I didn’t know anything about fashion at the time, so I went out and bought every fashion magazine I could find and learned everything I could about the subject. I went and I covered Fashion Week and I ended up loving it,” said Tan.
“Covering cops can seem like a war zone sometimes, especially in Baltimore, and covering fashion week can be the same way, too. I joke that the people just dress differently.”
But after 15 years engrossed in almost every aspect of American life, from gypsies to fashion, Tan was suddenly an outsider to the world she was born into, one she once took for granted.
“I realized that I had become really Americanized. I was making mostly American or Italian dishes and not the dishes that I had grown up eating. I began to think about my identity. Am I American? Am I Asian? And if I am Asian, then why don’t I know how to make these dishes. I started to feel that there was a cultural aspect of my life I had really ignored. It was time to go back and discover that heritage through the kitchen, and that’s what I ended up doing.”
Tiger(s) in the kitchen
Her grandmother’s pineapple tarts beckoned, with the memory of buttery cookies and a subtly sweet pineapple jam, and each Chinese New Year was tainted with regret for not learning the recipe before her grandmother passed.
Tan asked her aunt if she could make the trip to Singapore before New Year’s to learn the recipe, and she shared her experience in a Wall Street Journal article.
“I found that there was a wide range of people, not just Asians, commenting on their experience with the same sense of yearning, like this one lady who said that the article reminds her of her grandmother’s sugar cookies, and this guy who said his dad made the best Sloppy Joes and he never got to learn it before he died,” said Tan.
So she didn’t stop at tarts. She returned to Singapore for other lunar holidays like the Dumpling and Moon Cake Festivals, and the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts to learn more traditional dishes, and the time spent in the kitchen — two days of making cookies, hours of chopping ingredients, or idle time waiting for food to steam — gave rise to family stories that unearthed long buried secrets.
“When you’re living far from your family — most people do these days — you kind of parachute in for regular visits, and on those visits, you tend to not have much time to sit down and let those stories really come out, and that was what I experienced with my family while learning how to cook,” said Tan.
This was when Tan learned about “gambling rice,” as the family took to calling it, invented when her grandmother started a gambling den in her house to make money. To prevent the hungry gamblers from leaving, Tan’s grandmother served a rice dish of shrimp, shredded cabbage, pork belly, and mushrooms fried together and cooked in a rice cooker to be eaten from a bowl with one hand, freeing the other for uninterrupted gambling.
“That one bowl of rice, I feel, says so much about her,” said Tan, who compiled these stories and recipes into her new book, “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”
“I realized I had underestimated them all along and they really had a lot of lessons to teach me and a lot of love to give. That was very inspiring to hear about their resilience and how much they loved their family and see how it showed in the food,” said Tan.
“Watching them be so confident in the kitchen, where they would take giant bags of sugar, hold it over the wok, and shake without measuring, it was purely by instinct and confidence. That really inspired me to trust myself a bit more, trust my own instincts both in the kitchen and outside of it.”
Back in New York City, Tan adapts one of her favorite recipes from her auntie Alice, a savory braised duck breast, and uses the same ingredients to braise beef brisket, digressing from the authentic dish and celebrating the spirit in which these dishes are made, with some ingenuity and bravery, the way tigers would do in a kitchen. ♦
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan will hold book signings at the Elliott Bay Book Company on June 10 at 8 p.m. and at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island on June 12 at 3 p.m.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.