Food is about memories. It’s about memories from our childhood, from special moments in our lives, from moments in time where everything is perfect and life is just swell. It reminds us of moments when we are surrounded by our favourite people in the world, when all of life’s problems have been zip-locked and thrown into the frozen section of the fridge, waiting to be defrosted. Does that metaphor even make sense? Anyway, while I may sound like George from Masterchef, I tend to agree.
When I travel back to Taiwan (essentially the homeland), I always have a list of places to eat at. Not necessarily because they are delicious (which they are of course). But because of the connection I have to place and what it means to me, as a person and where my family comes from. Let me explain.
There’s a restaurant in my parents’ hometown. For those blessed with Chinese reading superpowers, it’s called 斗南米糕甲.
I’m not sure what it is about this place that continues to draw me back. Perhaps it could be the connection (although not immediate) my family – both on my mum and dad’s sides – has to the restaurant.
“The family used to use plates to serve the rice. Now it’s on bowls and the portions are smaller,” my uncle tells me.
My grandma tells me the restaurant’s owners used to live next door.
“Want me to take you there to eat?” she asks me.“Grandma, it’s ok, I know where it is. Do you want to eat there?” I ask her.“No! Grandma doesn’t eat that stuff. I just take people there!” she replies.
And that is the kind of woman she is; always looking out for others before thinking about herself.
The staff – always women – are always frantic whenever I go there. Might be something to do with the roaring trade. The restaurant serves three items on the menu – the sticky rice (or rice tube pudding), fish ball soup and pork rib soup.
The sticky rice is glorious. The grains are perfectly welded together in a glutinous ball of ineffable deliciousness. The top is covered with pork, onions and tiny dried shrimp. Drizzling a very mild chilli sauce over the top, and I am in heaven.
If the sticky rice is the main event, while the soups are admirable supporting acts. I prefer the ribs – perfectly tender and deep-fried before they’re thrown into the soup.
Oh, it’s so good. Simple food, but damn delicious. If you’re not there right before lunchtime or dinner time, be prepared to wait. Crowds don’t lie. Even an imitation restaurant around the corner has booming business.
I remember my uncle taking me there on my first visit back to Taiwan when I was 9 years old. Every time I go back to my parents’ hometown, I have to eat there. To think, this is the same place and the exact same food my parents, uncles and aunties were eating when they were growing up. I guess that is why I am drawn to it.