When friends in the United States ask about her native Singapore, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan often tells them she misses “the food first and then my family. They think I’m joking.” She assures them she’s not.
She misses the complexity of dishes influenced by Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and European flavors. The availability of seafood and a love of spices, for example, gave birth to chili crab, “a signature Singaporean dish of crab fried in a vermilion, egg-streaked gravy.”
In A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Tan charts her affection for the items she grew up eating. She describes her recent return to Singapore to cook with relatives and to reconnect. She contrasts situations in New York City, where, as a journalist, she always seemed to be on deadline, with adventures abroad alongside her mother, maternal grandmother, and aunts: “I had slowed my life down so I could try to watch, to listen, to learn.”
Tan reminisces about time she spent as a child with her father alone, after her mother and younger sister, Daphne, had gone to sleep. They “huddled over late-night suppers of take-out noodles from Singapore’s hawker stands . . . The slippery fried shrimp noodles we adored came sprinkled with chewy circles of squid. The noodles, wrapped in industrial-strength wax paper, were generally so greasy that the oil penetrated the paper, filling it with dark spots. I always looked forward to the moment when we would carefully peel back the wax paper and steam would rise, fogging up our glasses.” It is a touching and evocative scene.
Over meals like these, she heard about her father’s personal history and the pressures he occasionally faced. She learned of his work. They talked politics, sports, and economics, too. He encouraged her ambitions, giving her the drive and confidence to leave home at 18 to attend college in America.
With humor and humility, Tan also recalls cooking lessons she received more recently from females in her extended family. She spent afternoons in their kitchens in Singapore making pineapple tarts, for example, the way her paternal grandmother made them decades earlier for Chinese New Year. The tarts are small buttery shortbread cookies topped with a sweet, dense pineapple jam.
She sat anxiously with a camera and a notebook, she says, thinking it would be the best way to capture every detail. In the end, however, consistent and exact measurements proved elusive. The women around her worked quickly and instinctively.
While Singapore had been home to Tan, a place linked inextricably to her past, the Middle East becomes a new sort of home to Annia Ciezadlo. In Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War, the New York City reporter shares her recent experiences living and working in Baghdad and Beirut. She describes the ways in which eating and cooking helped to settle her there.
Ciezadlo talks about the meals she had in Queens with her Lebanese husband, Mohamad, also a journalist, early in their courtship. They ordered baba ghanouj, for example, and stuffed grape leaves, something her Greek grandmother in Chicago used to make, something his mother in the Middle East still makes.
At his favorite neighborhood restaurant, they had “bolani kashalu, crisp oily little turnovers packed with soft potatoes and herbs and blistered brown on the outside.” They had “banjan burani, charred, buttery eggplant slices buried under yogurt sprinkled with dried mint.” They had chicken kebabs, basmati rice, and grilled Afghan bread.
She writes of the couple’s move overseas after he becomes chief of Newsday’s Middle East bureau, and of their stays in Iraq and Lebanon. In unfamiliar locations, Ciezadlo says, she defaults to food.
“Some people construct work spaces when they travel, lining up their papers with care, stacking their books on the table, taping family pictures to the mirror. When I’m in a strange new city and feeling rootless, I cook. No matter how inhospitable the room or the streets outside, I construct a little field kitchen.”
In Baghdad, for example, Ciezadlo plugged a hot plate into an electrical outlet in the hallway of their hotel. She shopped in local markets and prepared whatever she could find: green almonds, black figs, chicken. She cooked, she says, “to comprehend the place I’ve landed in, to touch and feel and take in the raw materials of my new surroundings . . . [and] for that oldest of reasons: to banish loneliness, homesickness, the persistent feeling that I don’t belong in a place.”
In terrific, deeply affecting prose, she speaks to the inherent pleasures of food and the necessities that transcend geography.
Ciezadlo met her in-laws in Beirut, too. She was tense in the beginning, fearful perhaps of what they might think, but soon realized she needn’t be. Mohamad’s mother, Umm Hassane, welcomed her with a large pot of zucchini stew. “The whole place smelled like garlic, beef stock, simmering vegetables, and lemons; to me, it smelled like home.” She knew everything would eventually be all right.
Whether returning home to reconnect or venturing forth to strengthen bonds, whether in New York City or Singapore, Baghdad or Beirut, Tan and Ciezadlo celebrate the value of eating and cooking in their lives. They honor the role food plays in relation to family, the one they are born to as well as the one they marry into. They recognize what’s important.
Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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