Review of Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's 'A Tiger in the Kitchen'

June 15, 2011


When I was younger, my mother used to make a very simple dish when she was too tired to cook: stir-fried tomatoes with eggs, sometimes served with thick, starchy noodles, sometimes with plain white rice. Even though it was a quick and easy dish, to me it was a delicacy. Mildly acidic, just a little bit sweet, with a hearty amount of scrambled eggs, it exemplified comfort food at my Chinese American dinner table. It was more than just a meal: it was the warmth of home.

In A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Singaporean expat Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan similarly uses food as a vehicle to navigate the often complicated relationships that Asian Americans and Asian immigrants often form with regard to broader ideas of family and home. Despite her complete lack of knowledge of the kitchen, Tan sets out on a mission to master the beloved Singaporean dishes of her late paternal grandmother, who was nicknamed "Tanglin Ah-Ma" after the Singapore neighborhood she lived in. Along the way, Tan unravels her family’s forgotten histories and the complexities of her own identity.

As the firstborn child, Tan was raised to strive for opportunities outside the domestic confines traditionally expected of women. Placing her education and, later, her career at the top of her priorities, Tan never considered learning to cook to be an important responsibility. Nor was it a major concern for her family: “Mum and her two sisters were a rambunctious lot for whom learning skills that would make them more marriageable (like cooking) was low on the list of priorities. […] Their independent streaks would eventually land them successful husbands who could afford maids to do the bulk of the cooking.”

When unexpected events in Tan’s life -- the loss of her job, her father’s minor stroke -- led her to reconsider the significance of home and family, she reached out to her aunties Khar Imm, Leng Eng, Khar Moi, and Alice, her maternal Ah-Ma, and a bevy of other friends and relatives in a quest to dominate the stovetop. Her journey takes her from her tiny New York kitchen to Singapore, her childhood home, through Shantou, China, the land of her ancestors, and even to a pit stop in Hawaii, the home of her Korean mother-in-law.

The heart of the story lies in Singapore. In the context of Tan’s quest to explore food and the domesticity of the kitchen, the city itself and its colonial history add a complex layer to the idea of ethnic identity. For example, Tan’s sprinkling of Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, and Malay words and phrases throughout the narrative suggests a mixing of diverse communities and adds a certain cultural tension. “My inability to speak any Teochew, the Chinese dialect that [Tanglin Ah-Ma] 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,” Tan recalls.

Author Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

The recipes, too, examine the idea of cultural heritage in a nation whose history is marked by immigration and colonialism. With influences from various Chinese traditions, native Malay ingredients, and even Indian imports, Singaporean cuisine is a unique mixture both familiar and exotic to me, as an ethnic Chinese. My mouth watered at the bak-zhang Tan learns to make as I was reminded of the zongzi I too grew up eating. I tried to imagine what Ah-Ma’s kaya must taste like (which proved difficult as I am completely unfamiliar with the flavor of pandan leaves, an apparently essential Singaporean ingredient).

Tan’s New York apartment plays an important background role in the narrative as well. Punctuating her forays into Singaporean cooking, Tan concurrently takes on a bread baking challenge in the States, allowing her to indulge in cinnamon rolls and homemade bagels. The dichotomy between carefully measured baking and the agak-agak (a Malay term meaning to guess) philosophy of her aunties plays out spectacularly in a failed attempt at making ciabatta that nearly burns her kitchen down. “I’d been instructed by my Singaporean aunties to live by agak-agak and have faith in my own eyeballing. But baking was a completely different thing.” Though she initially considers the two to be diametrically opposed, she later learns that Singaporean agak-agak and Western precision are, in fact, complementary skills.

Tan’s prose is conversational and frank, adding explanation when necessary to translate foreign words and concepts. Often self-deprecatory, Tan communicates her own frustrations with her inability to cook with a personable sense of humor. Her vividly sensory descriptions of the smells of the kitchen also manage to induce sudden salivation and hunger pangs without dipping into heavy-handed metaphor.

When I moved out from home to go to college, I constantly attempted to recreate my mother’s tomatoes and egg, to the extent that it’s even become infamous among my non-Chinese friends. No matter how many variations I tried, I never got it quite right, even after researching recipes online and asking my mother herself for her technique. Like Tan’s aunties and their agak-agak, my mother is not always helpful when trying to explain how to cook. “Put a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” Though I used to be frustrated with the guesswork involved in trying to decipher her recipes, I understand now that it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it perfect. “I realized that the point hadn’t truly ever been the food,” Tan concludes, and I agree. 

Eric Zhang has a background in Asian American studies, art, and visual culture. He currently lives in New York, where he works at NYU and MOCA.