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Searching for Lu Rou Fan

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Comic panel of a bowl of braised pork over rice; the title reads "Searching for Lu Rou Fan."A subway train is traveling above ground in the rain. The narration reads, "One of my most memorable meals in the past few years was a bowl of lu rou fan; Taipei, Taiwan 2018." 1st speech bubble: "You sure this is a good idea, bro?" 2nd speech bubble: "Yeah! Don't worry..."

The two protagonists are seated in a train car; one of them checks his watch. 1st speech bubble: "I mean we have a 3 hour layover here in Taipei. That gives us like..." 2nd speech bubble: "...what, an hour?"

The blue-and-green facade of a small restaurant that opens out onto the street; rain is coming down. 1st speech bubble: "There it is! Jin Feng." 2nd speech bubble: "This cramped little place?" 3rd speech bubble: "This tiny restaurant has been selling the same dish, lu rou fan, for over 30 years!"

The two protagonists stand in front of the counter while a woman scoops meat over a bowl of rice. 1st speech bubble: "Lu rou fan is peasant food, chunks of hand-cut pork belly braised in soy sauce and aromatics, then ladled over rice." 2nd speech bubble: "All that for two dollars?!?"

The two protagonists, both bespectacled men, sit at a table devouring their lu rou fan, chopsticks in hand. Speech bubble: "I can't believe I've never had this. It's amazing! The pork is so tender! Mmm"

The two protagonists have finished their meal; one holds his stomach, stuffed. Speech bubble #1: "Lu rou fan is just something the Taiwanese side of my family grew up with." Speech bubble #2: "So good..." Speech bubble #3: "This reminds me of a story my uncle used to tell:"

The scene shifts to a flashback; a Taiwanese family sits around the dinner table, including an older gentleman in a white tank top. Speech bubble #1: "You know when we were younger our family didn't always have enough money to buy meat." Speech bubble #2: "This story again?" Speech bubble #3: "So we would go to the lu rou fan stall and ask:"

Scene shifts to an even earlier time. A young boy and girl stand in front of a food stall with their arms outstretched while the owner ladles meat onto a bowl of rice. Speech bubble 1: "This is all we have. Can you just scoop us some fat over rice?" Speech bubble #2: "PLEEEAASE???"

The scene shifts back to the old uncle telling his story, holding his chopsticks over a bowl of rice. Speech bubble #1: "That bowl of lu rou fan with no meat, just the fat..." Speech bubble #2: "...would be the best thing we ate all week!"

Three side-by-side panels show Luke tasting different versions of lu rou fan with an irritated expression on his face. The narration reads: "Here in the Bay Area I've spent years searching for a decent bowl of lu rou fan." Speech bubble #1: "So dry!" Speech bubble #2: "Why would they use ground pork?!?" Speech bubble #3: "Why is this one so sweet?!!"

A yellow food truck with the name "Mama Liu Taiwanese Street Food" painted in red above its awning. The narration reads: "But nothing really scratched that itch until a recent trip to Milpitas."

View from inside the truck, as an older woman passes food to Luke, who is waiting outside. Overhead narration: "Where Mama Liu was selling lu rou fan, stinky tofu, and other Taiwanese street foods." Speech bubble: "Just heat it up at home!"

Scene shifts to the front of a house on a rainy day; Luke stands in the window while Thien rushes over with his hand shielding his head. Speech bubble #1: "Sorry bro, we have to eat outside!" Speech bubble #2: "But I'm vaccinated! And it's raining!"

The two protagonists are sitting on the porch eating. The narration reads: "This was the old style lu rou fan we'd been craving." Speech bubble #1: "I love this hand-cut pork belly..." Speech bubble #2: "The sauce is just right!" Speech bubble #3: "And that egg!"

A zoomed out view of the two friends sitting on the porch. The narration reads: "And just like that it was like we were back in Taiwan again, swapping stories, eating our nostalgia." Speech bubble: "You know this dish reminds me of the time..."

KQED’s Eating Taiwanese in the Bay is a series of stories exploring Taiwanese food culture in all of its glorious, delicious complexity.

Thien Pham is a graphic novelist and high school teacher in Oakland. His food-based memoir about his family’s immigration story will be out in 2023 from First Second Books.

Luke Tsai is KQED’s food editor.

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