Home Cooking and Secondhand Books

The IBU Book Café

2020 / March

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

When you walk into the IBU Book Café, in a lane off Nanxing Road in Yilan County’s Dongshan Township, the first sight that greets your eyes is a wall covered with a dazzling array of books, while your nose is met by a light fragrance of coconut and a heavy smell of spices. This is a place where you can borrow books and try out some Southeast-Asian cuisine, and it is also a space where migrant workers and long-term immigrants from Southeast Asia can interact. It is the result of social practice by an assistant professor who studies Southeast-Asian issues, plus the dreams of two immigrants, in combination with a policy promoted by the Dongshan Township Office.

On a rare sunny day in the empty streets of downtown Dongshan, local historian Luo Jikun leads a tour group through the old part of town. Making their way into an ordinary-­looking side lane, the group stops before a three-story building with luxuriant and airy foliage out front.

“This is a restaurant run by immigrants. It’s unique in that it operates on a rotational basis, with women from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam taking their turns in the kitchen. This restaurant was not opened to make money, but to provide a place where migrant workers and immigrants can learn Chinese and meet each other. It does things that the government should normally take care of, offering a space for Southeast-Asian migrant workers and immigrants to study Chinese and borrow books free of charge based on the concept of ‘book-crossing’” (people donating secondhand books to be shared with others).

Speaking in a relaxed, unhurried voice, Luo adds, “I encourage everyone to come here to read. It’s free if you read standing up, but if you want to sit you have to make a purchase. Everyone has books they can donate, and people can come here to eat. By supporting them we can solve social problems, which is what I find most moving.”

The comforting tastes of home

This place is the first project under the Dongshan Township Office’s subsidy program for revitalizing old buildings. Liang Li-fang, one of the IBU Book Café’s founders, is an assistant professor in the Institute of Health and Welfare Policy at National Yang-Ming Univers­ity. Liang was conducting a survey on migrant ­labor health issues when she met Henny Kartika, an immigrant from Indonesia who was working as an interpreter at Nanfang’ao Fishing Harbor. In the course of their traveling around together, Kartika mentioned a dream she had had in mind for many years.

Kartika, who came to Taiwan as a bride more than 20 years ago, wanted to have a space to share Southeast-Asian cuisine. Fortunately, this was just at the time when the Dongshan Township Office began promoting its building revitalization program, putting her dream within reach.

Kartika’s notion was based on a feeling she held in common with many immigrant wives and migrant workers. She prepared three meals a day at her in-laws’ house, but her husband and parents-in-law never got used to the flavors of coconut milk and hot spices, and even her children turned up their noses at Indonesian cuisine. In the quiet late hours of the night, she would make a familiar dish, and only then would she find some solace for her homesickness amidst the loneliness of living in a foreign land.

IBU opened at the end of 2019. Ibu is Indonesian for “mother,” and the name was chosen because it is immigrant mothers from various Southeast-Asian countries who have married into Taiwanese families that are respons­ible for the cooking.

The fragrance of spices

The menu, which changes every week, is written on a blackboard. Deena Bouchard, a Filipina, and Henny Kartika are currently the regular chefs in the kitchen, occasion­ally assisted by other immigrant moms on Sundays. Because of cost and income considerations, the two chefs have jobs teaching Indonesian and English during normal working hours, so the restaurant is only open from Thursday to Sunday each week.

Bouchard, who was born in Baguio in the Philippines, is married to a Taiwanese man who is an American citizen. She came with her husband to Taiwan 23 years ago, and has always harbored a dream of opening her own restaurant.

She is especially skilled at making Philippine-style pumpkin cinnamon rolls and avocado tiramisu (which in the summer becomes mango tiramisu). She sprinkles a cream cheese sauce that she makes herself on the cinnamon rolls with pumpkin paste filling. The treat has a fresh lemony fragrance and a rich coconut aroma, and is often specially ordered by customers, either to eat in or carry out.

Kartika’s chicken and rice with green coconut sauce is a delicious dish popular with diners. She takes fresh pandan leaves from the café’s garden and extracts the juice from them to make pandan rice, which has a delicate fragrance. She accompanies this with chicken steeped in a special marinade that includes turmeric, coriander, cumin and lemongrass, giving it a rich and powerful aroma.

The IBU Book Café also holds periodic “satay nights.” Kartika prepares both Medan-style and Java-style satay, and gets Indonesian migrant workers to grill the meat. Sitting at the tables, full of appreciation for the delicious food, migrant workers and Taiwanese friends learn basic greetings in each other’s languages, narrowing the gap between them.

Meeting the needs of migrant workers

In Chinese, the IBU Book Café is in fact one place with two names: “IBU Kitchen” and “Dongguashan Bookshop.” On a bookshelf stands a sign that reads “Brilliant Time Bookstore, Dongshan Branch,” indicating that the shop is carrying on in the spirit of the Southeast-Asia-themed Brilliant Time Bookstore in New Taipei City. The book café embraces the ideal of “only lending, not selling,” putting into practice the concept of “book-crossing.”

Besides providing a relaxing reading space, the initial motivation for founding the bookshop was to solve ­problems that migrant workers face in their lives and jobs in Taiwan. Therefore, the bookshop currently offers Chinese classes each Wednesday for foreign caregivers, and each Saturday for Indonesian factory workers, to help them learn language that can be useful to them in their jobs.    

Henny Kartika is able to understand the needs of migrant workers and immigrants because she has been there herself. Born in Sumatra, she is half Chinese and grew up in Indonesia at a time when there was strong anti-Chinese sentiment there. After marrying into a family in Taiwan, unable to speak the local languages, she was looked down upon by neighbors who thought she had only come to Taiwan for financial gain. Through her actions Kartika proved that she was willing take her share of the responsibility for the family finances: She learned Chinese side by side with her primary-school child, starting from scratch, and after getting a certificate of completion and becoming fluent in both Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, she went to work as an interpreter for migrant workers, gradually building up her professional self-confidence.

It is especially important for Kartika that her son, who is currently in university, has begun to learn Indonesian from her. Amidst the movements of her life, Taiwan is no longer a foreign land, but is her home, where she can realize her dreams and help others. 

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