Thursday, January 1, 2009

Old photos, new year [1]: Taiwan Food Festival

Remember when I said I'd put up all those photos of the Taiwan Food Festival, and then I didn't? (Fail.)

So I'm putting a few of them up now. The Taiwan Food Festival is an annual event that is supposed to showcase Taiwanese cuisine, along with the Taiwan Traditional Beef Noodle Competition that sporadically takes place. I was lucky to have gone to Taiwan last summer during August, when the festival is held, but missed out on the noodle festivities. Tickets were NT$200 (approximately $6) and included a NT$50 discount on purchases.

After two buses and four inches of rain that August day, I made my way toward the Taipei convention center, shook off my umbrella and entered, only to beslightly disillusioned at my first glimpse of the Festival - an overglorified convention. For foodies, perhaps, but not the kind that could eat and eat and eat, too - you see, all the dishes on display were for display. The festival was a sight to behold, not a giant dish to gorge upon. Moreover, some of the samples were glazed over with a chemical so that their structure and color would remain intact (this technique is akin to shellacking Krispy Kremes to preserve them as objects; in eighth grade, my enterprenurial classmates actually did this to market their Krispy Kreme middleman skillz.) Many of the entries were from high-end hotels and beach resorts, showing off their five-star restaurants.

Also, samples weren't free. Pity for a Midwestern teen whose idea of a good shopping day at Byerly's is highly correlated with when they serve mint-chocolate-chip ice cream samples in those mini sugar cones (though the ice cream isn't great, okay? it's just that the cone is SO cute...)

That said, the whole festival was a solid two hours of taking pictures. There was also a food court, where I promptly spent well over my NT$50 discount on cactus ice cream (see below), sausages and dried pork and squid.

To my credit, I also earned a free towel embroidered with a star-spangled pig, above the words "U.S. Pork." This was the result of my answering the question, "From which country does Taiwan import the most beef?" in awkwardly loud English (Beef, pork, same thing.) I can understand most conversational Chinese but my speaking is not up to par, which limits me to two roles in these public settings - obnoxious tourist, or cute girl who was clearly not born here. But either one increases the likeliness of free stuff at conventions. It also gave me considerable leeway to stand as close as I could to the food for photos.

Now, the photos - we started out with a survey of what hotels were offering: shrimp and chive noodles.
We then ventured to the historical part of the Festival: what people ate in different periods of time. Special emphasis was placed on different Chinese dynasties, with a twist: images of traditional culture were cast in food. Below, a taro palace behind a gelatin walkway. The bricks are individually carved. Another historical scene, made entirely out of food. In case you wondering, those jugs are actually made out of beef liver. A better use than consumption?

One of the things that amazed me about the festival was how common the skill of carving was. The most we usually ever see in the U.S. is maybe a decent jack'o'lantern - where the holes you make forms the pumpkin's identity, but here, the figure - Buddha - is fully embodied in the squash itself.
Two phoenix (phoenices? phoenii?) carved out of daikon radish and carrot.
A full boat made of squash. Though I wonder how long it took to make that net.
A simpler carving, perhaps, but no less tasty:
From oldest to newest: the following exhibit talked about green trends in food. Pretty relevant to the sustainability/organic debate in the States. A variation on spring rolls:
And a smoothie (I still can't imagine how the whipped cream stands up on its own after two days. Thank goodness for food stylists.)
The food was indeed the star of the show...
...though I did get to watch a few minutes of Taiwanese Iron Chef, with professional chefs from all over the country. The chef here is plating four servings for four judges.
One of the entries, with a mSome foods just reminded me of home - two dishes had the same structure as Spoonbridge, the Oldenburg/Van Bruggen sculpture near my high school. (The two artists are known for making giant sculptures of everyday things.)

Speaking of art, culture 'n stuffz, the National Palace Museum, Taiwan's premier art museum, even had an exhibit where they displayed foods similar to their sculptures. Their most famous piece is the piece of soy sauce-marinated pork shown here, shown with a stone which was dyed and cut to resemble this traditional Taiwanese dish.Here's another sculpture, a cabbage carved out of jade.

And bittermelon, one of the few vegetables I refuse to eat. It's just so...bitter. And probably difficult to carve a replica of, too, given its bumpy exterior.As I mentioned, I tried cactus ice cream at the food court. I didn't know it was cactus for a while, but nearly everyone at the festival seemed to be carrying a cone of it, so I thought I'd join in. It was edible, and smooth - definitely not prickly. However, I really couldn't detect any taste except some sort of fruity juice. The consistency was more ice than cream, making it disappointing overall.

Unlike the sausages, which were piping hot and bursting with juice.
I concluded my day with a few more photos, and a few minutes after taking what I considered my "best shot" - featured at the top of the post - I left the festival; my stomach wasn't full, but my memory card was sure getting close.

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