Eye On Taiwan
Date: June 16, 2016
By: David Wang
Obviously not an entrepreneur caught up in nostalgia for its own sake but one who is savvy enough to spice up a culinary tradition with contemporary touches. Christine Hung, seemingly in her late 30s and too persona-sensitive to allow herself in a photo on the evening of June 7, 2016, is as attractive as the allure of the pop-up or by-reservation-only catering in the Taiwanese banquet style.
Besides being an entrepreneur, Christine seems convinced of the value in preserving a dining tradition that has lost some luster in the Information Age but not timeless appeal.
Her pop-up catering business (as shown) is located in the former Flora Expo site in Taipei. Despite not being outdoors as is often traditionally the case, the setup breathes semi-alfresco air with the roof only partly covering the venue.
Also clearly trying to lighten the utilitarian, low-budget, old-world flavor of the catering style, Christine adds a couple trolleys carrying Euro-chic planters as well as a rolling bar to serve both Spanish and French wines as Torres Nina Sol (US$18.50/bottle) and Chamilly Nuit Blanche (US$24.60/bottle).
A banquet catered for 10 guests starts at about US$210 (www.majifoodanddeli.com). So far the website for the Maji Food venue does not offer an English version unfortunately.
Definitely an educated Taiwanese woman, unlike the waitresses and chefs of yore and likely those today in this trade, Christine promptly replied in English to my request also in English asking for a copy of the menu.
According to the introduction on the menu, Taiwanese banquet catered on round tables usually covered in red cloth may be traced back to the Sung dynasty. Informally served on roadsides, schoolyards, plazas of temples or community activity centers, the banquet is ordered to celebrate weddings, births, deaths, birthdays, New Year, elections, move-ins of new homes. More evidence of the pop-up nature of the catering service lies in the temporary set up of a gas-fired range to prepare dishes on-site.
Such banquet catering existed as early in Taiwan as when the Ching dynasty ruled the island. It was however mainly exclusive to the well-heeled who ordered chefs to cook at home. During the Japanese colonization, restaurants also offered catering to private homes. There was also a fledgling development in the farming community but without specialization. The cooking was done by culinarily-skilled neighbors and guests actually doubled as waiters.
The Taiwanese banquet catering began in the 1970s to have peaked in the 1980s. Superficially the catering service seems merely cooking food to serve on round tables. But, as with many other traditional rituals, one can tell the purpose of a banquet just from the food served. There are also various taboos and de rigueur details as the placement of tables and chairs as well as plate settings.
This style of catering is inherently cost-effective as it does without renting a venue, with the added advantage of enabling a host to spend more on quality ingredients. Since guests habitually critique a banquet afterwards, so a host dares not risk hiring a caterer who can’t deliver the optimal in visual presentation, taste and price.
Also perfectly in tune to the Taiwanese consumer preference for over-the-top and showy style, such banquet catering service gradually grew to have given birth to an entire supply chain. Providers of utensils, tables, chairs, logistics and purchasing services all developed alongside the business. Currently the hotbed of Taiwanese banquet catering is in the Nei-Men district of Kaohsiung, the major southern Taiwan city. Some 150 chefs are among the 10,000 residents, with 1 in 5 families relying on the trade for livelihood.
Initially hosts of pop-up Taiwanese banquet catering often relied on borrowing utensils and equipment. There was also a habit, which would surprise current day dumpster-divers, cheapskates and leftover-recyclers worldwide, among chefs who collected all the leftovers in a pot. Turnip and pickled cabbage were added to the pot of leftovers to slow cook. It was a convenient way not to waste food and make a light soup that also smelt of fish slow-cooked in soy-spiced sauce.
Clear differences exist between Taiwanese banquet catering in the north and south, not due to chefs’ culinary preferences but mainly due to the difficulty of sourcing ingredients. Generally such banquet tends to taste saltier in northern Taiwan but sweet in the south.
The variety in taste is also influenced by ethnic peculiarities as that of the Hakka community in Taiwan; while banquets catered near the coastal communities invariably feature seafood.
Diners in Taipei, the national capital in the north, tend to be more cosmopolitan and receptive to new experiences. So the banquets seen in the city often include fusion and Cantonese cuisines.
Diners in the south, usually seen as earthier, habitually brownbag leftovers, but not their counterparts in the north.
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