Making Popiah

Cheryl Tan learns to make Popiah with chef Simpson Wong. (Handout photo / March 30, 2011)

It's the Year of the Tiger — not according to the Chinese lunar calendar, but in the world of publishing.

"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua has made waves with an account of super-striving Chinese parenting. "The Tiger's Wife," a first novel by Tea Obreht, appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review this month. And now there's "A Tiger in the Kitchen," Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's account of returning to her native Singapore to learn cooking, family history and a bit about herself.

The coincidence is a little amusing to Tan, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, but also a little troublesome. Having your "Memoir of Food and Family" confused with the better known, but widely reviled "Tiger Mother," whose extremely strict parenting style has drawn comparisons to child abuse, has its downside.

"I had a few friends post my Amazon link, and, 'Oh, no, I hate that book! That woman sounds crazy.' And they have to explain, 'No it's not the Tiger Mother book,'" Tan said, speaking by phone from her home in New York.

Tan, who comes to Baltimore on Thursday for a 6 p.m. reading and book signing at Red Canoe Bookstore & Cafe (4337 Harford Road), is a very different sort of tiger than that maternal enforcer of obedience and discipline.

"The tiger symbol has always been of rebellion, aggression, pushing the boundaries," said Tan, who is thought to embody those traits because she was born in the Year of the Tiger. She used her tiger qualities first in the world of journalism, then in an unlikely yearlong cooking quest.

That quest was inspired by a craving for a particular childhood treat, the pineapple tarts her grandmother used to make, and for Singapore cuisine in general. The fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavors is hard to find in the United States, in part because relatively wealthy and well-educated Singaporeans have not gone the way of so many other immigrant groups, starting out in America doing restaurant work with the hope of sending the next generation to college. Singaporeans often come to the states to attend college or go straight into white-collar professions.

"The Singaporeans who move overseas tend not to open restaurants," Tan said. "They tend to go overseas and go into finance or be doctors."

She added: "Who knows, maybe the next generation will want to be the Singaporean Thomas Keller?"

Though it is traditional for women to learn to cook in Singapore, Tan never spent much time in the kitchen before moving to the United States to attend Northwestern University.

"I really started very slowly, Shake 'N Bake and Campbell's soup recipes," said Tan, 36. "I love fried chicken, so I started trying fried chicken. When it came to food I grew up eating, it was very intimidating."

But in her 30s, she got a hankering for the buttery, pineapple jam-filled tarts that her paternal grandmother used to whip up for Chinese New Year. She traveled to Singapore to learn how to make them herself.

Tan's grandmother died when she was 11, so she turned to a group of "aunties" to school her. Over the course of a weekend, she picked up bits of family history, along with instructions for mixing, kneading and shaping dough. She wrote about that experience in January 2009 in The Wall Street Journal, where she then covered fashion.

"I got this flood of responses from readers," Tan said. "I was surprised at the time. This is a very Asian story. … A lot of them weren't from Asian people."

She heard from readers still pining for grandma's sugar cookies, or the sloppy Joes they devoured as kids. The response led her to two conclusions. One: "Everybody has this kind of thing in their lives, that yearning for that childhood dish." And two: There might be a book here.

Tan met with a book editor in New York, who was interested. But when the editor asked how long a sabbatical Tan could take from the Journal for more traveling and cooking in Singapore, Tan figured she was at a dead end.

"I was very disappointed," Tan said. "There was no way I could ask for sabbatical."

Two days later, amid great turmoil in the newspaper industry, Tan was laid off.

"My first thought was, 'This is terrible,'" Tan said. "And my second thought was, 'Now I can do this book.' … I feel very fortunate. Everything happened very seamlessly."