It goes without saying that when people talk to me, by the end of the conversation they know exactly who I am—and I make sure of it. I wouldn’t call myself a proud individual, but I am extremely proud to say that I am a hybrid—a biracial kid with equal parts Mexican and Taiwanese. Because I mostly look like my dad (the Asian side) I always try to find clever ways to let people know that I’m half Mexican: if politics were the topic, racial inequality makes a good segue; food? I’ll have you know, my palate is very diverse; and yes, I enjoy the Spanish language too, thank you! Amidst my desperate attempts to let even the mailman know my Mexi- life story, my Taiwanese heritage sometimes gets lost. It could be from my natural fear of grouping with other Asians, but I also don’t know the language and don’t have nearly as many Chinese relatives close by in comparison to my mom’s family in Southern California. I can get by with Spanish easily, but when it comes to Mandarin Chinese, saying I went to Chinese school before I started kindergarten is the best I can do. This creates a difference when I visit either my mom’s family in Mexico or my dad’s in Taiwan. Roaming the mercados in Zacápu, Mexico is easy for my sister and I—we know Spanish and can order a plate of tostadas without trouble by ourselves. On the other hand, Taiwan is much harder. The language barrier forces us to be with a parent or family member that can translate and accurately let street dwellers know what we want to eat. This experience is vivid in my memory of visiting Taiwan and how a certain dish cooked by a family member had the power to thwart all attempts to satisfy our street food cravings.
The last time I had the opportunity to visit my dad’s side of the family in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (pronounced: cow-shhyoung) was around five years ago. We met up with our grandma who moved back to Taiwan to avoid expensive health care in the U.S. and eventually settled at my dad’s uncle’s wife’s house for the rest of the trip. When you’re an Asian, it’s an unavoidable fact that you are related to everyone else that looks like you. I started calling our host “Auntie Auntie Auntie” from sheer lack of memory of our relationship with her. This woman, a widow with a heart full of kindness, would cook us large, six course meals during all times of the day. It was then that I was introduced to the savory and memorable dish called Lu Rou Fan. Lu rou fan (pronounced loo-row-fon) is braised pork over rice that is original to Taiwan cuisine. It combines an irresistible blend of five-spice, soy sauce, and slow-cooked fatty pork. A single bite has warm, velvety pieces of meat that overflow with savory juices and finishes with soft rice soaked in fat flavors. It is apparent why this dish was common as a filling meal for farming families and why, at the end of every meal my auntie cooked, I could not breathe nor look at food.
I remember taking my first bite of the hearty pork and turning to my sister, glossy-eyes meeting each other, and surrendering innocence right then and there. Every morning I would wake up to the smell of lu rou fan. I would dream of the mouthwatering sauce filling my bowl and turning every morsel into a chubby kid’s fantasy—and it was exactly that. Auntie would cook lu rou fan at least twice a day. She only spoke Chinese and an attempt to avoid the dish was both difficult and useless, considering we were there to eat it without hesitation. It wasn’t until my dad would repeatedly thank my auntie each day and say he’d like to walk around and try street food and shops, that we would be able to break the hypnotic strength of lu rou fan.
I remember it was the end of August, when the weather was the equivalent of a hot sauna room. Finally walking around the city was delightful but you had to take two cold showers a day to avoid feeling like you had a thick sweater on your skin. Because of this, I wasn’t surprised that some Taiwanese practice the same siesta tradition as in Mexico. Some stores would be open here and there during the day time, but the real party started when the sweaty sun went down and the night market began. Every street would be lined with small stands, foldable tables, or even just a tarp displaying home-made trinkets or deceiving brand replicas of purses, phones, and shoes. Of course, what really mattered to my dad, my sister, and I was the food: the noodle bowls, endless bubble tea, the pungent smell of traditional stinky tofu, shaved ice, and fish, cow, pig, bugs, and chicken cooked a thousand different ways. By the time we would find appealing grub, sit down, and take a bite, the lu rou fan would kick in. I remember having a bowl of Ba Gehn in front of me, which is a traditional Taiwanese stew noodle soup that is equally as addictive and savory. With my dad to my right, slurping away, I just sat there in awe—I could not eat. If I had a belt on, it would have been on the loosest notch and I still would have had my pants unbuttoned. I was a chubby kid and the fact that looking at food, smelling it, or even thinking about it made me cringe, was an impossibility. All the lu rou fan I ate in the morning and for lunch was thick in my stomach and sending signals to my brain that I was satisfied, done, ready to kick the bucket. This went on for the next five days that were left in my week-long trip. I was full on days I didn’t even think about the forbidden meat, purely from gorging myself with it a day or two beforehand.
The memory of lu rou fan is strong and stays with me because it depicts a time when self-control was virtually non-existent. I’ve learned my lesson and celebrate Taiwanese cuisine wherever I can find it. Thinking back to all the opportunities I had to try more exotic and new food in Taiwan leaves me ambitious to taste all the authentic flavors of my dad’s hometown and cook them for myself. I still love to share my ethnicity with everyone to this day and recognize my Taiwanese background with memories of family, travel, and the palpably sinful lu rou fan.
Lǔ Ròu Fàn
This recipe is adapted from Taiwanese Duck, a fantastic blog that celebrates Taiwanese Cuisine. It is one that I find mimics the strong memories I have for this dish.
Yield: 6-7 servings
-3 lbs pork belly (cut into 1/4 or 1/2 in. cubes)
-2 tbsp. dried shrimp (soaked until soft and minced)
-about 7 pieces rock sugar
-2 star anise
-1 tbsp. five spice powder
-1 cup dark soy sauce
-1/4 cup dried onion
-2/3 cup rice wine
-6 eggs (hard-boiled)
-10 dried shiitake mushrooms (soaked until soft)
-pearl rice for serving
Fry the pork in a large skillet or wok without oil, over medium-high heat. When the moisture from the meat is gone from the pan and the meat is slightly browned, add the dried shrimp. Stir to combine and add the rock sugar and star anise (be sure not to break the aniseed). Add the five spice powder and stir to coat all the meat. Add the soy sauce, dried onion, and half of the rice wine. Turn the heat to medium, cover, and let steam for five minutes. When done, just barely cover with water, add the eggs and mushrooms, and cook covered for 25 minutes on low (turning the eggs to get an even browning). Pour the rest of the rice wine in and cook an extra two minutes, covered. Serve everything over warm rice.