Gambling Rice: A Grandmother’s Tale

The food of my Singaporean grandmothers has always inspired great yearning in me.

As you’ve probably heard, this yearning was so intense that a few years ago it inspired a journey to rediscover the dishes of my girlhood in Asia, a tale that ended up forming “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

Of all the dishes that I learned to make in my one year of cooking in Singapore, one stands out: Gambling rice. It’s a simple dish of rice cooked with Chinese mushrooms, pork belly, shallots, cabbage and more — one that my late grandmother used to whip together in her kitchen out of sheer necessity.

At a time when my family was mired in poverty, she turned her living room into an illegal gambling den. In order to keep her gamblers at the table, she started cooking for them when they got hungry — and what she made was a convenient one-bowl dish that they could easily eat as they continued to play cards.

I love the story of this dish because it says so much about my grandmother and the smarts, creativity — and business acumen — of this lady. So much that I’ve shared it with just about everyone I’ve talked to about “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”

I’d never talked about this recipe on my own blog, however. So when my Let’s Lunch crew decided on sharing a grandmother’s dish this month to fete the paperback publication of our own Patricia’s “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” — congrats, Pat! — I knew the time had come …

Now, I could tell you the story of how I came to have my Tanglin Ah-Ma’s recipe — but it might be better if you just read the book.

The rice, however, is pretty simple to make — you basically chop up a bunch of stuff, stir-fry it together in phases, dump that all in a rice cooker with uncooked rice, turn it on and wait for it all to be done. It’s that easy.

If you liked this yarn and would like to hear more, I’ll be reading — and signing books — at the Brooklyn Book Festival September 20 and speaking at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival October 5 and 7. (See below for details.)

In the meantime, here’s my grandmother’s recipe below so give it a whirl. As the women in my family always say about most of their dishes — it’s so basic, not special at all. But if done well, I can guarantee it’s pretty darn tasty.

Buon appetito!


Upcoming Events

September 20, 2012: ““New On Tap: Featuring Debut Authors” at Brooklyn Book Festival, 7 p.m.
A showcase of debut poets, novelists and memoirists that features up-and-coming writers, many of whom are New York- or Brooklyn-based. Join these new authors, including Austin LaGrone (Oyster Perpetual), Lauren McClung (Between Here and Monkey Mountain), Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen), Greg Gerke (There’s Something Wrong with Sven) and Hugh Sheehey (The Invisibles), as they read original short work on the theme of “new on tap” to go with the microbrew pub atmosphere. Co-hosted by Debut Lit founder and writer Rebekah Anderson and PitchKnives & Butter Forks bloggers Jason Leahey and Shannon Dunlap. Book signing to follow. Location: Pacific Standard, 82 4thAvenue (between St. Marks Place and Bergen Street), 7 p.m.

October 5, 2012: “Three Chefs Abroad” at Hong Kong International Literary Festival, 3:30 p.m.
A talk by 3 chefs/writers with different backgrounds – one is a Chinese based in New York, one is a Briton who speaks Chinese and the other is an American who learnt sushi-making. How did they end up where they are? What lessons do they have in learning to cook outside their culture? Murray Mackenzie, a professional chef and Education Specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, talks to Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Fuchsia Dunlop and Tracy Griffith from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at THB100, Basement Level 1, School of Hotel & Tourism Management, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Book signing to follow.

October 7, 2012: “The Business of Food Writing” at Hong Kong International Literary Festival, 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
What could possibly be more fascinating or fun than eating? Susan Jung, Senior Food and Wine editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, sits down with Singaporean New Yorker Cheryl Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen, to a feast of discussion about family and food; restaurants and recipes; and how to write about food. Wendy Gan, assistant professor at the School of English at the University of Hong Kong, joins the conversation. Did you always want to be a food critic? Step right up, your table’s waiting. Event is at the Hullett House, 881 Heritage  2A Canton Road, Hong Kong; Register for this event here:


Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ grandmothers’ dishes below! And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or, post a comment below.

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery

Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans

Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words

Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding

Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Grandma Kitty’s Biscuits at A Cook and Her Books

Patricia‘s “Many Grandmas” Asian Pickles at The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I


My Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice

8 servings


  • 1.1 pounds (about 2 3/4 cups) white short-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup vegetable or corn oil
  • 5 ounces (about 5 single-lobe) shallots, minced (a generous 1 cup)
  • 1 3/4 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) dried Chinese black or shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water until softened, then drained, stemmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 11 ounces pork belly, cut into small dice (1 3/4 cups)
  • 80 to 85 grams (1 package; about 2 cups) dried shrimp (hei bi), soaked in warm water until softened, then drained and cut into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon monosodium glutamate (optional)
  • 3/4 pound (about 1/2 medium) green cabbage (discolored or wilted outer leaves discarded), shredded and soaked in water until ready to use


Wash the rice in a large bowl of water, then drain. Repeat this process until the fresh water you pour into the bowl no longer becomes cloudy when you stir the rice around in it. Transfer the drained rice to a large rice cooker. Add enough water so it covers the rice by about 3/4 inch. (Do not turn on the rice cooker yet.)

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the sides. Add the shallots and stir-fry for 8 to 10 minutes, until they’re lightly browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shallots to a bowl, leaving as much of the oil in the wok as possible.

Add the diced mushrooms to the wok; stir-fry for about 5 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the bowl with the shallots, leaving as much oil in the wok as possible.

Add the diced pork belly to the wok; stir-fry for about 5 minutes or until the pork has browned, then add the drained, chopped dried shrimp; stir-fry for about 3 minutes.

Return the shallots and mushrooms to the mixture in the wok and stir-fry to mix it all up. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and add the monosodium glutamate, if desired, then add the cabbage and stir-fry for about a minute, until just wilted. Taste, and add up to 1/2 teaspoon salt, keeping in mind that the mixture will be added to a lot of rice.

Transfer to the rice cooker, stirring to incorporate. Turn on the rice cooker; cook according to the manufacturer’s directions.

When the rice is done, it will be moist, soft and flavorful throughout.

Serve immediately.

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17 thoughts on “Gambling Rice: A Grandmother’s Tale

  1. I remember the story from the book and am excited you posted the recipe! I look forward to retelling the story of your grandmother’s spunk when I make it.

    Do you use MSG a lot? I know many “oldtimers” swear by it but I am curious to know your thoughts on using it.


    • You know, I was horrified to see my aunt use MSG when she taught me the recipe — but she uses just a very small amount of it. I just skip it when I make it because I have a real MSG sensitivity (heart palpitations etc). So, I suppose I am anti-MSG generally! Let me know if you try this — the dried shrimp can make it a little pungent but that just smells of home to me!

  2. Pingback: “Many Grandmas’” Asian Pickles « The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

  3. Pingback: Taiwanese Oyster Omelet | spicebox travels

  4. I do remember wanting to make this when I first read your beautiful book…and now I have no excuse, I can just click and print, stick it on my fridge and now i have dinner for Monday. Sounds DELICIOUS!!

  5. What a delightful story this is, Cheryl, and the dish sounds like it’s perfect for the purpose — luring in those good gamblers with a nice little feast. Your grandma was one crafty lady. :)

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