I had every intention to write about avocados this week, but we are in the midst of another multi-day rainstorm, making avocado toasts with pickled onion a lot less appealing than a piping hot bowl of chicken soup.
I’ve been struck, as well, with a craving for comfort food from home, after finishing the 300 pages of A Tiger In The Kitchen, a memoir about one Singaporean’s year-long journey to learn her family’s time-honored recipes.
Finishing the novel in just under a week is no small feat as I take pride in having mastered the art of the half-read novel. I start, stop, forget about it for a few weeks, pick it up again, read a few more chapters, only to forget again and rediscover it a year later. Fortunately for the many authors out there, there have been some anomalies in recent book-reading history, like Eat, Pray, Love, Zeitoun and Medium Raw, all of Haruki Murakami‘s novels and now, A Tiger In The Kitchen.
Written by our Let’s Lunch ringleader, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, the book is honest, witty and poignant without the cliches of sentimentality that often wind its way into this genre. Spanning one Chinese New Year to the next, Tan’s journey is filled with social pressures (as she fends off numerous questions about starting a family), memorable kitchen adventures (like the time she almost burned down her Brooklyn kitchen) and insights in the intricacies of family relationships and unspoken secrets. Food is the vehicle that brings a fractured family together, showing Tan other facets of her identity and sense of self.
It’s also a platform to bring out other aspects of Singapore’s culture, as food underlies the structure of social interactions. The Chinese wedding ritual where her cousin’s groom and his groomsmen were tasked to consume less-than-appetizing “medicinal” tonics (seahorse and salted bug soup, anyone?) is a familiar story, as is her family’s directive to “agak-agak” (a Malay phrase meaning “to guess”) in response to the finer details of the cooking process: How much sugar to add to the pineapple jam? How long should one fry the chili paste? For any Singaporean looking to learn their family’s recipes, “agak-agak” is a common, if frustrating, refrain.
These stories left me feeling like I was catching up with an old friend, given the context, the schools, the attitudes and turns of phrase, all intimately familiar even though I’ve only known the author for the past two years.
Honestly, I’m not Singapore’s biggest fan. As a culture, we’re built to be the perfect economic resource, but not the most imaginative ones. Being a small city state, there is a limited range of activities one can engage in outside of work, shopping and domestic chores. The materialism absolutely floors me – made even more glaring now that we’re living in a suburb – as do the emphasis on collecting markers of social status: designer bags, credit cards, cars and property.
And yet, when I hear of another Singaporean making his/her mark on the world map – especially in creative fields – there’s a distinct sense of pride. Like this LA-based singer for instance, or this Chinese pop star.
For a country obsessed with economic growth, winning every single award there is to be won and staying ahead of its region, Tan’s book is an important piece of work. In a society engineered to always look ahead and stay competitive, the immaterial but essential qualities of its uniqueness are the first to be left behind. And the sad thing about it is that no one realizes the value of it until it’s gone – whether by moving out of the familiar bubble of home, friends and family, or washed away by the tides of ‘progress’. This book speaks to the importance of cultural anthropology, of preserving a piece of our identities.
A word of caution though: you don’t want to read this book on an empty stomach. The vivid descriptions of pork dumplings, pineapple tarts and chicken curry are a force to be reckoned with.
This was a ‘default’ lunch/dinner soup that my mother would prepare for a quick weekday meal. Cooked first thing in the morning, it had the time to sit and develop its flavors by the time I got home from school. The light broth, made substantial with the addition of potatoes, sweetened by carrots, made this a perennial favorite, regardless of the weather. You’ll want to use dark meat for this soup as the bones will produce a rich, flavorful stock. If using breast meat too, add them only in the last stage of cooking. As with any soup or stew, the flavors will deepen the longer it sits.
- 3-4 lbs (1.5-2 kg) chicken thighs and wings, or a whole chicken, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 10 pieces
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 large carrots, scrubbed and diced
- 1 lb (450g) potatoes, scrubbed and diced
- 1 medium red onion, roughly chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 10 cups water
- 2 tablespoons peppercorns
- Salt, to taste
- In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil and brown the chicken pieces over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Remove the chicken, reserving the oil, and set aside.
- Add the onions and cook until translucent, then add the potatoes and carrots, stirring to prevent the vegetables from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
- After 3 minutes, add the reserved chicken pieces (bone-in only), bay leaves and peppercorns. Add enough water to cover all the ingredients. Turn to heat to high, bring the pot to a boil, then turn it down to low heat and simmer, covered, for an hour.
- Turn off the heat and add the breast meat (if using), and let the soup sit for at least another hour before serving.
- Season to taste and serve piping hot on its own or with rice or bread.