Xiaoye is from Malaysia. Her restaurant Lungfish, specializing in Malaysian cuisine, was opened when she took a sabbatical leave from her studies 3 years ago in Tainan. She recently sold her restaurant and became a student again.
Why did you move to Tainan?
I came here for my studies. I've been in Taiwan for 8 years and 7 of them were in Tainan.
Do you like Tainan?
Yes. I went to NTPU in Taipei on my first year and had schoolmates from all around the world. It was fun and interesting, but it felt stressful having to dress up every time I am out on the streets or get glances like I am a weirdo. But Tainan is where I can be very casual and be at ease, like going out in T-shirt and shorts. This reminds me of my hometown in Malaysia. Plus, Taiwanese people are exceptionally warm and hospitable towards us foreigners, and we would even have “foreigner discounts” which is not heard of anywhere else in the world. I remember once I took my friend to a night market, and I asked a shopkeeper to give us a discount for us foreigners. And he gave us discount immediately! They were equally friendly at traditional markets when I was doing my groceries. I would tell (in my strange sounding Taiwanese) vendors that I am a foreigner and don’t speak Taiwanese, and they would treat me like a VIP!
But I don’t like the weather. It is way to warm and wet, and it feels sticky all the time in summer.
What would you suggest to people visiting Tainan that they should do here? Where should they visit?
Not that I can think of… There aren’t a lot of fun touristic places to go to in Tainan, but the nice thing is that you don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy the city. Take a leisurely stroll around town, step into a nice shop of interest, sit down and have a chat with the shopkeeper. Or, be carefree and enjoy the freedom of not having to prepare anything special for your trip.
Why did you put off your studies to open a restaurant?
During my last year at university, there is one special class that let us do whatever we want to do during the time of the class. Starting a business had always been something I wanted to do, so I took the opportunity to play a around with the idea. Then, actually starting it was a natural thing to do.
Did you find any relevance between your studies in design and cooking itself?
Yes, most definitely. I guess they are the most relevant in terms of aesthetics. The choice of the plate, the glass, and even the color of a straw matters. And the first impression of a plate of food in front of your customer is also very important. If it looks delicious, there would be an impulse to try it!
Were you a good chef before having your restaurant?
Not exactly! I started practicing with the recipes I found online after deciding to start my business. In the beginning I would post on Facebook to tell everybody what I would cook that evening, everyone who wanted to try were invited upstairs on the roof of our workshop in the university to have a taste. They would tip if they like the food. Little-by-little I gathered some followers and it worked better than I thought. I found that Taiwanese people prefer something relatively tame. It doesn’t mean that South East Asian cuisines are always salty, oily and hot, we just pay a lot of attention to the spices.
I got lots of feedback from customers when I first opened the restaurant. Some told me to adapt to the Taiwanese palate and add dishes that they like, like grilled fish or sausages. On the other hand, there is another group that suggested me that I should only cook real Malaysian food. Likewise, there were conflicting suggestions with regard to the flavors. In the end, I took both suggestions and adjusted my recipes to try to find a balance between what Taiwanese people like and the Malaysian food that I remembered having in Malaysia. I was opening a restaurant in Taiwan, after all. An example is the spiciness of the dishes. Almost all Malaysian dishes are hot, but I found that Taiwanese prefers a much milder taste than we Malaysians. I have reduced the amount of spices in my dishes, though Taiwanese still find them too hot.
I hoped to impress my customers with the efforts I put into my dishes.
We had lots of specialty drinks. Most of the other restaurants juice a tangerine in a machine, but the rind would get in the way and make everything bitter. At my restaurant, we hand-squeeze our citrus fruits. Although it was strenuous and painful, I was able to control what goes into my juice. I believe my customers would appreciate my efforts.
What were the most memorable experiences?
Sometimes I felt I would burn out when there were too many guests, but it was all worth it. The soothing words coming from them “It’s so delicious!” would bring my mood back up again.
In the beginning, most of the customers were from the university nearby, so I had boardgames available for them. Some of them were less considerate than I had hoped, and they would sleep on the floor or make a mess out of everything. After a year, I decided to take another approach and stopped offering boardgames. In my second year, my customers became white-collars who can afford to spend more and my business was much more stable than before.
There were times when customers would get drunk and ask me to drink with them. I might look like I can drink a lot, but I am a non-drinker. I would have yelled at my customers if I could, but the only I could do is to tell them nicely that I was very busy and could not join them. After a while, they would sober up and ask, “Was I being irritating?” I always replied with a smile, “Yes, very.”
Which days in the week were the best for your business?
We were usually less busy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Mondays were much better than I had expected, to my surprise. I guess it is because many restaurants take Mondays off, so everyone was left with less choices.
Tell me a little bit about your day-to-day routine.
I used to live in an alternative time zone from everybody here in Taiwan. My restaurant officially opens between 5pm and 1am, but customers often stayed until 2 or 3 because I was reluctant to ask them off. I may start cleaning up after the last customer has left, and would head over to the traditional market for groceries around 4. There were much less people and more selections in the market at this time of the day. Then I get busy with preparing the food for the next day and finish off at 5 or 6 in the morning. I would go home and sleep until 4 in the afternoon and get back to work. It was kind of a monotonous life, and I don’t get to meet other people or to have a so-called normal life.
Were there anything you miss when you sell your restaurant? 3 years is quite a bit of time.
It is ok, as it was all according to my plan. After completing my studies, I would probably start something anew, but not necessarily another restaurant. I just want to do something new, and I feel that life is like a puzzle with lots of missing pieces waiting to be completed. Every experience will help finding you true self.
My dream is live a peaceful life in the countryside. I would raise my own farm animals and grow my won vegetables. But why ain’t I doing it now? I think it’s because I am still trying to find my true self, and is not afraid of falling down from my path. I don’t like going through a mundane life, to go to school, get married and have a children, like everything has already been set up. It would be too boring.
When I was grade 10, my mom told me not to continue my study but to work for the money. I refused, and I told her that I will earn my own tuition. I wanted to continue my education so I could go further and see more of this world. This is also why I am here in Taiwan. I knew I would regret if I had giving up my studies. When I graduated from high school I told my mother that I am coming to Taiwan for my degree and it made her very angry, but I knew I had to do it, not just for the degree but for my self. When I looked back now, her disapproval was perhaps the motivation for me to move forward.
Here’s one last question for you: why did you call the restaurant Lungfish in English, but Wandering Fish in Chinese?
I have been living away from home for a long time, so it seems I am always wandering. In fact, I call myself Wandering Girl on Facebook. My sign is Pisces, so I combine the two to become Wandering Fish. Lungfish, on the other hand, is a very cool creature. It has both a gill and a lung. When there’s water it would breather normally with its gill, but will resort to breathing with its lung when the river is dry. In a draught, it would take a dive deep below the river bed and wrap itself up until it rains again. It would just never give up to the harsh environment. I feel that we are alike.
wikipedia about lungfish: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lungfish