Eating tofu pudding again
Not Proustian, but close enough
I finish a warm bowl of hot and sour soup at a small restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. I check my watch. It is 6:15 p.m., and I have some time to kill before heading to the Museum of Illusions at 8. I am full, but a gut feeling tells me that I have to eat something memorable. I mean, when will I get to eat delicious, authentic Chinese food again? I decide to search for some food recommendations nearby. As I scroll through an article titled “Guide to Manhattan Chinatown” on Resy, nothing stands out to me until I see the words “tofu pudding” in a review of Fong On, an old family shop famous for its tofu pudding. Finding this place feels like hitting the jackpot. The last time I had tofu pudding was in Taiwan more than five years ago. I enjoyed eating this dessert while living there, but the absence of tofu pudding in the United States made me cherish the dessert even more.
There are enticing desserts all around me, such as Keki’s bouncy cheesecake or the original Chinatown ice cream, but I don’t hesitate to decide on tofu pudding. I had to go to Fong On. I couldn’t deprive myself of this sensory experience anymore. Even though I could still remember the heavenly taste of tofu pudding, these vivid memories became fainter over time. Eating tofu pudding was the closest thing I had to a time machine, allowing me to travel back to my late childhood days in Taiwan.
After taking a couple of detours and walking through nearly a foot of unplowed snow on Forsyth Street, I finally see the store’s sign. I expect to see something that evokes the shop I frequented in Taiwan: an old wooden sign with Chinese calligraphy, some red lanterns outside, or a simple indoor layout with wooden stools indicating both the store’s age and coziness. But it is the opposite of what I fantasized. The shop’s spotless white interior makes me think of a newly built franchise instead of a traditional family-run business. The street is empty and no one is inside. I start to panic. Are my expectations of this shop far from reality? But it is too late for me to turn around because I already spent ten minutes walking here, so I enter the store.
The menu is presented simply on a chalkboard, yet it overwhelms me. Taro balls, aloe, grass jelly, red bean, the list goes on. What do I choose from these toppings? Not to mention that I also need to decide between ginger, brown sugar, or almond syrup. I want to eat all of the toppings again, but I am limited to three choices. My brain feels paralyzed. I sheepishly ask the shop worker the difference between their main offerings. I wonder why ordering tofu pudding, a once-familiar habit, feels so foreign to me. I can spend another minute or two thinking about which toppings I like the most, but my intuition tells me to order the Green Machine – tofu pudding topped with mung beans, tapioca pearls, and aloe. I often had cold mung bean soup as a simple summer treat back at home, but its pairing with tofu pudding makes it sound refreshing. Maybe it was the simultaneous feeling of familiarity and novelty that drew me into this combination. Maybe it was the craving for sweet mung beans that reminded me of home, aspects that I couldn’t bring with me to college. Picking this dessert out of countless possibilities simply felt right.
Because the shop is designed for takeout, I have nowhere to sit down and eat besides the lonely bench in a tiny patch of green space across from Canal Street. It is 16 degrees outside and dark. As I gingerly pour the ginger syrup onto the tofu pudding, I can’t contain my excitement. It is this typical Chinese dessert sitting in my lap that can act as a key to unlock memories I have forgotten.
The moment I take my first bite, a flood of wonderful feelings comes rushing towards me. I enter an utter state of bliss. The soft, warm, silky, sweet tofu melts in my mouth. This sensation is what I need the most on this cold winter day. Eating the dessert feels like a gentle kiss on the lips. The ginger’s strong flavor conjures recollections of the ginger tea that my mom made me when I had a sore throat. Growing up, I detested the burning, hot sensation of ginger, but now I love the syrup’s sudden sharpness that makes my tongue tingle and tickle. Eating the tofu pudding drenched in ginger syrup provides me with a sense of security and the comfort of home and family, despite being on the opposite side of the country. Combining the chewy tapioca pearls with tofu pudding makes the pearls taste so much more satisfying, a feeling I never experienced when drinking boba. The mushy yet granular mung beans make it hard for me to slow down and truly savor each morsel. Trying the juicy, gelatinous aloe topping for the first time with tofu pudding feels strange at first, but ends up being electrifying.
I am alone near a busy intersection in the freezing weather, but eating the tofu pudding makes my surroundings vanish. The physical warmth of the dessert brings back a familial warmth. I reminisce about the many times my family went to the tofu pudding shop after our monthly dinners at the neighboring dumpling restaurant, sitting together and sharing customized bowls of tofu pudding. These were the times when everyone in the family was happy and at peace. I feel like I am back in my ten-year-old self once again, content with the joys in life as simple as tofu pudding. As a kid, my satisfaction didn’t require the constant validation of test scores or awards. All I needed was a yummy treat. As I eat, I embrace the nonchalance and carefree attitude that was a part of my younger identity, only to dwindle over time as I grew older.
After I finish my tofu pudding and leave Chinatown, I still think about its lingering taste when I take the 6 train uptown. More eventful things happened throughout the trip, from touring the Brooklyn Museum to visiting the Met, yet this experience stands out from the rest. I wonder whether I can classify this event as a Proustian moment, a phenomenon in which sensory stimuli involuntarily evoke forgotten but significant memories. Although the emotions I experienced paralleled Proust’s madeleine scene to a great extent, I can’t quite label this incident as Proustian because I consciously chose to eat tofu pudding beforehand to elicit memories. Unlike Proust, I didn’t start off not knowing why the food’s scent or taste made me feel so nostalgic.
Despite not falling under that precise definition, this small yet meaningful experience of the trip is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I started this quest for tofu pudding with the intention of revisiting Taiwan, but my actual purpose turned out to be about going back to childhood and immersing myself in nostalgia. I know that this experience will never be a substitute for childhood experiences, but it is still one step closer to reliving the past, something that I thought was long gone and out of my reach.