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What does it mean to be a woman?

There are days when I struggle with all that is “expected” of me. I wear many hats:  wife, mother, employee, daughter, sister, neighbor, community member, volunteer…the list goes on.

I know that many of us women feel at times that as a result of these expectations to do it all and have it all, whether it’s self-imposed or the outcome of our country’s gender evolution, that we are diluting ourselves and not doing any of it all that well.  (Even now, as I write this, trying to find the time to fit it in, the dishes are piling up in the sink, my son is asking for help with his state report for school, weeds continue to invade my flower beds, and I am thinking that I should get to the gym for even just 30 minutes on the treadmill as it has been four days since I have strapped on the athletic shoes.)

In past generations – and some places in the world still – women didn’t have the choices and the freedoms that we have today in this country. They were taught and expected to maintain all of the “womanly” duties of cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and generally tending to the household. The generation of women that came before me rebelled against that scenario in favor of having careers. The two-income household flourished and a whole generation (which I include myself in) of  “latch-key” kids were born. As women had fewer hours to spend in the kitchen,  “convenience” foods were developed to “help”  busy families.

I grew up eating casseroles, soup can chicken, frozen fish sticks, TV dinners, shake and bake, and potato buds with packaged gravy. Sure, there were times when we would enjoy home-made food, but this was the exception rather than the rule in my house.

Today, as products of the women’s movement,  in this fast-paced, highly connected world, we strive to keep up. And in the process we have lost something. A connection to our past.

Where did those family recipes go? And along with them, so much more than the food itself – it is the stories, the lessons, the history of those who came before us – ties to our family’s cultural and historical roots.

The popularity of urban homesteading today signals that many long to reconnect with the women of yesterday and the domestic arts such as canning, knitting, bread-making and cooking from scratch. As an adult,  I personally have worked very hard at uncovering and preserving some of the traditions and recipes from my family. It’s amazing how even one recipe can have the effect of bringing a family spread across the country (or the world) a little closer to each other and the memories of those who have passed alive again.  (You can read my post about my search for the perfect Norwegian meatball here.)

There is something very powerful about simplifying one’s life and connecting to your family history and culture. One woman made the choice in a very dramatic way to do just that. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, In Style magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, as well as many others, spoke with me recently about her new book, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family ,  in which she shares her experience of leaving her frenetic New York life behind and spending a year traveling back and forth to her first home of Singapore,  “to learn to be a woman – but intent on doing it on my own terms.”

Cheryl was born in Singapore in the Chinese year of the Tiger – a very headstrong and dynamic sign in Chinese astrology. Encouraged by a father who believed she could aspire to great things, Cheryl rebelled against the traditional role of woman and chose to come to the United States to study journalism at Northwestern.

“Singapore is a tiny country in South East Asia that has a vibrant economy and is very modern. It is also a very patriarchal society. The role of woman is that of domestic caregiver, one where you are responsible for taking care of the children and doing all the cooking. Growing up, my instinct was to reject this female role and have a great career.”

But later, as her New York lifestyle became more and more hectic, Cheryl sought the refuge of her kitchen for therapy and taught herself to cook. “Sitting at the computer and writing is not very physical and I found that creating something with your hands – touching butter, marinating a duck, kneading bread dough – was therapeutic in a way. It just transports you for the moment.”  Eventually she decided to try her hand at the  food that she grew up on and missed so much.

She was homesick and longed for the Pineapple tarts that her grandmother used to make for Chinese New Year. “I couldn’t just get the recipe. Many home cooks cook by instinct and they have to show you. I knew that the only way I was going to learn was by rolling up my sleeves and joining my family in Singapore in the cooking. In two days we made 3,000 tarts. I wanted to learn more. They offered to show me. And that was how my journey began.”

In this most wonderfully delicious book, Cheryl tells of how, during the course of one year, she returned home for all of the major festivals, learning to cook many of the traditional dishes from her aunts and mother, and gains so much more. “Food is universal and brings families together. Even if they don’t speak the same language. This story is about the journey – a reclaiming of culture and heritage – told through food. I learned that cooking represented so much more than the cooking itself. It was symbolic.”

Yes, she gained a greater confidence in the kitchen, but more importantly she learned how confidence in the kitchen translates into strength out of it. “I learned a lot about taking risks and being open to possibilities. About being brave. Women are so resilient in dealing with poverty and the stresses of the day. It was inspirational. The women in my family were truly the strong ones. They pulled together in troubled times and fed people.”

In 1950’s Singapore her family was so poor that her grandmother opened a gambling den in her home to help with the family’s finances. In order to keep people there gambling and not leaving when they got hungry, Tanglin Ah-Ma created this recipe (Not in the book but it is Cheryl’s favorite!) so that her guests “could hold the bowl in one hand and gamble with the other.”

Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice

8 servings


  • 1.1 pounds (about 2 3/4 cups) white short-grain rice
  • 1/2 cup vegetable or corn oil
  • 5 ounces (about 5 single-lobe) shallots, minced (a generous 1 cup)
  • 1 3/4 ounces (about 1 1/2 cups) dried Chinese black or shiitake mushrooms, soaked in warm water until softened, then drained, stemmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 11 ounces pork belly, cut into small dice (1 3/4 cups)
  • 80 to 85 grams (1 package; about 2 cups) dried shrimp (hei bi), soaked in warm water until softened, then drained and cut into small pieces
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon monosodium glutamate (optional)
  • 3/4 pound (about 1/2 medium) green cabbage (discolored or wilted outer leaves discarded), shredded and soaked in water until ready to use


Wash the rice in a large bowl of water, then drain. Repeat this process until the fresh water you pour into the bowl no longer becomes cloudy when you stir the rice around in it. Transfer the drained rice to a large rice cooker. Add enough water so it covers the rice by about 3/4 inch. (Do not turn on the rice cooker yet.)

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat the sides. Add the shallots and stir-fry for 8 to 10 minutes, until they’re lightly browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the shallots to a bowl, leaving as much of the oil in the wok as possible.

Add the diced mushrooms to the wok; stir-fry for about 5 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the bowl with the shallots, leaving as much oil in the wok as possible.

Add the diced pork belly to the wok; stir-fry for about 5 minutes or until the pork has browned, then add the drained, chopped dried shrimp; stir-fry for about 3 minutes.

Return the shallots and mushrooms to the mixture in the wok and stir-fry to mix it all up. Stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and add the monosodium glutamate, if desired, then add the cabbage and stir-fry for about a minute, until just wilted. Taste, and add up to 1/2 teaspoon salt, keeping in mind that the mixture will be added to a lot of rice.

Transfer to the rice cooker, stirring to incorporate. Turn on the rice cooker; cook according to the manufacturer’s directions.

When the rice is done, it will be moist, soft and flavorful throughout.

Serve immediately with a spicy Asian chili sauce.

Cheryl will be in Seattle this week and hosting several book signings. You can find her at these events. If you can’t make it out to one of these, you can purchase her book on Amazon.com.

June 10: Reading & Book Signing at The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, 8 p.m.
Reading and signing of A Tiger in the Kitchen at The Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122; 206.624.6600; http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

June 10: Dessert Reception with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan at the Madrona home of Terry Tazioli, host of TVW’s “Author Hour” in Seattle, 9:30 p.m.
Late-night snacks with Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan at a VIP reception immediately after her book reading at Elliott Bay Book Co. In Singapore, midnight snacks are called siew yeh — you’re invited to siew yeh with Cheryl after her reading Friday! You’ll get personalized cooking tips from Cheryl and the New York Fashion Week style forecast straight from the one-time InStyle magazine editor. All attendees will receive a signed copy of a new special recipe designed for Seattle foodies by Cheryl that is not in her book. You’ll also be able to purchase autographed copies of her new book at the reception. It’s all for a great cause. Proceeds from the reception will benefit the Founders Scholarship program for the nonprofit Asian American Journalists Association Seattle Chapter. AAJA members get in for $25. Non-AAJA members pay $40. A big thanks to Elliott Bay Book Co. for its support: It’s donating 10 percent of sales of Cheryl’s book to the Founders Scholarship. Click here to RSVP: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/178923

June 12: Reading & Book Signing at Eagle Harbor Book Co. in Bainbridge Island, Washington, 3 p.m.
Reading and signing of A Tiger in the Kitchen at Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way East, Bainbridge Island, Washington 98110; 206.842.5332; http://www.eagleharborbooks.com/

June 13: Reading & Book Signing at Orca Books in Olympia, Washington, 6 p.m.
Reading and signing of A Tiger in the Kitchen at Orca Books, 509 E. 4th Avenue, Olympia, WA 98501; 360.352.0123; http://www.orcabooks.com/