There are quite a few ajjis (grandmothers) that I have adopted here in Taipei. The term ajji actually was bestowed on them by the Scientist (he has known to refer some of his friends by that name too – for these ‘girl friends’ were way older than him, but managed to look years younger!). The two ajjis I speak of today are my lifeline, when I am a) running late for work b) returning late from work or c) taking a break from my time in the kitchen. So you guessed it right, these are two dear old women, who do a good job of keeping our bellies full when hunger attacks.
Our first ajji, is a really sweet looking 60-something, who runs a breakfast shop next to the Scientist’s workplace (here in Taipei, the breakfast shops are generally open in early mornings until lunch time, while the others open at lunchtimes and stay open until dinner time). She is petite, with a blunt cut, always smiling, and always on her toes. The Scientist, needless to say, has been a long time customer, simply due to the fact that he has lived here longer than I. Also given the fact that as vegetarians, we cannot have much choice from the menu , ajji by now, knows what we will generally eat. That usually means cheese sandwiches, not the grilled cheese Mumbai sandwich, but toasted bread, with a slice of cheese, and some shredded cucumber and tomato ketchup thrown on the top. Or green onion pancakes, made from all purpose flour and the green shoots of onions, frozen – but toasted to a perfect crispness and served with soy and garlic sauce. The only variations to our orders are at times exchanging the sliced bread for burger bread, or noodles, which only the Scientist orders. Our particular order is also dictated by the time of the day we step into the shop. If it’s for breakfast, it’s usually the sandwiches, if it’s a Saturday, or lunch time affair, the onion pancake follows (see below).
This order is usually incomplete without a drink, mostly naicha or milk tea, iced or hot depending on the time of the year. The drink comes in a paper glass, with cute figures or sun signs on the cover (there is a cuteness overload here in Taipei, and you see such bits and bobs displaying this at all times – I sometimes feel I will miss that the most if I were to leave this place, and which I hope is not anytime soon!). I see huge jugs of black Lipton Yellow Label tea, made and stored for the day in the huge fridge, brought out one by one, as they are consumed. While I like to believe there is no additive in this drink, there is something which I can’t pin down, that makes it taste distinct to all other chas in the area. The tea, being naicha (nai = milk, cha = tea – this is where I get to show off my shuddh Chinese), this black tea is mixed with a creamer before being served. I have at times tried the coffee here too, but it is far too plain, and really not to my liking. So I stick to tea, come summer or winter (iced in summer, warm in winter).
Ajji’s place is not very big. It has only 5 tables, which you may have to share, if there are many customers, like on a Saturday or Sunday morning, and usually there are. There are plastic stools, and some wooden ones, like stumps at the entrance, where you can sit, while your order is being prepared. Each table has a handful of Chinese newspapers, and paper napkins. The whole entrance is taken up by an enormous counter, where Ajji (donning her apron, and sleeves rolled up) and her helper preside. You notice the stove for heating the pancakes, making omlettes, frying or roasting meat or dumplings, or making quick noodles. Then there are 4 toasters lined up for toasting bread, and almost all are at work during the busy mornings. Behind the toasting counters is the drinks counter, where a machine seals the drink glasses, once they are made and put in the slot. Most weekdays, Ajji is helped by one mousy woman, who is super efficient in executing orders, and by another guy who mans the drinks counter (we don’t like the tea he prepares, as he adds far too much cream and ice, and takes the sharpness out of the tea – Ajji, of course, makes it just right). Given that we have frequented her shop almost every week, I have had chance to notice, how efficiently everything is lined up to make the most on rushed mornings. The plastic bags and wrappers for sandwiches, a cardboard square to hold the paper cup, straws, plastic bags for take-aways, are all in their rightful places, which makes for quick execution in the morning office hours.
For most of ajji’s customers are office workers, who pick up breakfasts and drinks on the go. There are very few sit-down-and-eat customers on weekday mornings. That changes on weekends though. Then you see couples, young families with a kid or two, sometimes before or after the doctors’ appointment next door, or solitary folks, sitting down to a relaxed weekend brunch, reading their newspapers, or browsing their phones (perhaps catching Pokemons or playing video games).
Ajji’s helper leaves by 12:30 – yes now we know the timetable. The drink guy, has left earlier, he perhaps only comes for a few hours in the mornings. When we go for lunch, at times, with our multiple sandwich and pancake orders, Ajji is all alone. She is also winding it up for the day, cleaning up the place, ensuring everything is tidied up for the next day. Around this time, most of delivery wallas, make their bread, milk or water deliveries. I have always seen Ajji offer a packed sandwich and tea, to these guys. We too were offered one once, for free. Of course we had to decline as it was a meat sandwich. Ajji also is in charge of the cash counter. These days, since she recognizes us, our bill is communicated to us in English.
We don’t know much about Ajji. So we weave our stories about her, as our orders are made. Is she from here or the mainland we wonder? (It is our favourite pastime these days, to try and recognize the original Taiwanese and others) When must have she set up this business? And how? Will she retire in a few years? Then we see a couple of young helpers on the weekend, helping her out. Our hypothesis is, Ajji is planning to hand over her breakfast shop to the young blood, and is now giving them practical hands-on training. Are they related to her – perhaps her grandchildren? Or complete strangers? Will they continue the breakfast traditions? Or will they completely the change the menu?
We do not know. Only time will tell.