Baby Taiwanxifu turns one month on Friday. We are celebrating the traditional Taiwanese way, by giving sticky rice and red eggs to close friends and relatives. Of course, we wanted the best and we ordered tasty parcels from a business patronised by a prominent Taiwanese billionaire.
Twenty-eight days after the birth of a child is the occasion for big celebration in Chinese culture. Once upon a time, infant mortality rates were high so parents didn’t get excited too soon lest their child not make it. The month mark, known as ‘full month’ (满月 man yue), is the traditional time for proud parents to show off their healthy baby to friends and family.
Not so long ago, Taiwanese parents only celebrated the birth of their son. (There is still an unfortunate preference for sons in Taiwanese culture, but that’s another story). And they did this by giving friends and family boxes of sticky rice (油飯 youfan, literally ‘oily rice’) and red eggs. The red eggs symbolise life and happiness, as red is the colour of happiness in Chinese tradition. I am not sure what the sticky rice symbolises, other than it being delicious. The birth of a girl was not traditionally celebrated, but these days some people still give out youfan and eggs (with an odd number of eggs to symbolise a girl). Increasingly, people give out elaborate cake or cookie boxes instead.
We looked at various options for giving gifts to close friends and family. In the end, we chose sticky rice and red eggs because this is still the expected way to celebrate the birth of a son. But the rice and eggs packages are logistically difficult to deliver, which perhaps explains the growing preference for cake and cookie sets. The rice packages are usually provided hot, and the onus is on the family of the baby to deliver them. As with all fresh food, the sticky rice must be delivered within hours to maintain freshness so are not always suitable for courier delivery (despite the efficiency of the logistics service run by convenience stores such as 7-Eleven). Mr Taiwanxifu is out as we speak, with a list of Taipei addresses that he needs to drop off rice and egg boxes to this afternoon. We have tried to keep the list short so that he does not exhaust himself (we are up throughout the night with baby). It must bring back to him memories of his student job as a pizza delivery man.
Mr Taiwanxifu did a lot of research to find the ‘right’ shop from which to buy the sticky rice and eggs. Some places produced beautifully elaborate bento-style boxes, sometimes wrapped Japanese-style in floral cloth designs. Sticky rice and egg packages can be big business, with wedding shops that produce special bridal cakes (喜餅 xibing) also putting out stylish rice and egg boxes.
But Mr Taiwanxifu eventually bought our rice from a nondescript stand in the Yongle wet markets on the advice of our confinement nanny, Mrs Yang. Linhefa (林合發) sticky rice is a fourth generation business that specialises, amongst other things, in sticky rice boxes to celebrate baby’s first month. It makes its sticky rice fresh daily, and does not add preservatives. Being a small stand, they can only make limited amounts that must be ordered in advance. They were already booked out for Friday, which is why Mr Taiwanxifu ordered the sticky rice for today.
Although the sticky rice and red egg boxes at Linhefa are less fancy than elsewhere (and also fairly reasonably priced starting from NT$185 for a large box with a chicken drumstick that easily feeds two), they are famous. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Honhai (trading as Foxconn), ordered sticky rice and egg boxes to celebrate the birth of his younger two children born to his second wife. Foxconn is a multinational company, assembling electronic devices including Apple products such as the iPad and iPhone. Foxconn is the largest employer in China: one factory in Shenzhen has 350,000 employees alone. Gou, whose estimated networth is US$4.8 billion, can afford to buy any type of sticky rice he likes. Yet he choses this small nondescript stand with its simple red packaging.
According to Mrs Yang, Gou grew up in humble circumstances near the Yongle markets. As a child, he often ate at the markets, including at the Linhefa sticky rice stand. So for him, the rice carries memories and significance. It is also pretty good, as I discovered from sampling some this afternoon. The sticky rice mixture is covered with fried mushrooms, and accompanied by a generous sized chicken drumstick. Sometimes it really is true that the simplest things in life often are the best.
While giving mass produced products such as packaged cakes is probably easier to order and deliver, I like the fact that by giving out sticky rice and red eggs we are helping to keep an important tradition alive. And hopefully, our family and friends who receive the rice will enjoy eating it as well.
Linhefa sticky rice is at stall 1041 in the Yongle markets, number 21 Dihua St, Taipei (永樂市場 ). To order sticky rice boxes call 2559 2888 or fax 2555 8858.