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Your Mom's Meatloaf Recipe Might Be More Important Than You Thought
Even if you think of your family history as generations of boring, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan begs you to reconsider. The former Wall Street Journal fashion reporter stumbled upon all kinds of surprises when she went back to Singapore (where she was born) after being laid off. Tan's book, A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, is a reminder that asking your mom for a recipe can lead to much more than cooking instructions. Tan has three pieces of advice for drawing out the good stuff:
1. Get out of the living room and into the kitchen. Some of Tan's relatives were skeptical about being "interviewed." It wasn't until Tan and her aunts were immersed in, say, filling pork dumplings that the stories began to unfold. That's when Tan heard about the illegal things her family did in the '60s to make extra money.
2. Prepare for family stories that are heartwarming...and the opposite of heartwarming. Tan had grown up believing her great-grandfather was a great guy. Turns out he used to use Tan's aunt as his opium courier. Tan's maternal grandmother got married at 20, only to discover her husband had a whole other family—including a wife—back in China.
3. Ask about any recipe, even the simple ones. A basic dish of rice with pork belly yielded a big payoff for Tan, when she found out that her paternal grandmother created the dish for folks who came to their illegal gambling den. She didn't want them to get hungry and leave, so she started to cook for them. Her Gambling Rice (recipe below) can be eaten with one hand, leaving the other free for rolling dice or holding cards. "That one bowl of rice speaks volumes about my family and that one moment in time," Tan says.
Tanglin Ah-Ma's Gambling Rice
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 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1/8 tsp. 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
Special equipment: large rice cooker, large wok
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 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. 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 mix well. Turn on the rice cooker; cook following 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.