updated 28 Oct 2011, 14:28
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Tue, Oct 25, 2011
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Lessons from a food-loving Tiger
by Sarah Chang

An intense longing for the taste of her ah ma's (grandmother's) pineapple tarts was what propelled a prodigal daughter who had lived in New York for 15 years to make extended trips back home in 2009.

Having left Singapore at age 18 to study, author Cheryl Lu- Lien Tan subsequently launched a successful career as a fashion writer for The Wall Street Journal.

And her book about her journey home, titled A Tiger In The Kitchen - billed as a memoir of family and food and which brought her home for a year to cook, eat and write - has won rave reviews around the world.

In an interview with my paper, the affable New York-based writer, now aged 36 and who is married to a fellow journalist, expressed surprise that the book has been such a hit.

"You wouldn't think that a book so specifically about Singapore - some people I meet still think it's in China - would be so well-received," said Tan, who was born in the Year of the Tiger (hence the book's title) to a former air stewardess and a business consultant.

Tan, who is visiting Singapore to be part of the Singapore Writers Festival and for book signings, chatted with my paper about food, family and identity.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

When I was growing up, I was pretty much raised like a boy. I was never encouraged to learn how to cook or clean.

So, when I moved to the United States 15 years ago, I had no idea how to make any of the dishes I grew up eating. The longer I lived there, the more I thought about home. While I missed my family, it was really the food and the family feasts we used to have that I thought of.

So, I came back to Singapore two years ago during Chinese New Year to learn how to make my paternal grandmother's pineapple tarts. She died when I was 11, but my family still makes them every year.

Do you feel that writing this book has bridged the gap between two generations?

Yes, cooking was something that I had never done at all with my family. Just being in the kitchen with them and letting my aunts know that I was ready to learn definitely brought us closer.

Do you identify with the Singapore culture, despite living in America?

I do see myself as a Singaporean, first and foremost. I talk about Singapore a lot. When my mother calls me, I switch to Singlish automatically. I'm always telling my friends about Singaporean food and the things to eat.

I do try to cook and make Singaporean dishes, too. That's how I hang on to (my culture) when I'm overseas.

Have you put the recipes you learnt to good use at home in New York?

I learnt many lessons in the kitchen in the year that I was back. Confidence was one of them. The lessons I learnt concerning agak-agak (a colloquial term to mean "to estimate"), and trusting your instincts are applicable outside the kitchen.

Now, I try to apply those in life. I try to be a little less uptight, and just take life as it comes, just agak-agak.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan will appear at the sold-out session of Literary Meals: Eat Your Words at the Singapore Writers Festival tonight at 7.30pm.

Catch her at book-signing sessions at Kinokuniya on Saturday at 2pm and at Littered with Books at 4pm; and at Prologue on Sunday at 2pm.

For more stories on Tan, visit

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