Eyes Wide Open: The Taiwan Culinary Exhibition

Each August at the Taipei World Trade Center, the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition attracts a huge crowd for every one of its four days. It’s a balls-out parade of some of the most elaborate, exciting, artistic, enticing and baffling foods on Mothership Earth.

Oh, and did I mention? It’s entirely in Chinese.

If there was ever a case-study argument for the PicTranslator app, this place is it. Here it was only my second day in Taiwan, and I’d been willingly tossed into the nerve center of the country’s most popular and potentially overwhelming form of culture — its food.

The last time I’d walked into a situation so mystifying? My first-ever day of school.

Outside on the street it was 106° F, and the air conditioning in the convention hall was straining to keep up with demand. My eyes were full of color-splashed signage and a smiling crush of human beings, and the air smelled of fresh shrimp, sugar and something delightfully fried. Breaking free of my group of fellow writers, my head swiveled madly like that of, well…a tourist.

I’d have sworn that every restaurant and chef in the island nation of Taiwan was represented here. Each booth offered its own brand of dazzle: flayed fish, woks aflame, sushi a-rolling, cocktail shaking, cake baking and a gleaming waxworks of stuff that couldn’t handle the blazing lights. There were cooking classes, cooking contests, and scantily-clad young women teaching middle-aged men about what I’d like to think was nutrition.

I was enchanted by glossy red and pink wedding loaves that you save and then stomp upon a first child’s birth. I was intrigued by the shadowy purview of the Mushroom Authority. I was downright fascinated by the inscrutable Room of Righteous Rice.

By the time I watched a guy conduct a noodle symphony amidst steam and chopped green onion, I was getting hungry. The food court aisle was a two-lane fascination of skewered and stir-fried pleasures, none of it familiar, all of it seemingly delicious and reasonably cheap. I’d been promised an enormous lunch, though, and staved off my cravings with a small stack of sake crackers and a couple of leh teu koh, rich, sweet and loamy cookies made of mung bean flour and formed in a hand-carved wooden cookie press.

Here’s an idea of the glorious visual overload involved in a two hour wander ’round the show.



But wait…there’s more.



And those mung bean cookies I mentioned? Here’s how they’re formed.



When it was at last time for real food, I allowed myself to believe that we’d be sampling the treasures displayed on the table beside the roped-off VIP lunch section. An absolutely spectacular array of designs, these turned out to be famous Taiwanese chefs’ illustrations of their favorite childhood food memories.



Cool idea, but this fish made me a little worried for the chef’s childhood.  



Turned out, these flights of fancy weren’t for public consumption. The exhibition’s special lunch would be a 12-course banquet of traditional Taiwanese culinary representations of the life cycle, from birth to death. Each dish was presented and introduced by the chef, explained to our group in (halting) English, and still…I didn’t quite get it. If the room hadn’t been so loud or if there’d been a menu that I could later translate, I think it would have all made more sense. But hey, at least it was never boring.



Clockwise from top left: scallops, chili and pickled pork; enormous prawns and onions in…no one could quite say; an oily soup of coiled eel, tofu triangles and imitation crab; and stewed onions accompanying the sliced lungs of a pig.

Our group of foreign writers had no sooner taken our tiny wooden seats when our table was surrounded by photographers and TV cameramen from across the country; in sitting down to a uniquely Taiwanese meal amidst the wildly popular exhibition, we had unwittingly become news. Eating a litany of strange, complex (and often under-salted) foods with an audience was one of my most unusual dining experiences, but at least I didn’t go through it alone.  



[This photo was taken with my friend Kelsy Chauvin‘s camera and includes Kelsy (foreground), Marie Elena Martinez (to my left), Nealey Dozier (with camera), and several members of what I’d call “the Taiwanese food paparazzi.”]


If you ever plan to be in Taipei in mid-August,
definitely visit the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition for an hour or so,
bring some Taiwanese cash and have lunch in the food court,
and then go do something calm, cool and quiet afterwards.

Open from 9:30am – 5:30pm,
it costs $250NT (about $8US) to enter ($150NT/$5US) for those over 65).
The reservations list for daily lunch banquets opens in early June. _____________________________________________________________

My visit to the Taiwan Culinary Exhibition
was sponsored by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau,
but all observations and opinions are my own.


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