The majority of the baking books on my overcrowded shelves are by French, Spanish and American pastry chefs who, naturally enough, approach what they do with a Western perspective. So it's refreshing to find a baking book by someone who's blending Western techniques with Asian flavours. This isn't anything new: it's been going on for ages in countries with colonial pasts; in Hong Kong, egg tarts, waffles with peanut butter and condensed milk and hot dog buns spring to mind.
In the introduction to Nerd Baker, Christopher Tan describes baked goods he ate as a child in Singapore - Lunar New Year cookies, curry puffs, red-bean and hot-cross buns, and strawberry tarts. He then goes on to say, "My food world expanded after I moved to London with my family in my early teens … To ease the culture shock, I inhaled books, TV, music and more books … I sought solace in supermarkets, where ingredients abounded in a variety I'd never seen before, even staples like sugars and flours."
After studying psychology at university, where he baked for himself and his fellow students, he started writing about food.
"In today's culinary ecosystem, home cooks look to chefs for inspiration and trend cues, while chefs look to other chefs and farmers. However, in old cookbooks and memoirs, I glimpse eras when home cooks [used] a lot of innovation, when some of the most interesting, creative gastronomy happened in private. I believe the tide is slowly turning that way again …
"It's important to me to stand on my tribal inheritance as an Asian and a Singaporean, too. Informing my baking with traditional Asian culture always leads me in fruitful directions. Yet I see so many cooks eagerly grasping the latest cheffy trends from abroad and adopting them wholesale, rather than unearthing their own roots for inspiration (which, ironically, is what often motivates their foreign chef heroes). Why hyperventilate about the 'molecular' method of spherification, when cendol - a starch gel set with controlled temperature and pH conditions, if you want to get technical - is a similar, equally riff-worthy recipe that was there all along? … It's about looking for greener grass at home as well as elsewhere, about viewing traditions not as fetters, but as rich soil in your own backyard, deep and firm enough to anchor and nurture your own growth."
Tan draws on many countries for inspiration: not just Singapore, but also France, China, the Philippines and Thailand. He gives recipes for Mocky (his take on Pocky sticks), Chinese five-spice snaps, beef rendang karipap lapis, masala buttermilk oven-fried chicken, choux tourteaux with black sesame craquelin, durian and coffee leche flan cake, Chiang Mai sausage roll, prune lapis babas, and gobi cheese Manchurian.