When you are known for your appetite and have spent some months on the road, taking the gospel of Tiger cookery through cities from far west Seattle to down south Atlanta, people invariably want to know: What was the best meal you had?
I have been incredibly well-fed, that is true. There was an unforgettable meal at Thistle, a quaint hyper-locavore place in McMinnville, Oregon, where some of the produce on our table that evening came from a co-owner’s mother’s garden nearby. In Seattle, there was the discovery of a superb rendition of New York-style pizza at food blogger Molly Wizenberg’s Delancey. And then there was the restaurant that made me consider packing up and moving to Houston just so I could eat there every week: El Real Tex Mex, where the ethereal refried beans, crunchy puffy tacos and stacked enchiladas share a sacred secret ingredient: lard, which the kitchen itself renders from heritage pigs.
The meal that stands far above all others, however, didn’t occur in a restaurant of great repute or one of the must-try scenes of any city I’ve visited. Rather, it took place in a darling little bookstore in St. Charles, Ill., a town 40 miles west of Chicago that’s perched by a pretty river. At Town House Books, owners Doug and Dave set out to not just host a reading for “A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family.” No, they were determined to truly bring the book to life.
And so it was that just a few days before my June reading there, I got a call from Doug, asking me how exactly did my Singaporean aunties wrap the bamboo leaves around the bak-zhang (rice dumplings) and did my late grandmother’s pineapple tarts need to be kept in a fridge if they were made far ahead?
Bak-zhang? Pineapple tarts? When Town House had mentioned a dinner pairing for my reading, these ambitious offerings were certainly not what I had in mind.
The pangs for my family’s dishes immediately set in. And suddenly, I just could not wait to get to St. Charles …
I fell in love with Town House Books the moment I saw it.
Located in a house on a corner, this very well-curated store, which has been around for 30 years, is a throwback to the charming bookstores that used to be the heart of many a small city in America decades ago.
If you do find yourself at Town House, be sure to say “Hi” to Dave behind the counter (that’s him below), give him a big hug — and buy many many books, of course. Unlike the clerks you’ll find in many large bookstores, Dave knows his books and actually reads so his suggestions are golden.
The store’s welcome was incredible. In addition to the wonderful smells washing over us when we set foot in the store, there were numerous other signs of the great care Dave had put into the event. (He had even bought beautiful purple orchids after reading that they’re the national flower of Singapore.)
And I met a reader who made me tear up — she said that when she was recovering from chemotherapy and had absolutely no interest in eating, the thing that got her craving food again was reading “A Tiger in the Kitchen.”
After brief cocktails, we were ushered into the bookstore’s cafe. Seeing the menu that Doug, who helms the kitchen of Town House’s cafe, created rendered me speechless. Each of the three courses featured the home-spun recipes of the women in my family half the world away in Singapore. Some of these are dishes that even the most daring home cooks in Singapore don’t try to make.
To start, we had popiah, a Singaporean summer roll that’s filled with julienned jicama, shrimp and various other ingredients. (I’d tell you more but you could also buy the book, where I have a lovely recipe by Simpson Wong, chef of WONG and Cafe Asean in New York’s West Village, a dear friend who is my “cooking uncle” and guru when I am far from home.)
And my mother’s green bean soup, studded with sweet potato chunks. This is the ultimate comfort food for me — the sight of it always brings me back to my girlhood, when my mother would make a large pot of it whenever I had class-mates over.
My mother-in-law got a shout out in the entree — Doug used the marinade she taught me in the book to make Korean-style short ribs, which were braised to such tenderness they practically melted in your mouth.
But the piece de resistance was my late grandmother’s bak-zhang, a pyramid-shaped rice dumpling filled with stir-fried pork with shallots, garlic and soy sauce. And its presentation was just beautiful. Wrapping of bak-zhang is never easy, but Doug nailed it.
My grandmother would have been so very proud.
This was paired with pineapple tarts, made with my late grandmother’s recipe. Now, for those who haven’t read the book (or read about it), these buttery cookies topped with sweet pineapple jam were what inspired my journey back to Singapore to rediscover my culture by learning how to cook with the women in my family.
These tarts hold such intense meaning for me that I am often very critical about the ones I try. None ever compare to my grandmother’s tarts. But Doug’s were absolutely delicious — the two I had disappeared in a flash. (And Dave was kind enough to offer me some to bring back to New York with me. Bless his heart!)
As mind-blowing as Doug’s meal had been, what I could not get over was the sight of 40 readers in the heart of America gathering to sample the food of my family — dishes that my aunties, my grandmothers and my mother had always pooh-poohed as not special or distinctive. I could not help but wonder what my grandmothers would have thought.
Far too few gems like Town House exist any more. Let’s be sure to show them some love.
Town House Books & Cafe, 105 North 2nd Avenue, St. Charles, Illinois 60174; 630.584.8600; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.townhousebooks.com/index.html On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Town-House-Books/47931711093?ref=ts