You know the old saying: it’s better to have loved than have never loved at all.
That’s what I’m feeling now for dishes like Hainan chicken rice and bundles of sticky rice stuffed with meat and vegetables.
But it’s awfully difficult to crave these dishes and not have ready access to them.
You see, last week I read Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s memoir, A Tiger in the Kitchen (Voice, 2011) and found myself rummaging my freezer like a thief in the night for any semblance of a dish she described in her book. Luckily, I found a couple bags of tangyuan, gooey rice balls filled with black sesame or peanut.
Tan’s humorous and hunger-evoking memoir chronicled the year she left her Brooklyn apartment for her family back in Singapore. Tan moved to the US for university at 18 and while she’d been back for visits over the years, she’d never spend any time in the kitchen with her grandmothers, aunts, or mother.
I love how Tan weaves her culinary adventures in Singapore (prompting recollections of my own short vacation in Singapore 16 years ago and Malaysia 20 years ago–both trips full of Hainan chicken rice dinners and lunches) and her Twitter bread bake-off which occurred in the same year.
And as with any successful food memoir, she also adds a touching personal story.
Once she’s back in Singapore, she learns about her late-paternal grandmother’s hard life and her maternal grandmother’s sad marriage. Even Tan’s own father led a complicated life, but after 270 pages, I found him endearing and charming and one of my favorite characters in the book.
Another favorite character is Tan’s husband, Mike. She at first describes him as an American guy who hails from Iowa and enjoys sweet and sour Chinese food. But even his identity is more complex than at first glimpse. He’s patient and supportive of his wife’s many trips to Singapore that year, including an excursion to Tan’s ancestral home in China (another fascinating look into the generational and gender differences between mainland and overseas Chinese).
I wonder how I’d feel if I hadn’t spent time in Asia. Would I crave the food Tan writes about more or less than I do now? In any case, at least I now know to add more chicken fat to my Hainan chicken rice. Hao chi.