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 …

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Taste Good: A True Thing


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Years ago, as a freshman at Northwestern University, I used to trek to the computer lab after classes to log onto a Web site and stare longingly at pictures of Singaporean food that someone out in the ether had taken the care to post.

I'm ashamed to mention how long ago this was, exactly — let's just say that this was the first year the university handed out email addresses to incoming freshmen and well, that this "Internet" thing was still new-fangled.

I've never forgotten the kindness of the person — whom I've never known — who put up that rudimentary site filled with pictures of dishes I desperately missed. The photos became my lifeline during that first bone-chilling Chicago winter — and I would spend the next 10-plus years looking for good versions of Singaporean chicken rice or spicy beef rendang in Southeast Asian restaurants across America.

After years of looking, I've finally found a place that I can whole-heartedly say is authentic: Taste Good in Elmhurst, New York. (And I'm not the only one who thinks so — the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations often uses the restaurant to cater its events.) I won't go into all the details here — you'll have to check out my piece on the meal and my quest in the Atlantic Food Channel today — but I wanted to pay a little homage to that anonymous person who saved my sanity all those years ago.

So here's a little visual montage. Whoever and wherever you are, I hope you enjoy these pictures …

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Pineapple Tarts: The Start Of The Journey


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In the beginning, there were pineapple tarts.

These buttery, crumbly, bite-sized marvels bewitched me as a child in Singapore. My paternal grandmother made the best ones, of course — every Chinese new year, she would hit the kitchen to churn out her tarts, pushing me to eat as many as I wanted as we sat in her living room, unhurriedly passing time.

I never learned to make my grandmother’s tarts as a child, unfortunately.

When I was 11, she died. And the chance for her to teach me anything suddenly vanished.

After many years of mourning this lost opportunity, I traveled back to Singapore in early 2009 to learn how to make these tarts from my aunts. My grandmother had taught them how to bake the tarts when she was alive and they were now the keepers of her prized recipe, which I’ve included below.

The experience was enlightening — but it also generated a spark. I now knew how to make the tarts of my grandmother, a legendary cook in our family and to all she knew.

But still, I wanted more.

Thus began a journey of discovery — one that would take place in the kitchens of my Singapore family. Over the next lunar calendar year, the women of my family would gather over hot stoves to laugh, tell stories, shake our heads and, above all else, cook.

The story of my journey will be shared very soon. (Hyperion’s Voice is publishing “A Tiger In The Kitchen” in January 2011.)

But first, it must be written — and so I must bow out of this blog for a while. Seven weeks, to be exact. (Special thanks to Yaddo, the artists’ colony, for generously offering me a nook in the woods to think and create.)

I hope you’ll forgive this absence, but you must admit, it’s for a rather good reason. 

When I return in late April, I’ll be looking for all of you. My year of cooking in Singapore is over but the journey continues here. And I hope you’ll be coming along with me.

Until then, buon appetito and enjoy …

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Indian Chicken Curry: A Grandmother’s Recipe


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A few weeks ago, I found myself on the phone, frantically shuttling between calls to my aunt and my grandmother, trying to jolt their memories and nail down the ingredients we needed for my Singapore family’s take on chicken curry.

As the calls got more confusing and the ingredient list grew more nebulous, my friend Basil, a Singaporean of Indian ethnicity, sat nearby, listening in with an increasingly incredulous look.

“You’re sitting next to an Indian,” he finally said, “and you’re not asking him how he makes his curry?”

A very good point.

It turns out Basil, better known to his friends as the hard-to-miss, gregarious guy at any bar that he frequents, also knows how to cook. He learned 20 years ago in his grandmother’s kitchen, when he was drafted as a teenager to help her after she’d lost a leg to diabetes. “She would park her wheelchair at the entrance to the kitchen and bark out instructions to me,” he said.

Well, her lessons must have stuck because Basil then proved that he could rattle off her curry instructions as quickly and surely as he can list the latest Manchester United stats.

The moment I got back to my Brooklyn kitchen, I knew I had to try it.

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Top 10: The Memorable Eats Of 2009


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You know it’s been a good year when you are able to say this: 2009 was when I began to eat for a living.

I’d always been a devotee of affairs of the stomach. I may have written about fashion and other lifestyle areas for a living but baking, braising, trying new recipes, eating out — those were what consumed me when weekends rolled around. 

Luck has its ways of finding you, however. Now, on the precipice of 2010, I’m beginning to close out a lunar calendar year of cooking and eating with my family in Singapore as research for my book, “A Tiger In The Kitchen.” 

My journey so far has taken me many places – France, where I had the loveliest gingery champagne cocktail with friends old and dear; China, where my father and I went in search of my great-grandfather’s footprints in the village of his birth. And, of course, Singapore, where my aunties and maternal grandmother have been plying me with meals, recipes and much, much love along the way.

With all that I’ve packed into 2009, it’s hard to decide what the highlights have been. But, inspired by some stellar Top 10 gastronomic lists out there (definitely check out Sam Sifton’s list of Top 11 dishes in New York in the New York Times), I decided to give it a go.

Here, in no particular order, are my 10 memorable eats of 2009. 

Enjoy, buon appetito and listen, let’s do this again in 2010 …

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