Sunday, February 5, 2012

Eating Out Taiwan-Style


Here's an account of our first experience at a Taiwanese restaurant:

The restaurant was in a neighborhood not too far from the plant. When we got out of the car, a man came briskly up to A-tai with food in his mouth and greeted him heartily. A-tai introduced us to him, and he was ever so happy to meet us! He was loud and obnoxious, especially in Western terms of daytime public behavior. Ironically, A-tai told us this man is a city councilman of some kind.

We went on to our place in the restaurant. Our table was in a big outdoor room that was divided in half by accordion doors. There was another group of people eating behind the accordion doors, including A-tai’s loud friend. The room was like a patio in that it had one wall that was glass and had a double sliding screen door for entering from the open yard in front. Inside, the table was round and could seat 10 people (there were 6 of us). In the middle of the table was a huge lazy Susan.

I had read that Taiwanese etiquette for going to a restaurant with a group is as follows: one person acts as the host. The host orders for everyone and he pays for everyone. In a common group of people who eat out together frequently, such as business associates, they take turns at being the host. Each mentally keeps track of who has been the host and takes his turn accordingly. On this day, A-tai was the host. Next time it may be Jerry and, at some point, Don will take his turn.

A-tai, acting as host, offered us orange juice or apple cider to start off our meal. Then he left and ordered the meal in another small building on the property, apparently the kitchen part of the restaurant. When he returned, he brought with him the first 2 dishes of the meal…a salad and something else that slips my mind. Both of these were served on big platters to be passed around on the lazy Susan. In the South, we’d call it “home-style.” We ate and visited and soon a lady appeared at the door with 2 more dishes. She put them on the lazy Susan and gave the little turn-table a spin. Again, we ate and visited and soon another woman appeared with more food. This routine went on many times until the entire lazy Susan was filled with dishes of vegetables, rice, prawns (unpeeled full body, head with eyes and very long antenna), tofu, and lastly a big black pot of soup containing a huge fish (again, whole body with scales, etc.). Many of these foods came in several forms…many platters of vegetables, many forms of tofu. I lost count of how many times one or the other lady opened that double screen door and set down another dish of “something” in the middle of the table.

 I ate some of almost everything. I know what I just really can’t swallow so I stayed away from those, which includes tofu and full-body fish. FYI The fish in the soup is eaten by tearing pieces off of it while it is still in the pot. When the lazy Susan was full, it was easy to let those items just pass on to the next person, especially when the conversation was lively. I did sincerely like the salad, which Jane told me was Thai, and I liked the prawns! They were ugly, but I know I love their taste so I mentally closed my eyes as I broke off the head and peeled their long body. I don’t normally mind peeling shrimp, but they aren’t usually so big that the legs actually look like legs. Anyway, the salad and prawns were very good. Most of the rest of the dishes were quite bland…nothing not to like about them. Note: there was no form of bread, meat or dairy and no dessert.

I had also read that a Taiwanese restaurant meal is not only about eating but about socializing, making professional connections, developing guangxi (relationship). One of the ways of doing this is to toast your guests many times throughout the meal. The book I read recommended sipping your tea, sake or whatever beverage you have in order to continue to toast throughout the meal.

We found this to be true. Our meal lasted easily an hour, partly because of the many dishes and partly because of conversation, not only among us but also with A-tai’s friend who was dining in the next room. He would come bursting through the sliding door with his, what I assumed to be, cup of sake and declare a toast to us all. We’d lift a glass to his and then he’d sit down and laugh and talk with A-tai and Jerry. Then he’d go back to his own party. We’d heard them over there making all kinds of ruckus. At one point, Jerry and A-tai were embarrassed at what they could hear being said over there on the other side of the partition. We said, “No problem. We don’t understand.” During one of his visits to our table, A-tai’s friend invited Don and I to a party he was having that night. We declined…too tired from traveling, you know. Yikes! Finally, we were done with the meal. A-tai paid and also was the one to take home the doggie bags of food that was left over.  This included the soup with the giant fish in it that they put in a plastic bag like you get for bringing home a gold fish from the pet store.

This was our first experience at a Taiwanese restaurant. Since then, we've been to several, and they all operate the same...many, many communal plates of food!

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