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Author Interview: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Last Friday, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, author of A Tiger in the Kitchen, came to the Grotto for lunch. I had the privilege of interviewing her both on video and in person. Here is the in-person interview.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York City-based food and fashion writer whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times,InStyle, Marie Claire, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Family Circle, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and many other outlets. She is a regular contributor to the Atlantic Food Channel. Born and raised in Singapore, Tan graduated from Northwestern University and completed two residencies at Yaddo, the artists’ colony. A Tiger in the Kitchen is her first book.

Writerland: In A Tiger in the Kitchen, you write about the Singaporean tradition of the groom “buying” his bride with cash handed over in a red envelope. As a modern woman who lives in the United States and who stayed out of the kitchen as a child in order to pursue an education and a career, how did you feel engaging in this tradition?

CT: When I got married, I chose to do it because it’s a nice little nod to the past but you’re doing it in an ironic way. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t encourage her or discourage her from doing it. I just thought it was a fun way to acknowledge that this used to happen. And the way it’s done these days, it’s a way to stick it to the guys. They have to do a lot of tasks and eat strange things. The symbolism in it is kind of funny.

Writerland: Although the World Health Organization has placed MSG in the “safest” food category, Chinese restaurants in California boast “no MSG” on their menus because of its association with health risks. Many of your family’s recipes include monosodium glutamate. Tanglin Ah-Ma’s OTAK is one example. How do you feel about cooking with MSG and publishing a family recipe that includes it?

CT: I don’t cook with MSG, but I acknowledge that some people use it, and I wanted the recipes to be as authentic as possible. If my aunt said she uses it, I mention that it’s optional. I think the flavors of the dishes do stand up on their own.

Writerland: In A Tiger in the Kitchen, you divulge many of your family’s secrets—everything from an opium-addicted great-grandfather to a gambling grandfather to a father who married a woman half his age. Did you have reservations about revealing those details to the public? Did the fact that your family lives in Singapore, not in the United States where your book was published, play a role?

CT: I did have a lot of reservations because my family is a little bit traditional and very Asian, so they’re very private. But I feel that a lot of time it’s worries like that that hinder Asian and Asian-American writers from writing about touchy subjects. If every Asian writer didn’t write about something because they were worried about upsetting their parents, there wouldn’t be enough documentation about Asian and Asian-American experiences today. So I felt it was important to do it. It was a book about loving them, really, and appreciating everything that they’ve gone through. In order for the reader to know that, you have to mention the bad stuff as well as the good.

Writerland: Have the members of your family read your book? What did they think about the family history you reveal?

My dad was the first person to read the book. It was interesting because Id learned all these painful stories about his dad and his family and interviewed his siblings about it. He said that he had never talked to his sister about these things and didn’t know how she felt until he read the book. I got a letter from an uncle the other day who is normally rather reticent. He lives with my grandmother, and he said that the book made him appreciate my grandmother more and that it was a reminder for him to be nice to her. He said whenever he needs a reminder of that, he’ll know where to look.

Writerland: What gave you the idea to interweave your journey to learn to cook your family’s recipes with the discovery of your family’s history? Was that your intent when you set out to write the book?

CT: I’d always been curious about my family history, and in the end, food was a way to extract those stories. When you’re sitting around for an hour waiting for something to steam, you’re going to chitchat, and that’s a great time to ask questions.

Writerland: While writing A Tiger in the Kitchen, did you find yourself trying to impose a story arc onto the text?

CT: The only time I felt that was when setting out to do this in a lunar calendar year and to hit all the major festivals. I didn’t want the research to drag on forever. And it could. When I got back home, my relatives said, “Oh, you didn’t ever learn to make this.” If I hadn’t had that self-imposed deadline, I could still be researching this book right now.

Writerland: You have a blog called A Tiger in the Kitchen. What role have your blog and other social media played in your journey to get published?

CT: I started the blog around the time I started researching the book. I’d never really written about food before, and it was a way for me to experiment writing about food and find my food-writing voice. Writing about hemlines is very different from writing about ham steaks. It was a way for me to experiment and have fun. And as I was researching the book, I was gathering a lot of information, learning about food and hawker stands and recipes that probably wouldn’t make it into the book. This was a way for me to get it all down and share it with future readers.

Writerland: Were you cautious about what you put on line?

CT: I was. I didn’t want people to buy the book and feel like they’d already read it. And I don’t think that’s the case. The blog is about short snippets of eating out, cooking, and experimenting with recipes, but not about the journey of learning about my family and myself.

Writerland: What social media advice you have for readers?

CT: Start a blog. It’s way to engage people, to experiment with writing, to engage with it, and to get to know your reader before your book comes out. And tweet. If your book is about food, get to know other food writers through tweeting. Through tweeting, through Facebook, and through my blog, I got to know a lot of food writers. The day my book came out, about 15-20 bloggers did a Share Your Family Recipe on Your Blog day. They shared a family recipe and mentioned my book, and some of them put the cover of my book on there, too. But you shouldn’t do it if you hate doing it. If you do it grudgingly, you’re not going to get very many fans on Twitter.

Did you start tweeting at the same time you started blogging?

CT: I was on Twitter first because I had to tweet for my old job as a fashion writer. The blog and the book happened at the same time, and as the blog got more readers, I started a Facebook page for the book. It was a great way to post news about my readings. I just met a few food bloggers at my reading yesterday with whom I’d been tweeting, and it was great to meet them.

Writerland: How has the success of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother affected the success of your book?

CT: It’s been great to be part of the round-ups of the tiger books. NPR did one, the Houston Chronicle did one. My book was mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. That’s been great, but I don’t want my book to be mistaken for the other book, which I think some people have done. When my friends have posted about the book, I’ve seen comments where people say, “Oh, I don’t want to buy that Tiger Mother book,” and my friends have to explain, “No, it’s not that book.” So it’s good, and it’s not so good.

Writerland: Between flights to Singapore to learn how to cook your family’s recipes, you were also baking your way through Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. How did those two trajectories relate to one another?

CT: That was something I wasn’t sure I would write about in the book, but it was something that was happening at the same time. I love to bake, and I was on Twitter, and I saw this [call to people to bake every recipe in The Bread Baker’s Apprentice] on Twitter and decided to do it. As the year progressed, I noticed my approach to being in the kitchen changing manifested in the bead baking. I was becoming more confident in the kitchen from my trips to Singapore. It was a way that I could see some of the results of my cooking lessons in Singapore back in New York.

After being laid off from your Wall Street Journal job as a fashion writer, you embarked on a year of cooking lessons in Singapore and the writing of this book. You said in an interview that you hope to master traditional Italian cooking someday. Will that be one of your future books?

CT: I hope so. It would be a dream to move to Italy and learn how to farm and to learn how to bake fantastic bread and pastries. That would be dreamy. I love the connection between Italian and Chinese cooking that pasta represents. But I’m also fascinated by Italian agriculture like Sicilian blood oranges and olive trees.

Writerland: What advice do you have for unpublished authors seeking publication?

CT: Get a good agent. That will be the most important decision you’ll make in your career. Don’t just go with the first person you meet. Meet as many as you can. It’s just like dating. You should like that person as much as that person likes you. It’ll be a relationship you’ll have for a long time, so you want to make sure it’s a good fit and that you’re with someone you trust.

Writerland: How do you recommend going about finding an agent?

CT: I would ask everyone you know and would they make an introduction? It’s a great way to meet agents. I said to one agent, “You must get a lot of manuscripts sent to you. What percentage of people who e-mail you get to have a meeting with you?” She said 5 percent. If you e-mail someone, you may not get a good result, but if you have someone introduce you, that’s great.

Writerland: How do you think the growing popularity of the e-book will affect the publishing industry? How has it already affected the publishing industry?

CT: The numbers are crazy, but this reality is all I’ve known. A lot of my friends have bought the e-version. As long as people read it and like it, that makes me happy. But I’ll always love an actual book you can hold. I’m old-fashioned that way. I love seeing books on a bookshelf, and I’m hoping people will always love that and that actual books will always be around.

Writerland: What’s your next project?

CT: I’ve started working on my second book. It’s a book about women in their 30s, and that’s all I can say or my agent will smack me.

Writerland: What about cooking? What are you cooking at home?

CT: I still do a lot of pastas. I love to make Bolognese. I tried Heston Blumenthal’s recipe and it took twelve hours, but it was worth it. It was melt-in-your-mouth good. I make a lot of Italian at home. My husband grew up in Iowa, so he loves to have sloppy joes or pancakes for dinner, so we do a lot of that, too.

You can follow Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan on Twitter @cheryltan88.

34 comments to Author Interview: Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

  • Loved what Cheryl had to say! As an Asian American, I could particularly identify with this:

    "I did have a lot of reservations because my family is a little bit traditional and very Asian, so they’re very private. But I feel that a lot of time it’s worries like that that hinder Asian and Asian-American writers from writing about touchy subjects. If every Asian writer didn’t write about something because they were worried about upsetting their parents, there wouldn’t be enough documentation about Asian and Asian-American experiences today. So I felt it was important to do it. It was a book about loving them, really, and appreciating everything that they’ve gone through. In order for the reader to know that, you have to mention the bad stuff as well as the good."

    (Sorry for the long quote, but I loved all of it.) Thanks to both of you for this great interview.

  • Thanks for your comment, Kristan! Cheryl is lovely, and I'm so glad I got to meet her while she was in town on her book tour. I also think that what she said in that quote could apply to all of us writing memoir.

  • This was a fabulous interview! Meghan, you asked everything I wanted to know and I really loved reading about what her family did after she wrote the book. This was great. And you've introduced me to an author and book I wouldn't have known about. Thanks!

  • Thanks, Sierra and thank you Cheryl, for such a great interview. I still haven't posted the video of our lunch together. ARGH! I am very slow at editing videos!

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