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Postcard from Taipei

Andrew Solomon reports on his adventures at the banquet table.

An Elegant Party, attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD)

An Elegant Party, attributed to Emperor Huizong of Song (r. 1100–1125 AD)

Mainland China may have more land and more political power and more people than Taiwan, but Taiwan has more good food, and no one on the island will let you forget it for an instant. When I visited recently, I was introduced to the cuisine with much the same air of solemnity with which I was introduced to the prime minister. In the course of 10 days, I attended 11 banquets, one of which had more than 40 courses; the most modest had 12 courses, and the host apologized several times for the “simple home-type meal.” Even in Paris, I have never eaten so elaborately or so well.

Chinese table manners are as complex and ritualized as the food itself, and it’s hard to master them. I did observe this much. A banquet always takes place at a large round table. The guest of honor is seated opposite the door. Each dish is served first to the guest of honor, then to the first few people to his left, then the first few people to his right and so on, around the whole circle. You have two napkins: a Western one, which is dry and sits in your lap, and a Chinese one, which is moistened and sits in a small silver tray to the left of your plate. The Chinese napkin gets changed regularly. The meal usually begins with a few courses to be eaten with chopsticks, followed by a soup or something souplike in a bowl, more chopstick courses, more soup, more chopstick courses and yet more soup. You start eating as soon as you are served – assuming, of course, that the guest of honor has already taken a bit – so that the flow of food continues unbroken.

Toasting is endlessly complex. Alcoholic beverages – whisky or brandy or Chinese wine – are served in beakers, which you use to fill a tiny glass. When you wish to drink, you generally propose a toast to someone else at the table, who also has to drink. You do not say anything. You simply lift your glass with your right hand – your left hand underneath in support – and nod to the person to whom you are drinking; then you raise your glass and nod again before putting it down. Who toasts whom and when was beyond my Westerner’s capacity to understand.

Should you find yourself in my situation, do anything you can to avoid a plate of spiced shredded pig’s ears, which are rubbery and cartilaginous at once. And bear in mind that though the occasional braised sea slug is not without its charms, a whole bowl of them is curiously revolting. But do not miss the opportunity to have tree fungus, a smoky woody delicacy, or swallow’s nest soup, a really wonderful dish priced to make caviar look cheap. The gelatinous wisps that give this milky, sweet liquid its ambrosial perfumey flavor are what the swallows use to hold their nests together. I also loved three-cup chicken, which is made with a cup of rice wine, one of soy sauce and one of black sesame oil, plus slices of ginger, all cooked with the chicken at high heat in a sealed clay pot so that the meat caramelizes. This rich and satisfying dish, accompanied by little cakes made of congealed pig’s blood with sticky rice, goes nicely with stewed bitter winter melon.

Between banquets it’s fun to visit a congee restaurant and see how the other half eats. Taiwanese peasants used to boil rice and the much cheaper sweet potatoes with a lot of water and add tiny amounts of other foods for flavor. Now dozens of restaurants throughout Taipei serve this sweet potato congee (which is white and orange and very pretty) in a big pot from which everyone ladles as much as he wants. Other dishes – small servings of braised vegetables and the like – may be eaten in sequence or in combination. You compose the meal for yourself as you go along, like a chopped salad. Ten years ago, only the poorest of the poor ate sweet potato congee; these days, congee restaurants are the epitome of chic.