Pineapple Tarts: The Start Of The Journey


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In the beginning, there were pineapple tarts.

These buttery, crumbly, bite-sized marvels bewitched me as a child in Singapore. My paternal grandmother made the best ones, of course — every Chinese new year, she would hit the kitchen to churn out her tarts, pushing me to eat as many as I wanted as we sat in her living room, unhurriedly passing time.

I never learned to make my grandmother’s tarts as a child, unfortunately.

When I was 11, she died. And the chance for her to teach me anything suddenly vanished.

After many years of mourning this lost opportunity, I traveled back to Singapore in early 2009 to learn how to make these tarts from my aunts. My grandmother had taught them how to bake the tarts when she was alive and they were now the keepers of her prized recipe, which I’ve included below.

The experience was enlightening — but it also generated a spark. I now knew how to make the tarts of my grandmother, a legendary cook in our family and to all she knew.

But still, I wanted more.

Thus began a journey of discovery — one that would take place in the kitchens of my Singapore family. Over the next lunar calendar year, the women of my family would gather over hot stoves to laugh, tell stories, shake our heads and, above all else, cook.

The story of my journey will be shared very soon. (Hyperion’s Voice is publishing “A Tiger In The Kitchen” in January 2011.)

But first, it must be written — and so I must bow out of this blog for a while. Seven weeks, to be exact. (Special thanks to Yaddo, the artists’ colony, for generously offering me a nook in the woods to think and create.)

I hope you’ll forgive this absence, but you must admit, it’s for a rather good reason. 

When I return in late April, I’ll be looking for all of you. My year of cooking in Singapore is over but the journey continues here. And I hope you’ll be coming along with me.

Until then, buon appetito and enjoy …

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Prosperity Cakes (Fatt Gou): Ushering In A Rich Tiger Year


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You will have to excuse the radio silence on this blog. 

Between stuffing myself with pineapple tarts and cooking up a storm in Singapore, there simply hasn’t been a spare moment since the Chinese year of the Tiger began on Sunday to sit down and pen an intelligible sentence.

Amid the bacchanalia, however, some lessons have been learned. The deeper ones — about family, love and the enduring power of ancestral lore — I won’t go into. (You’ll just have to buy the book.) 

But the Chinese new year recipes — usually designed to conjure success, prosperity or love — now those, those I’m more than happy to share.

Over the last few days, I’ve had the good fortune of spending quality time in the kitchen with Auntie Hon Tim, the Colorado-based mother of my dear Auntie Donna in Singapore. Now, Auntie Hon Tim used to own and run a Chinese restaurant in Lakewood, Colo. — so she’s got some serious cooking chops. 

Besides teaching me the quickest way to skim fat off a pot of stew and how to rapidly chop carrots without slicing off my fingernails, Auntie Hon Tim has been showing me how to make some of her favorite lunar new year recipes.

On her must list every year is fatt gou, or prosperity cakes — cupcake-sized desserts that she makes to send friends wishes of riches and sweetness in the new year. 

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Mooncakes: The Taste of Sweet Rebellion


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You know you’re walking into a hardcore kitchen when the first thing you see is stacks upon stacks of boxes filled with gorgeous home-made mooncakes.

The women on my Dad’s side of the family in Singapore — they’re fearless cooks.

Pineapple tarts, bak-zhang (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), black vinegar-braised pig’s trotters? They could whip those together with their eyes closed.

Recently, however, the task at hand was Chinese mooncakes, eaten to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls this Saturday.

Now, there are a few old stories that explain the reason for eating these little cakes, which usually are filled with sweet lotus-seed paste and come either with a thin, baked crust or a soft, pliant dough skin that’s scented with pandan, a vanilla-like flavoring used in many Southeast Asian desserts. My favorite is the one of Ming revolutionaries planning to overthrow the Mongolian rulers of China during the Yuan dynasty and spreading word via letters baked into mooncakes. (Julia Child would’ve been so proud!)

During my Singaporean girlhood, I’d known the stories, I’d eaten the cakes. As for making them? That seemed so laughably difficult it never once crossed my mind.

It turns out, however, they’re incredibly easy to make — you just need the right teachers.

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Chilled Soup: Those Healing Green Beans


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The Chinese in Singapore are big believers in the healing properties of soups — specifically, “heaty” and “cooling” soups, which either add fire to your body or cool it down, getting just the right balance of Yin and Yang. 

I know it’s sacrilege to say this — and I can already hear the clucking of my Mum and aunts who might actually read this — but I don’t give two hoots about heaty or cooling.

The most important question for me always is, “Does it taste good?”

And with green bean soup, the answer is: Yes, oh yes.

Despite my love for this sweet soup, I’ve never known how to make it. So, when my Let’s Lunch friends, a group of intrepid cooks spread across two continents who’ve been staging virtual lunchdates, suggested that we make a chilled soup for our next meal, I jumped at the excuse to learn my mother’s recipe.

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Cinnamon Buns: Faith, Restored


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What you are witnessing here, folks, would be what they call “getting back on the horse.”

After the smoke, the blackened loaves, the almost-blazing defeat that was my attempt to make ciabatta last week, I’d begun doubting my quest to bake my way through Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice along with 200 plus amateur bakers around the world.

Could I really pull this off? (Without burning down my apartment, preferably.)

Should I even try?

But love can be a powerful motivator. In this case, that would be Mike’s profound love for cinnamon buns.

Since I joined the bread bakers’ challenge in May, Mike had been waiting impatiently for cinnamon bun week. And by the time cinnamon buns came up, I had begun to see a greater purpose to baking them — I thought they might help assuage my lingering guilt over a not-so-little visit I made to Stella McCartney in Paris recently. (Hey, 50%-off is pretty good, even in Euros.)

So I grabbed my saddle and called for my horse.

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