Taiwan's Gourmet Food Market
Everyone's Learning to Cook
A craze for cooking classes is quietly spreading through the Taipei area. From high-end supermarkets to bookstores, from toddlers to retirees, Taiwan's gourmet industry is taking another stride toward maturity.
Everyone's Learning to CookBy Chao-Yen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 429 )
It's three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and the Sogo Tianmu department store is packed. A woman in high-heeled sandals hurriedly makes her way onto the escalator and gingerly canters toward the B1 supermarket. Ms. Chen is not here to shop – she's here to learn how to make chocolate mousse for her two pre-school age boys.
The numbers of aspiring cooks taking cookery classes like Ms. Chen are growing daily.
The Hong Kong supermarket chain city'super opened its first Taiwan store in 2004 and this year brought its popular Hong Kong cooking classes to Taiwan for the first time to coincide with the grand opening of Sogo Department store's Tianmu branch. Of the initial 40 classes set to commence in July, 90 percent saw high enough enrollment rates to begin, and the interest didn't just come from Tianmu residents – a considerable number of the students come from Taipei County.
"A lot of the students are loyal customers of our Fuxing store," city'super executive chef Charmaine Cheung observes. Over the past five years city'super has cultivated a customer base that is highly health conscious and accustomed to purchasing high-end food items they prepare themselves at home.
And it's not just city'super customers who yearn to learn the art of cookery. Cooking classes throughout Taipei are now often packed to capacity. Even on Friday afternoons during working hours, between 50 and 70 eager students will fill the cooking classroom on the third floor of Xinyi Eslite Bookstore.
"About a third are familiar faces," says Xinyi Eslite sales supervisor Alice Lee, who is in charge of organizing the classes. Participants run the gamut from students to retirees to freelancers.
Eating out in Taiwan is so convenient, with streets and alleyways choc-a-bloc with street vendors and small restaurants, why would anyone want to study cookery?
The Dine-out Set Is Keen to Cook
"Ordinarily on workdays I'll just grab something out to eat, but on my days off I like to do my own cooking," says 44-year-old Yang Shu-ling, an employee at a Taipei floriculture company. "Cooking yourself is more natural." At one point, Yang attended two cooking classes in a row on Saturdays.
Like Yang, many busy urbanites grab a quick bite during working hours before heading back to the office. A recent spate of headline-making scandals in the food preparation industry, however, has put daily diners-out in something of a quandary: Just where does the food they put in their mouths come from, and what is it made of? Is it healthy? As people have become more and more leery about eating out in restaurants, many have apparently decided they might as well learn to cook for themselves.
But why are the most popular cooking classes mostly themed around Western cooking?
According to notable food and lifestyle writer Yilan Yeh, in the 1960s when the TV cookery program Fu Pei-mei Hour was popular, "that generation was interested in learning Chinese home cooking." Viewers were mostly traditional housewives looking for practical ways to satisfy their mothers-in-law and fathers-in-law. Today's smaller urban families and singles needn't cook every day, and their desire to learn to cook is largely centered around their social lives.
"They want to be able to share their cooking with friends, and they want it to be simple," Yeh says.
An entire Western meal can come straight out of the oven to the dinner table and comes across as less oily and salty than Chinese cooking. "So now Western cooking has come to the forefront," she says.
Bringing Families Closer
4F Cooking Home was founded a year ago in a non-descript apartment building off Taipei's Yongkang Street. Visitors making the climb up from the street are endlessly surprised, from the staff first warmly greeting them at the door to the bright orange walls and essences of bergamot and tangerine wafting through the rooms to the freshly made scones slathered in handmade artisan marmalade that are served. It all adds up to the warm, comforting feeling of home and puts one instantly at ease.
Lan Mei-chun, a personnel manager for a Taipei securities brokerage, has her own reasons for spending weekends learning the art of cookery here, where the very name includes the word "Home."
Mid- and top-level executives today increasingly want to spend more time at home cultivating familial relationships, and cooking together presents one of the best opportunities for interacting with their children.
Despite having hired domestic help to cook and clean during the week, Lan insists on doing her own cooking on her days off.
"It's the only way to impart a mother's touch, and my daughter really likes to help out," Lan says, her 12-year-old daughter at her side intently scribbling notes from an in-house Cooking Home recipe for Osso Buco Provencal with black olives, which the two plan to prepare together at home.
I Want to be a Blue Ribbon Chef
Parents who use cooking to further cement family ties also sometimes plant a seed that begins to take root. Founded more than 11 years ago, Choi's Home School of Culinary Arts started children's classes two years ago, after seeing demand arising from just this sort of parent-child interaction in the kitchen.
Young Miss Tsai is a regular attendee of Choi's Home Saturday classes. An only child who just finished kindergarten this year, she is already set on becoming a chef when she grows up. She once offered a piece of apple pie she made herself to a visiting blue ribbon French chef, boldly inquiring: "How far do I have to go before I'm as good as you?"
When kids start deciding they want to become a chef, it's clear that the profession is gradually gaining social acceptance.
"This demonstrates that Taiwan's gourmet industry is starting to mature," Yeh says.
From office workers to school kids, Taiwanese are now eating out less often and opting to cook at home for themselves. The actual underlying significance of this seems to point to a gradual understanding of how to slow down and savor the "taste of life."
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy
Chinese Version: 三到七十歲 都愛學做菜