Food served at the elementary school was relatively the same throughout the weeks. There was usually a broth-based soup with leafy vegetables and meatball pieces, white rice, and tempura-fried vegetables. I was grateful for the school cook, a friend of the principal, who came daily at around 11 AM to prepare sufficient amounts of savory food to feed the mouths of all 50 people at the school. However, on a Saturday, I was treated to a lavish meal of traditional Hakka food. Miaoli is the only county in Taiwan that is predominantly Hakka people, a group of Han Chinese people who came from Hakka-speaking areas in South China. Since my first visit to Taiwan when I was just 9, I heard of the Hakka culture, but I never really fathomed what it truly was, but here I am 12 years later, immersed in the culture, ready to sample the delicacies of Hakka cuisine. Hakka food tends to be salty and spicy, extremely bold in flavor because Hakka migrants toiled lengthy days under the intense sun farming, resulting in salt content loss in the body so food intake regains the salt.
We entered a semi-fancy restaurant, decorated with strawberry wallpaper about 25 minutes away from the school. The locals recommended 1.) the Hakka stir fry (Xiao Tsao), a traditional dish composed of dry tofu, preserved meats, peppers, and green onions, 2.) Dragonfruit pork, fried pieces of pork topped with dragonfruit jam, and 3.) water lily (shui lian), crisp straw-like vegetable strands sauteed with garlic and peppers. Devouring the food, yet still showing class, I went through 3 bowls of white rice, pairing with the 3 dishes. And no, 3 bowls of white rice is not an exaggeration; the dishes were extremely palatable and salty that it was necessary to pair the dishes with rice. The tanginess from the preserved meats paired so well with the relatively bland dry tofu and the sweet dragonfruit jam complimented the crispy pork skin. And lastly, the lightness of the water lily vegetables toned down the two other salty dishes.
Thirty minutes passed, and we all held our hands to our stomachs, gently rubbing our food babies. Each plate was clear of food and the looks on our faces indicated we needed a nice nap after our feast. Indeed, we all plopped on our beds and napped for a good 2 hours until a few school children banged on our doors and politely hollered at us to venture with them. We totally could use some exercise after today’s fine eats so we agreed, quickly got dressed, and headed out. We took an insanely steep and winding path up the mountains that was later alongside running waters downhill. The three energetic schoolchildren sang, ran, and gently pushed each other while I and the other teens were red in the face and lethargic as hell. Clearly, I was getting old. We reached the highest point of the pathway, where only one house resided. It was a polished, wooden house that seemed too nice to belong in the area. The house overlooked a vast part of the town and was surrounded by greens and tall trees. I assume because of the kids’ loud chatter, a 50 something year old man walked out the wooden doors and greeted us so kindly, asking where we were from, and cordially invited us to the back for some tea and snacks. Smoke arose from his grill, where charred bamboo lay, chickens ran around the backyard, feeding on bamboo scraps, and a beautiful german shepherd rest on the grass, eyeing the children frantically chasing the poor chickens. Everything about the house was so homey and down-to-earth with its all wood furniture and calligraphy on the walls. It was absolutely beautiful. The man told us that the house is actually a Bed & Breakfast but not many people come, so he and his wife (both now retired) just relax in nature and have no future plans apart from that.
We said goodbye to the kind man and his chickens and walked the steep, winding roads to return to the elementary school. Our feet were sore and our bodies were covered in sweat so we took our showers and had movie night in our little hostel.