Cheryl Tan’s book, “ A Tiger in the Kitchen,” a Brooklyn Bugle Book Club selection discussed here, describes many Singaporean dishes and includes a few recipes. But Tan doesn’t include recipes for all the dishes she describes, and I had some restaurant questions. Tan agreed to answer some questions by email.
AB: Do you have a favorite Singapore or Singapore-style restaurant in NYC?
CLT: There are very few good places — Nyonya in Chinatown has some good dishes. I would highly recommend the beef rendang, which is an amazing curried beef dish packed with lemongrass, coriander, cumin, ginger and a whole host of other spices, as well as the kangkong belacan, which is water spinach fried with belacan, a spicy shrimp paste.
The Singapore consulate in New York uses Taste Good in Queens to cater some of its events — I take that as pretty big endorsement. Many dishes here are great and very authentic — popiah, the Singaporean summer roll I mention in A Tiger in the Kitchen, as well as chili crab, Singapore’s national dish. I also like some Singaporean dishes at Cafe Asean, a pan-Asian restaurant in the West Village
AB: One of the dishes you mention but don’t provide a recipe for is laksa. Is there a good place to get it in New York?
CLT: I actually don’t have a recipe of my own for laksa — it’s not something my family makes. Taste Good does fantastic versions — regular laksa as well as assam laksa, which is a slightly sour version of laksa as it is flavored with “assam,” which is Malay for tamarind.
AB: The recipes mention msg and other canned and processed foods – how do you feel about using them in cooking in general?
CLT: I don’t personally use MSG when I cook — in the recipes in my book, I’ve mentioned that they’re optional. Generally, I try to use fresh ingredients as much as I can but with some items — tomato pastes and sauces, for example — it would simply be too time-consuming to do everything from scratch.
AB: You describe a process of molding bak-zhang in bamboo leaves – do you fold the bamboo leaves to mold the bak-zhang?
CLT: The dish is amazing! I love the flavor of the filling so much — and if you’re lazy to wrap bak-zhang, you can always just make a big pot of that filling and eat it with rice. It’s so tasty. Here is how you wrap bak-zhang.
Cheryl Tan will be appearing at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 18, as part of the panel “Food From All Sides” to be held at 12 noon on the North Stage. Here’s the description from the Festival’s website: Three panelists use the lens of food to write about family, poverty and war—Annia Ciezadlo (Day of Honey) looks at food and politics in the Middle East, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan (A Tiger In the Kitchen) follows a Chinese-American woman back to Singapore in search of her family’s culinary history, and Tracie McMillan (forthcoming The American Way of Eating: Undercover on the Front Lines of Our Nation’s Meals) deals with poverty and food issues. Moderated by food writer Christy Harrison.