See you in a Millet
“Are you a gourmet or do you have a culinary column?” Mr. Wu asks me as we end our conversation. “No,” I respond. “I just really like donuts.”
I first noticed our local donut shop when we viewed the apartment we moved into in October of 2021. I wanted to check out the neighborhood and see what sort of local eateries or sites there were around the corner. Being an American, my nose tuned into the steamy fragrance of fried dough as naturally as a fly landing on a fresh turd. But there was something different about this smell…it wasn’t like the donuts I knew back in the “land of the free.” The sign of the shop where the decadent fried dough fragrance emanated from read 美濃泰涼(Mei Nong Tai Liang). It wasn’t the characters that caught my eye, but a couple of details about the shop itself. Underneath the sign, there were words that read “Since 1969.” Off to the side of the shop, there were stalks of cereal grass (the plant that produces millet) hanging upside-down. The stalks had been placed there purposefully and with care, reminding me of a tradition I’ve seen elsewhere to ward off evil spirits. This shop was not just a donut shop — this shop was a character from a story book, a giant at the end of a beanstalk, a Rumpelstiltskin salivating over a milky freshly born baby next to a pile of golden yarn.
A phantom door to another world.
A wormhole to the Land of Nod.
And the donuts were damn good.
What is Millet?
Millet is a small, round whole grain grown in India, Nigeria, and other Asian and African countries. Considered an ancient grain, it’s used both for human consumption and livestock and bird feed. (See this site for more details).
I’m not sure if I ever had a proper millet donut before coming to Taipei. I do, however, have a relationship with millet that reaches all the way back to when I first started working in China for an experiential education and travel company, The Hutong. It was on my first trip to Inner Mongolia (內蒙）where I went for research that I was introduced to Mongolian breakfasts. Extremely filling and hefty, these would be amongst my favorite global breakfast cuisine (the rice noodles in Yunnan are pretty top-notch as well) in all of China. I’d say that the closest thing I had to a millet donut before encountering my neighborhood shop in Taipei was a dish called 果子 (guo zi), a staple within the traditional Mongolian breakfast. Although not a donut in form (it lacks the required hole that gives donuts their identity), it wasn’t exactly fried bread either, because it was made primarily of millet. Whenever I would travel to Inner Mongolia for research trips, my stomach would often pay the price on the second day of research due to the fact that I became a bit zealous about the “guo zi,” the morning meat dumplings, meat-stuffed pancakes, slices of lamb meat with salty pickles, tofu “cheese” slices (奶豆腐）, and fresh yoghurt（奶交扣） (also mixed with sugar and millet). Switching a diet suddenly is a shock to the system, but I could never resist, even if my bowels literally beat the shit out of me the following day.
Mr. Wu’s Choice
“I decided to use millet because I’ve got a friend who’s Paiwan ethnic minority (排灣族）. The ethnic minorities in Taiwan often use millet for their staple foods and even make alcohol from millet （小米酒）.” Mr. Wu of 美濃泰涼
Contrary to what the sign says, this particular donut shop has not been around since 1969. That year honors the parent shop located in 美濃Mei Nong District outside of Kaosiung高雄 in Southern Taiwan. Honoring and paying homage to ancestral roots are core values that run deep in Chinese culture, and so it doesn’t come as a surprise that the shop is a recognition of the original shop, reflecting the filial piety so often put on a pedestal here.
“The shop down south is still in business. It was started by my parents. I ran it for a while, and then decided to come up to Taipei to give it a shot. That was in 2018 we opened this shop. The one down South just focuses on drinks, and it’s only the Taipei branch where we have these millet donuts.” Mr. and Mrs. Wu take turns explaining some of the history of this shop, as well as its namesake.
Mr. Wu decided to take the chance to open up his own shop in a city that wasn’t his own in 2018. At that time, his wife was working in another company, and they took the plunge together…in both love and in business. This dive landed them both directly in the center of a millet donut business, and they’ve never looked back since.
“If you want to start up a company, and you don’t come from a financially secure background, or if it’s in a city you’re unfamiliar with…you have to really think about what it is you want to do. You don’t just pick an industry at random. What’s it going to be? The service industry? Food and beverage? I thought long and hard about what it is I wanted to do, and why I wanted to come to Taipei. My wife was already here, my children where in school here.” — Mr. Wu
Family And Business
While Mr. Wu’s family still has a shop back in the original area of Meinong美濃 outside of Kaohsiung, the Taipei shop belongs to him and his wife alone. He has two college age daughters who aren’t in the business but still enjoy the occasional donut, one preferring the plum powder flavor, while the other is a fan of all the flavors.
“My parents. didn’t object to me moving from our hometown to Taipei. My wife and kids are here, so they supported me in the decision to relocate to Taipei and be with my family. At the time, my wife was working in a shipping company when I lived in Kaohsiung.” — Mr. Wu
Grab Them While They’re Hot
Regardless of what they are made of or where they are from, one of the common traits that all donuts share is that they are best eaten when fresh and hot. Unlike many of the big name donut shots (i.e. Krispy Kreme and Mr. Donut — both of which Mr. Wu professed to trying from time to time), it’s easy for customers to get donuts fresh out of the oil, and you only have to wait a minute or two for them to be prepared. Taking turns serving and collecting the cash, Mr. and Mrs. Wu are an excellent team, and they handle their “donut rod,” the long metallic tool they use to take the donuts out of the hot oil, with the ease and familiarity of a royal scepter inside the hand of an emperor. Although somewhat hidden away, the shop is not exactly off the beaten track and is well worth a visit in conjunction with sightseeing at Taipei’s Confucius and Bao’an Temples. After visiting and paying respects to both the Buddha and the Sage to fill the soul, there’s nothing like a hot cinnamon donut to fill the belly. I find myself fortunate to have Mr. and Mrs. Wu as neighbors. Each time I bite into the melting millet, my worries drift away and I can savor the moments, one bite at a time.