A few weeks back I had a wonderful experience reading the book A Tiger In The Kitchen. I loved the book, I loved the imagery, and oh yeah.… I loved the food.
After reading the book I made quick time of contacting author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan to tell her how amazing I thought her book was and if she would like to stop by Book Journey and share with my readers a little about herself, the book, and what may be next.
I was thrilled when she said yes.
Please welcome author, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan!
Cheryl, as a coffee lover, I have to know how you take yours?
Cheryl: My favorite coffee is Singapore-style coffee — in old-school kopitiams (or coffeeshops) there, the beans are wok-fried with lard or butter and corn kernels to give it a buttery, nutty flavor. The coffee “uncle” will then add condensed milk and sugar to the brew — it’s incredibly delicious. I also like “yin yang,” which is a cup of coffee and tea combined in equal amounts with condensed milk and sugar added to the concoction. I’m a big tea lover, too, so yin yang is the ultimate morning beverage for me.
Now I want to try that coffee! 😛 Growing up in Singapore, were you a reader? (If so I would love to hear what books captured your attention!)
Cheryl: I read voraciously as a child — I remember my mother taking me to Singapore’s national library every Saturday to check out nine books a week. I could have read more but that was the maximum number of books we could take out, even after combining my family members’ library cards! Enid Blyton was the author who first captured my imagination as a child — she was a very prolific British children’s author who wrote several series involving plucky children going on all sorts of adventures. I adored the Secret Seven, Famous Five and Malory Towers, about a girls’ boarding school, series. Most of all, I loved The Faraway Tree, which was about a group of city kids who move to the English countryside and are totally unhappy and bored until they discover an enchanted tree inhabited by fairies and other magical creatures. I later moved on to Judy Blume, Anne Tyler, Ernest Hemingway and more but the creativity in Enid Blyton’s books were truly an early inspiration.
When did your interest in journalism start?
Cheryl: I knew as a child that I wanted to write for a living and when it came time to apply to colleges, journalism seemed like a way to be able to make a living doing it so I interned at The Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper, right after high school. During my internship, I wrote an expose of an illegal dog farm in which these poor dogs were kept in deplorable conditions — tiny, dirty cages etc. — that resulted in the Singaporean officials immediately swooping in and fining the owners. After seeing the power of the press and its ability to right wrongs, I was hooked.
Oh that is amazing! I have always loved the power of words! Your move from Singapore to Illinois had to be one of excitement and a little fear too…. can you share a little bit what that was like?
Cheryl: I moved from Singapore to Evanston, Illinois, to study journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. It was a terribly exciting time but also terrifying, naturally. I’d traveled widely before but moving all by myself halfway across the world at age 18 was something else entirely. I loved learning about American culture (Friends! Seinfeld!) through my new friends and dorm-mates but it was also trying sometimes — Singapore is near the equator so it’s sweltering hot all year round. The first winter I was at Northwestern, which is on a lakefront, there was a day when the windchill was minus 70. That was dismal. I also missed Singaporean food desperately — back then it was impossible to find good versions of the curries and fried noodles I grew up eating anywhere near me.
How long a flight is that from New York to Singapore?
Cheryl: There is a direct flight from the New York area to Singapore that takes 18 hours but usually, most flights (with connections and all) will take you close to 24 hours.
Oh wow! 24 hours! You mention the fried noodles and the curry that you miss and even thinking about it makes my mouth water. I still can picture that scene of the pineapple tarts, when you walked into the kitchen to discover that you were about to make 3,000 tarts. How long did it take the 5 of you to complete that project?
Cheryl: That was quite a scene! It was a two-day process to make all those tarts — but along the way we made a variety of other cookies, as well. On the first day, we prepped the pineapples — skinning them, gouging out the eyes, chopping them up into small chunks, running them through a juicer — and made the jam. The jam then has to cool overnight before we make the butter cookie base the next day, brush those cookies with beaten egg, top them with jam and then bake them. It sounds like a lot of work but it’s so very worth it. Pineapple tarts are out of this world.
The bonding of family cooking together puts an amazing picture in my head. Can you describe what that was like with your family? When you talk about missing out on that time with your Grandmother and learning her secrets and talents in the kitchen, do you feel that you accomplished that goal through the family members who did teach you?
Cheryl: I had never cooked with my family before so throughout the year, I felt like I was connecting with them in a way that I never had before. When you’re in the kitchen with your family for hours, that’s when old stories and jokes are going to be shared. I learned a lot about various family members and my ancestors and that was a very special experience. It was also lovely to see the younger generation getting curious about the process as well — my 10-year-old cousin Matthew, for example, even set aside his iPhone games when he saw us cooking sometimes and joined in with the assembling of rolls. I’m a big proponent of passing down the recipes and stories of families so it was touching to see Matthew joining in. I feel fortunate to have had this experience — you do often take your family members for granted and it can be too late to ask them to teach you. My maternal grandmother was already starting to lose her memory when I was back for that year — if I had waited any longer, I’m not sure she would have remembered all the recipes that she was sharing with us.
This book came about as the result of being laid off from your job. That devastating event freed you up to be able to travel and spend the time with your family and learn the traditions. Do you look at that time now as a blessing?
Cheryl: I definitely do — after I’d gone back to learn how to make my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts, I wanted to take a year off and travel back to Singapore to learn more recipes but there was just no way that I could have asked for the time off to do it. Right when I was rather despondent about that, the Wall Street Journal decided to eliminate its fashion bureau. I was in shock at first but literally, by the time I got back to my desk from the meeting where they laid us all off, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t think I would have had the courage to request a sabbatical to go on this journey if that hadn’t happened. I’m very thankful for that.
Do you have a favorite recipe either from the book, or personally that you enjoy making?
Cheryl: I have so many recipes I adore — it’s like asking a mother to pick her favorite child! One of my favorite dishes is this dish called tau yew bak, which basically means soy sauce meat. My late grandmother used to make this with pork belly or duck and it’s basically meat braised for hours in a stew of dark soy sauce (which has the consistency of molasses and is rather sweet), cinnamon sticks, star anise, sugar and garlic. (I have a recipe for the duck version of this in the book.) My family also adds cubed tofu and hard-boiled eggs to this stew — you want to cook it long enough so that the tofu cubes are saturated with the gravy and the eggs are the color of milk chocolate. Now that I know how to make it, it is part of my regular rotation in New York — I don’t often make it with duck, though. (Putting my hand in the cavity of a duck is still not one of my favorite things.) I’ll do it with cubed pork loin, ground beef or pork and cubed tofu. People often think Southeast Asian cooking is daunting because the recipes sometimes have many steps and ingredients — I like to look at the recipe, try to understand the flavors of the dish, why they work together and figure out how I can simplify it for an easy weeknight meal. That’s what I’ve done with my grandmother’s tau yew bak.
Tau Yew Bak
What next for you? Another book? *fingers crossed*
Cheryl: I’ve started on my second book, which is about women in their thirties. I can’t say more about it right now — but I hope you enjoy it as much as you liked A Tiger in the Kitchen!
It is a tradition around here for me to ask each author I interview to share a little known fact about themselves. (Ie. a hobby, a funny or embarrassing memory), an unusual talent, a trip you have taken, an instrument you played in school, an award you once won…)
Cheryl: I once drove four hours across Sicily (and four hours back) just to have lunch at a restaurant. It was a place that I’d heard of and was terribly curious about but where we were staying (Palermo) was nowhere near it. It didn’t deter me, however — the group of us just piled into two cars and went on this zany, hours-long road trip across the island just to lunch at Ristorante Duomo in Ragusa. It felt a little like we were in The Cannonball Run — but with lunch as the reward. We got very lost on the way back and I remember it being incredibly late at night by the time we made it back to Palermo. But the lunch — so fresh, so inventive — was worth the crazy, exhausting road trip. A good meal, to me, is always worth the extra mile — or, hundreds of miles.
Oh that is a wonderful fact! Thanks so much Cheryl for joining me today! I am so excited about your next book too!
Readers: Please take time to check out Cheryl at her website. Her book A Tiger In The Kitchen was a delight to read and you can see the link to my review below.