SHELF: NWAW’s September must-reads

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

“Hot, Hot Roti for Dadda-ji”
Written by F. Zia, Illustrated by Ken Min
Lee & Low Books, 2011

Whenever Aneel’s grandparents visit, they tell him stories about their lives growing up in an Indian village.

During one particular visit, Aneel’s grandfather, Dadda-ji, tells him that when he was a boy, Dadda-ji had the power of a tiger, thanks to fluffy-puffy hot, hot roti with a bit of tongue-burning mango pickle. After Dadda-ji ate the roti, a type of pan-fried flatbread, he could wrestle water buffaloes, tie cobras into knots, swing three elephants by their tales, and even touch the sky with his bare feet.

Captivated and fascinated by the tale, Aneel wants to know if Dadda-ji still has the power of a tiger inside him. So he sets out to make roti and see. The process that follows brings together not just Aneel and his grandfather, but Aneel and his grandmother, parents, and sister, as they watch him prepare the flatbread and eagerly await the results.

More than a tale about a flatbread giving someone the power of a tiger, “Roti” is the story of how food can bring people together.

This is a great point in the story as we watch Aneel and Dadda-ji bond over the story and Aneel’s cooking skills. While spending time with one’s peers is easy, the same can’t always be said about spending time with someone outside your age group. The generation gap often brings hesitancy, confusion, and misunderstandings. “Roti” is an example of how food can help to close that gap.

In addition to a delightful story, “Roti” is filled with bright, fun illustrations capturing Dadda-ji’s various feats of strength and power, as well as Aneel’s adventures in the kitchen.

Readers of all ages will enjoy “Roti” and, if they’re like me, will want to try the real thing to see if the flatbread really does give power.

“Clara Lee and the Apple Pie Dream”
Written by Jenny Han, Illustrated by Julia Kuo
Little, Brown and Company, 2011

Clara Lee’s life can be divided into two categories: her likes and her dislikes.

The Korean American third-grader likes her best friends, her grandpa, her little sister (when she’s not being annoying), and the Apple Blossom Festival held in her hometown of Bramley every year. She doesn’t like her little sister (when she’s being annoying), her mom’s fish soup, and bad dreams.

Her grandpa tells her that bad dreams signify good luck. When Clara Lee has good luck for a whole day after a particularly bad dream, she starts believing him. She is even confident enough to try out for Little Miss Apple Pie, who gets to ride the float with Miss Apple Pie during the Apple Blossom Festival. But when her luck changes, Clara begins doubting whether she should go through with the tryout.

Although “Clara Lee” is not specifically about food, food does play a key role in the story. Family meals are described in detail, and Clara’s interactions with her friends often include exchanging food.

I really liked this about “Clara Lee,” because food and eating are part of our everyday lives, and we often take them for granted. But in this story, readers see how some of the most important moments in our lives are had over a meal.

A lengthy story with some illustrations thrown in, “Clara Lee” is the perfect in-between book for intermediate readers transitioning from text-heavy picture books to chapter books.

Clara is a likable character (occasionally self-centered, but what third-grader isn’t?). She is brave and admirable. Despite her good luck supposedly disappearing, Clara doesn’t back down from the Little Miss Apple Pie tryout. She gives her speech to the school, even though she has her doubts.

And in the end, she is glad she didn’t give up her dream.

“A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family”
By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Voice, 2011

Growing up in Singapore, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan made a conscious effort to stay out of the kitchen and avoid learning the wifely skill of cooking. By the time she reaches her 20s and has moved to the United States to study, the Chinese Singaporean has a smug pride about having bucked tradition.

But by the time she reaches her 30s, living in New York and working as a fashion writer, Tan begins craving the foods she grew up eating in Singapore, the most food-obsessed city in the world.

So in an attempt to remedy this, Tan sets out on a year-long quest to learn various dishes that were staples throughout her childhood. Her cooking lessons are with the women in her family, including her aunties, maternal grandmother, and mother.

Along the way, Tan wonders why she was so resistant in learning how to cook, as she sees the power food has to bring her somewhat fragmented family together. She also learns more about her family history, uncovering long-buried stories about ancestors she never knew.

One of the things I really loved about “Tiger” is how even though food is at the center of the book, Tan weaves a narrative into the cooking lessons. She shares stories about her childhood, as well as those passed down from the women in her family.

Tan’s descriptions of her cooking lessons are hilarious, as she starts out obsessively taking notes and pestering her relatives about ingredient measurements and cooking times. Their responses are always “agak-agak” or guess-guess. In other words, almost nothing is measured out or timed.

It’s all done by taste testing and estimation, which drive the detail-oriented Tan crazy.

And then there is the food itself. Reading about the different dishes Tan learns to prepare (both Singaporean and non-Singaporean) will definitely make your stomach growl and eager to try out any or all of the 10 recipes included in the back of the book. (end)

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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