A baker's tale

Singaporeans know him for his recipes, food writing and cooking classes, but after nine cookbooks, Christopher Tan's latest book is as much about his own life story as it is a repository of his original recipes for cakes and breads.

"Food always has a context," he explains. "I've written about the experiences and obsessions that have shaped how I cook and bake, although it's not an A-to-Z memoir - my memory's not that great!" he quips.

Growing up in Singapore is one major topic he dwells on. "I count it a great blessing to have grown up in a place as culinarily varied as this.

To be raised in a milieu with so many cultures and different foods at your doorstep makes you more open to different flavours and tastes, if you are willing to be curious."

Some of his major sources of inspiration for Nerd Baker's over 60 recipes are the local cookbooks published in Singapore in the 1970s and even earlier, which were very illustrative of the country's multiculturalism.

"For example, Dorothy Ng's Entertaining Cookbook, which has recipes for kueh bengka bakar and prawn sambal sandwiches next to terribly Victorian desserts like chilled prunes with cream! Such eclecticism energises me."

In five main chapters, Tan reveals his inspirations, and then his exploration into breads and cakes that cut across different countries in the region, like the ubiquitous kueh bengka with its many variations.

One chapter is dedicated to his travels and foods discovered on and off the beaten track, another on hybrid flavours (which is oh, so Singaporean) and then the last chapter is an immensely useful one on tools and gadgets for the geek bakers among us.

What is refreshing are the original recipes. "I knew right from the beginning that I wanted to make the ideas and recipes as new and surprising as possible. There are already hundreds of baking books out there that tell you how to make a perfect sponge cake or pound cake or butter cookie - I didn't feel there was a need to re-tread that ground," he says.

Tan also wanted this book to wave a flag for flavours and ingredients and techniques that are and have been under our noses all along, but which often get left in the dust by the stampede for the latest 'it' food.

"After all, how did culinary heavyweights like Ferran Adria reinvigorate their own cooking? By going back to their own roots, by consciously trying to approach familiar things from different angles," he stresses.

One chapter he knew he had to include was puff pastry - or laminated pastry, to give it its technical name - which has obsessed him for a long time. What does a Cantonese 'dan tart' have in common with a French millefeuille, Neapolitan clamshell pastry or Uzbek lamb pasty? He believes they all probably descended from pastry techniques dating back to the medieval era, which spread with traders or nomadic cultures along the Silk Road and other trade routes.

In one chapter, he brings together a gallery of these and other examples from all over the world. "When you see them all side by side, the family resemblances are so striking," he adds.

The idea for the book had been cooking in his head since his editor from Epigram asked for book pitches a couple of years back.

"I'd spent the past several years working on various heritage cookbook projects, and I decided it was high time to do something more personal and creative, more to do with my own philosophy and perspective and imagination."

From the time he first sketched out his book synopsis, he took nine months to create, test, and photograph his original creations. "Just under half of my initial ideas survived the whole journey untouched! Everything else got overhauled, upgraded or replaced," he shares.

The easiest recipe is probably the mushroom kokoreç, which is a vegetarian take on a lamb offal kebab he ate in Istanbul.

The recipe that took multiple rounds of testing was the rustic boule and hot rolls, "which are so important to me that they begin the whole book".

The Intelligent Black Rice Cake took the most trials before he got it right - his adaptation of a Romanian recipe for a cake batter that separates into three distinct layers with different textures as it bakes, ending up very much like a kueh.

But the most important to home bakers is that none of the recipes are especially difficult as the self-taught Tan has written the book from the point of view of a home baker.

So what's "nerdy" about it? "I really loved gleaning odd or obscure food minutiae and factoids, my brain seems to retain them somehow… I never know when they might come in handy!" says the psychology-trained cook.

"The science satisfies the baker in me. Put them together and they satisfy all the parts of me that other pastimes just can't reach!" he concludes.

This article was first published on April 4, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.