Old Chef Beef Noodles

Old Chef Beef Noodles.

Feast. 牛肉麵, níu ròu miàn, (Beef Noodles, Taiwan’s national dish).

Before I touched down in Taiwan, I had it in my mind to visit a particular beef noodle place that I frequented as a kid, but unfortunately upon arrival, my mother informed me that that particular restaurant simply wasn’t up to par anymore- she merely took me there for convenience. Instead, she recommended “Old Chef Beef Noodles,” a quaint little restaurant that she had been frequenting with her own mother. As delicious as this new location sounded, part of me still had a calling for the old location- just as a formality, to relive the first one-tenths of my life. My mother rebutted that she didn’t remember where the restaurant was; I’m not sure if this was a ploy to completely drown the idea, or if she actually didn’t remember. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt, and that perhaps I actually would’ve been disappointed in that experience.

"Old Chef Beef Noodle"

My want of the old noodle place quickly dissipated as I dug in. I ordered the traditional braised beef noodles, which included the use of tomato. My mother ordered the clear broth beef noodles, since her palate has always had a preference for lighter flavors. This was fortunate, since variety in between diners always leads to mini-tasting-sharing-sessions that increases the amount of food one tries, all at a discounted price.

Dark braise.
Light tan.

While strolling the streets of Taiwan, the memories that I had as a ten-year old returned to me as if it were yesterday. Most of this, I believe, was attributed to the efficacy of the olfactory memory (sense of smell). My grandmother’s apartment smelled of the same incense, as with the warm “Taiwan air” of neighboring streets. There were the smells of the earthy open-air markets, the fried-food stands, and the fresh chopped pork, all mixed in with the slight smell of the sewage drainage system. The audio input was present as well- the “put-put” of scooters against the ambient traffic noise, the buses’ hydraulic flatulence, and of course, the screaming Taiwanese vendors (whom were usually louder and higher pitched than most traffic).

The association of smell is perhaps one of the most powerful methods of imprinting memories; this is linked to the fact that olfaction is highly correlated with chemesthesis, which is essentially “tasting by smell.” Two things contribute to the power of olfactory senses. One, our sense of taste only can distinguish about five different tastes, whereas olfactory senses can “distinguish” or process a hundred compounds both on exhalation and inhalation (the number may even be greater). Tasting by exhalation can be considered “retronasal breathing.” Secondly, olfactory senses bypass the thalamus and link directly to the forebrain- a direct connection implies less filtering and thus, a more reinforced memory.

Memories can also be formed through conditioning. Emotional eating, for example, is heavily tied to the current emotional environment: grief, physical illness, high-stress, happiness…etc. Food can often provide comfort and/or a source of pleasure, especially if the food is rendered highly palatable by any devious/brilliant combination of fat, salt, sugar, and/or particular flavor modifiers. Subsequent release of neurotransmitters caused by the ingestion of such food in accordance to a particular emotional or environmental stressor imprints an association. These associations can then be recalled under similar conditions.

The idea of childhood food cravings are an interesting thing to analyze, since most of our taste aversions and preferences are established while we’re younger. This statement, of course, is rife with exceptions, as our likes and dislikes constantly change with new expectations and experiences. Lots of these changes sometimes have nothing to do with food at all, but rather, deals with the dominant emotion at a particular moment of consumption, a particular smell that wafts into the room at the same time, or a synonymous feeling of comfort (paired with food).

We all have those types of “trigger scenarios,” where something all of a sudden sounds amazingly good, and not just in the way that edibles are palatable or delightful. It’s the “I gotta have it now, so let’s drive to the nearest 24-hour supermarket-oh we’re out of gas?-sure, we can walk the twenty miles no problem” kind of craving. It’s a surreal throwback to a nostalgic time that we want to grasp, and usually, it’s through food that we’re able to relive that particular experience. That being said, no one should want to or be able to live permanently in this “nostalgic throwback” simply because the past experience is in the past and can’t exactly be recreated in the present. It’s never going to be complete, as hard as one tries. Times will change, and sometimes, the ingredients do as well, which tells us to savor now, so that we will eventually and inevitably miss it later- but not miss it now.

(This of course, is not an endorsement to go out and buy a shipping container of your favorite ice cream so you can have it until you’re 125 years old…but I wouldn’t judge…least you’ll never run out of freezer space).