Photos by Alicia Cory from ShoTcha Photography.
There was a giveaway on Instagram that went a little like…“‘Follow’ these people on Instagram then comment below tagging who you’d like to bring with you and you’ll be entered to win free tickets to this really awesome food event.” Or, something like that.
Since it involved food and a chance to find a babysitter, I followed the instructions and entered the giveaway. As usual, I didn’t win, and I’d planned on unfollowing those people that I’d been forced to follow, but it turned out their content was interesting, unique, and quite lovely. One of those people was Tiffany Alexandria from the blog Choochoo-ca-Chew.
On a whim, I invited her to be a part of The Worthy People Project. And, so, here we are.
Turns out she moved to the States from Taiwan about a year and a half ago. I would have never guessed she hadn’t lived here her whole life based on her accent, or lack thereof. Apparently, she learned English not only in school, but from watching American movies and listening to American music.
Taiwan, an island, is incredibly diverse in its topography with its west coast being densely populated and its east coast sparsely populated. In between there are mountains, forests, and rice patties all in the space that's about a quarter size of the state of Minnesota.
And, Taiwan is not to be confused with Thailand. Thai food is from Thailand. Taiwanese food is from Taiwan.
“So, what part of Taiwan are you from?” I asked as we began.
“I'm from Taoyuan which is just south of Taipei, the capital city. I lived in Taipei for about 10 years for school and work.”
“What did you study in school?”
“I studied fashion design.”
“Why fashion?” I asked. Maybe a better question would be “Why not?,” I suppose, but it’s not a common career path here in Med City.
“I like to be creative and design things,” Tiffany replied. “I have a thing for swimwear so I wanted to do swimwear design, but then after studying fashion and working in retail for a while I realized there was just so much waste. Everything I did felt like it was going to waste. Like, how many clothes do people actually need?”
Her first job was with an advertising firm installing window displays for Nike. Her second was for Quicksilver Roxy as a visual merchandiser.
“Were you eco-conscience before you went into fashion or had you always been concerned for the environment?”
“I think its my connection with the ocean combined with what I saw in the fashion industry that made me eco-conscience. I started snorkeling when I was really young and got my diving license and have always felt a connection with nature. The water has changed a lot from when I was young. There used to be so much more life in the ocean and now there's more trash. It makes me sad. In the fashion industry, I spent most of my days removing things from plastic bags.
“Maybe some day I'll create some crazy reusable eco-friendly material that is great, but, yeah, so that's kind of why I transitioned to what's the most basic in life.”
“And, what is the most basic thing in life?” I asked. “Food?”
“Yeah,” she replied.
The Taiwanese Table
“So, what sparked your interest in food and cooking?”
“I think food is just basically part of life in Taiwan.”
“More so than the U.S.?”
“I think so,” she replied. “In Taiwan, our greetings are usually, ‘Have you eaten yet?’ If you say yes, the person asking, especially an older person, will still try to feed you. And, my mom is a very good cook and I grew up eating home cooked food. Plus, cooking just interests me especially after I started thinking about how much processed food there is. It's insane.”
Meals in Taiwan are also a bit different than here in the U.S.
“In Taiwan, we don't just eat a plate of food or one thing. Usually, when we have a meal, its like 5 or 6 dishes with either a main starch like rice or noodles or something else,” Tiffany explained.
The Taiwanese table is also a bit more balanced in that there's lots of vegetables and sometimes meat or tofu or fish/seafood. "And, tofu is not just a white cube in Taiwan - it comes in many, many forms."
“I sense you have strong feelings about that?” I said with a smile.
“Yeah,” Tiffany laughed.
“When did you start the blog (Choochoo-ca-Chew)?”
“Two years ago, but I didn't do much with it until I moved here - so about a year ago.”
Tiffany came to the U.S. with her husband, Sean, an American. They met in Taiwan about 10 years ago when Sean moved to Taiwan on the invitation of his dad who worked for Dell in Taiwan. His dad’s wife had a friend who had a son that was roughly the same age as Sean and he had just moved to Taiwan as well. That guy, Josh, had met Tiffany the weekend prior and invited her to hang out with he and Sean. The three of them ended up in a cab together and the rest is history.
“Imagine if that meeting hadn't happened?” I asked “Your life would be very different right now.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “It was really random.”
Let’s Talk Food
“What's your favorite food?” I can hardly interview somehow who blogs about food and not ask that question.
“Things I've never tried before,” she replied as if that were a common answer.
“What cultures influence your cooking?” I asked.
”In Taiwan there's a lot of Japanese influence and Korean influence. Personally, I love Sri Lankan food. And, Mexican food. My blog is filled with some Taiwanese cooking, but that doesn't mean that I don't try to make other random food when I have time. I make all kinds of stuff.”
“What's the most difficult dish you've ever prepared?”
“Like, in which culture?”
“I will attempt about anything and keep attempting it until I get it right. Right now, I don't think there's anything that I've tried and thought I couldn't do because it was too difficult. You fail and then you just try again and you can learn techniques. Sometimes, it just takes more tries.”'
“What's a dish every person should know how to cook?” I asked hoping to get an idea for what I should cook for supper.
“Your favorite food. Make your favorite food and be good at it.”
Well, that meant we were having spaghetti.
“What's your most used ingredient?” I continued with my questioning.
“Flour,” she said confidently. “Just plain white all-purpose flour. I've been playing with a lot of dim sum style stuff; like doughy stuff. Buns, or like buns, or like noodles, or like buns, or buns. There aren't enough English words to describe what I'm making so I sort of feel like I talk about buns a lot. But, they're all different. Buns, and buns, and buns, and buns...when I say that they are all different images in my head.”
We both laughed our buns off.
“There's thick dough and thin dough and baked dough or fried dough or boiled dough or dumplings and there a lot of different types of what would be considered dumplings.”
“What type of yeast do you use?”
“Right now I'm mainly using active dry yeast, but I'm starting to experiment with using levain type of yeast - natural yeast. The yeast is in the flour, in the air, and in your hands, so when you mix with your hands, yeast gets into the dough,” she explained.
“The human body is actually quite disgusting if you think about it.” I shudder to think.
“Yeah. We need those things to make something good, though.”
“I'll think of that next time I eat a bun.” If I ever eat a bun, again.
“What food makes you gag?” I asked. “Have you ever had a food that you'll never eat again?”
“My food tolerance is pretty high, so I can't think of anything at this point. I've eaten a lot of strange foods, though.”
“What's the strangest food have you eaten?”
“I’ve had balut which is a Philippino/Vietnamese fertilized chicken or duck fetus egg. And, I've only had that because I had no idea what it was. Some kid was yelling down the street, ‘Balut! Balut!’ And I was like, ‘I'll try it!’ All the locals surrounded me to watch a foreigner try to eat that thing."
“How do you eat it?” I’m not sure I wanted to find out, but I asked, anyway.
“Its kept alive and then they steam it and sell it. You can dress it with chili or salt and you crack it open, peel it off, suck the juice out - basically broth and then eat the thing.”
“That didn't make you gag?” I asked taking a cleansing sip of my ginger lemon tea. And, believe me: don’t google ‘balut’ if you have a weak stomach.
“No. It was fine,” she said nonchalantly. “I thought it would. It's kind of like eating chicken soup.”
“If you don't think about it!” I exclaimed. Because it’s not soup it’s baby chicken juices. Ugh. I can’t even. This woman is the bravest person I know.
“Is it almost a chicken?” I asked bravely. And, hesitantly.
“No. Not usually. Depends. Sometimes there's a little bit more feather than others. Sometimes. So, I don't really like the feather part.”
“So, you've had more than one?” I asked surprised.
“Yes. Because they are called different things in different countries.”
“So, it's been accidental ingestion?”
Let’s Talk Religion
Faith is a matter of curiosity for me. I mean, it’s my line of work after all. So, I asked Tiffany about the religious practices in Taiwan and found out that ancient Chinese philosophy, in particular Confucianism, is still practiced along with the predominant religions of of Daoism and Buddhism. There are also Christian churches, and, in particular, Catholic churches since Taiwan was, at one point, ruled by the Spanish/Portuguese.
“Did you practice a faith when you were in Taiwan? Or do you still?” I asked.
“Um, in Taiwan I would go to temples with my mom, but I never really thought it was a very important thing in my life. I think it's peaceful and it's fun to go, but I don't feel I have to go to temple. I think its interesting to see all the different types of religion and culture and all that stuff. But, I don't necessarily think there's just one faith.
“I went to Hindu temples in Nepal and I thought that was great,” she added. “I’d watch the people around me.”
“Do you see similarities between different people of different faiths?” I just had to know.
“Uh-huh. And, just the vibe is generally very similar.”
“In a good way, I hope?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think Christian churches are a little different. I feel like, I don't know if it’s true, but Hindu temples, Taiwanese temples and Buddist temples all have a similar vibe, but churches here seem like they talk a lot more. In other places they might be chanting or singing or things I don't completely understand because its in a different language, but here people just talk. I feel like we should have peace and quiet rather than listen to a speech,” she concluded.
“That's an interesting observation.” And, it is.
“I feel like, to me, that if I want to be in a religion I should explore things and realize things myself, but here I'm just listening to somebody talk. So, that's kind of odd to me. Church a lot of the time is someone talking at you.”
“Do you think of yourself as a creative that just happens to use cooking as a means to an end?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think so,” she said. “I don’t work in a kitchen and I’m not a chef. And, I do a lot more than cooking. I do photography, art, travel, screen printing and more, so I struggle with the question of what do I call myself.” She paused. “Maybe content creator?”
“That seems to describe you well. You make things look good. Food is just one piece of your puzzle.” I couldn’t recall the word at the time, but she seems, to me, to be a polymath, or a polymath creative, to be more specific.
“Do you think your parents had any expectations for you?” I asked.
“Well, yeah. We're Asians, right?”
We both laughed before Tiffany continued.
“I honestly don't know anymore because I stopped caring. Those expectations don't really matter against what I want to do with my life. I want to do what I want to do. Maybe I'll achieve something and maybe I won't, but that's just life. I think they are happier now because they want me to do my own thing. They see the progress I'm making.”
“In your travels, which place has been your favorite?”
“Probably Sri Lanka,” she said.
“Where's the next place you want to travel?”
“Anywhere in South American or maybe Mexico.” She’s been to most continents besides Africa, Europe and South America.
“How would your closest friends describe you?”
“That I do anything and everything….Artsy and creative….A traveler.”
“In your design work, what's your favorite color to work with?” I’m not sure why this question popped into my head, but I asked it, anyway.
when She Speaks of the Ocean
“My color of choice has always been a color similar to tiffany blue, so like a teal or turquoise. I don't actually use that color much, but it’s one I've always been attracted to.
“Do you think that harkens back to your love of the ocean?”
“Possibly. Yeah. I think so.” It seemed this was the first time she’d made that connection. “I cried a lot when I watched Moana. Ten minutes in and I was a mess.”
“That was like home for you?”
“Describe the feeling you get when you are in the ocean?” I asked quietly.
“Free,” she said.
Her whole demeanor changed when she spoke of the ocean. It was as if she was describing her dearest friend; one she hadn’t seen in a long time and missed dreadfully.
“You're free to explore,” she continued. “There's no gravity. There are waves and somebody is constantly supporting you. There is life everywhere.” She sighed. “I could spend days in the ocean looking for little things.”
“Did you have an ocean collection when you were little?” I asked thinking of my daughter’s treasured rock collection.
“Yes. I had jars and jars and jars and jars of shells and rocks and sand. But, I don't have any of that anymore.”
What’s in a Name
“Is Tiffany Alexandria your given name?” I assumed it wasn’t, but then again what do I know.
“So, Tiffany is apparently the name that I chose when I was 4-years-old and in Kindergarten. They suggested I should have an English name and the teacher said there were two English name left to pick from - Tiffany or Ruby. And my 4-year-old self chose Tiffany.”
“Do you still like your choice?”
“Well, I like it better than Ruby!” She seemed pretty passionate about it. “Sorry all you Rubys out there.
“When I was 16, I found out that my uncle, who is from El Salvador, named me when I was baby, but my parents didn’t understand English, so they really didn’t have any idea. We didn't see him a lot because he lived in Hong Kong and so when he moved back to Taiwan and visited me he asked me my name. I thought that was a weird question, but I told him my name was Tiffany. Then he asked about the name he’d given me. I had no clue what he was talking about and he told me he’d given me the name Alexandria. My parents don't understand English. He said he named me after the queen of Greece or something like that. I don't remember exactly. I liked the name so I kept it.”
“As your last name?”
“What is your Taiwanese name?”
“Lu Ang. Lu is my last name.”
“Like in Chinese, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
I never asked which name she preferred. And, I should have.
At that point, photographer, Alicia, stopped in, so we wrapped up our interview. Alicia and Tiffany left to find a spot outside in the cold for a photo op while I was left chewing (no pun intended) on the conversation I’d just had.
There’s something unique about Tiffany. There’s something in her that drives her to explore: a a new place, a new dish, or a new culture. If it’s something she has never experienced before that’s what she wants to do. And, if it’s a place she’s never been that’s where she wants to be. Maybe that’s why she loves the ocean so much - the place where not even gravity can hold you back.