FEATURE/Sizzling up Kigali: How Taiwanese gourmet food arrived in Rwanda
By Chung Yu-chen and James Lo, CNA staff reporter and writer
Anyone walking around BK Arena in the Rwandan capital of Kigali who has tasted Taiwanese cuisine might be surprised to smell the fragrance of familiar dishes in the air.
A visitor could even be overwhelmed by the aroma of Taiwan's famous beef noodles, chive buns and dumplings if they visit the neighborhood on the right day.
These delectable flavors can be traced to Sizzling Plates Restaurant, a small diner located just across from BK Arena.
Patrons of the eatery have a plethora of traditional Taiwanese food from which to choose, whether it is vegetarian appetizers such as Taiwanese braised tofu or spicy entrees like Mapo Tofu, not to mention Taiwan's staple braised pork rice and potstickers.
The restaurant also offers special deals on dumpling dishes on Thursdays and Sundays, while a special phone call to the eatery a few days ahead of a visit gives Taiwanese owner Teresa Fang (方薏婷) enough time to prepare her signature soup dumplings which are only available by special request.
Besides juggling her duties as the restaurant's owner and head chef, Fang, 36, is also a busy mother whose Japanese husband works for the United Nations in Africa.
The family has traveled across Africa as a result of her husband's work and the couple eventually decided to settle down in Rwanda where both parents can work while their children grow up in an environment that is more stable and safe than neighboring nations, Fang said.
With degrees in health economics and biochemistry, plus previous work experience as a researcher and tutor at graduate school, Fang originally planned to look for a job within her field of expertise.
However, with the outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the couple were forced to come up with alternative job solutions for Fang when the companies she had set her heart on stopped hiring.
That was when the chance of purchasing a restaurant across the street from East Africa's biggest indoor arena presented itself. Only then did Fang decide to make a hard turn in her career path and pursue cooking fulltime.
She recalled the joy of challenging herself to recreate the flavors of hometown food when studying at an overseas high school, followed by the excitement of making dumplings for her husband when they were in Australia and the subsequent happiness she felt making healthy food for her young children.
Fang also said that one of her biggest motivations was her father who passed away in February 2020.
"I reflected on the time we had together and how he truly lived in accordance with the 'love what you do and you will never work a day in your life' philosophy," Fang told CNA. "He truly enjoyed his work and always encouraged us to do what makes us happy and stay healthy."
Fang said her father loved helping others with things no one else would do, even if it took time out of his own schedule, adding that it was his attitude that inspired her to pursue what she truly loves in life.
Sizzling Plates opened its doors in early 2020 amid the global pandemic, an act which Fang attributes to her personality of needing to get things done.
The restaurant first tailored to the expat population looking to satisfy their desire for something different from easily accessible Rwandan cuisine. Eventually, the dishes became popular and customers kept coming back with friends through word of mouth.
In the two years since the restaurant opened, Fang said she has even served six to seven fellow Taiwan nationals.
Unlike most Taiwanese foods, however, Fang's recipes come from her desire to source local products and her background as a health economics expert. She imported raw materials which she uses as ingredients for dishes served at her restaurant.
"I have always been very health conscious with my background in biochemistry and of course after I become a mom," Fang said. "I tend to use natural ingredients to make food for my family. After moving to Rwanda, I have to cook almost everything from scratch because it's not easy to find Asian condiments."
Not only does she insist on using no MSG in her food, Fang also makes sure no artificial flavoring is added to the Rwandan soybeans which she uses to make home-made tofu for her eatery.
Fang also taught her employees how to use a dough roller to turn Rwanda's wheat flour into Taiwanese buns and dumplings.
Thanks to her insistence on using healthy ingredients and the unique flavors of Taiwanese cuisine, Sizzling Plates currently has an exclusive menu that sets her food apart from other Asian restaurants in the area.
When asked about the challenges in Rwanda, Fang points to the language and cultural differences she faces everyday, such as the pace of daily life and managing a restaurant in a country that has an unstable power grid and water supply.
The challenges aside, Fang said she and her family are content and happy in the African country and will continue to bring the sizzle to Kigali.
"I really enjoy raising my kids here." she said. "I cherish it's natural environment and the simplicity which is so rare in other countries. My kids also enjoy living here. I don't know where life is going to take us, but for now we are just enjoying ourselves here."
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