In the middle of a cold, gray New York City winter two years ago, I suddenly found myself thinking about my late grandmother.
This was a woman I had barely known as a child in Singapore. A slender, bird-like lady who spoke nothing but Teochew, the Chinese dialect of my ancestors, the woman I called Tanglin Ah-Ma found it hard to have meaningful conversations with this Westernized, English-speaking granddaughter. Still, we found a way to communicate: Each time I went to her home, food would be set out. Delicious braised duck, gently slow-cooked in a heady mixture of dark soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon and filled with plump cubes of tofu and hard-boiled eggs; umami-packed salted vegetable soup and, at Chinese new year, pineapple tarts, a tiny buttery wonder of a cookie that comprises a shortbread base topped with sweet pineapple jam.
I always thought I’d ask Tanglin Ah-Ma to teach me to make these dishes someday — but when I was 11, she passed away.
Decades later in New York, I realized with deep regret that I had no idea how to make any of these dishes I’d grown up loving. And so I went on a journey, traveling from faraway New York to the country of my birth. Over the next year, the women in my family welcomed me into their kitchens — over many sweltering afternoons, my aunties, my maternal grandmother and my mother gently and gracefully guided me through the foods of my youth, of our shared history. It is a year that is priceless to me because of the stories they told as well as the recipes they generously shared.
I would go into it more but, as you may have heard on this blog, I have a little news to share today. “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family,” which chronicles my year of learning about my family — and myself — by cooking with them, hits bookstores today. Everything I learned and loved about that magical year is in there — and I do hope you enjoy it. (I’ve also invited several friends to share a treasured family recipe on their blogs today — be sure to scroll down to check out their offerings, ranging from author friend Camille’s grandmother’s zucchini souffle and Phyl’s Nanny Faye’s Hungarian goulash to Victor’s mom’s pad thai.)
Just because my year in Singapore is over, however, it doesn’t mean that the quest to collect my family’s recipes has ended. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, after all. And so during a recent visit to Singapore, when an auntie I only recently got to know mentioned that hei zho, a deep-fried prawn roll that’s Fukienese in origin, is one of her specialties, I found myself instinctively reaching for my notepad. The camera came out; a pen was located.
Auntie Alice beckoned me into the kitchen, and the journey continued …