Some of us cannot, quite literally, get enough of food! How to cook is everywhere on the media. Similarly, design in everything from the Mini to clothes to buildings like the Shard, is something the UK does very well and is part of all our lives. But put the two terms together? Food Design? What is that?
HEADING FOR LONDON
Today is an exciting one for me. As usual in autumn, I am heading for the country’s foremost Festival of Design, taking place in an old brewery building in Hanbury Street, near Liverpool Street Station in London. What is particularly appealing about the day ahead is that, at noon, I shall be one of just ten people experiencing ‘Eataipei 2015’. Taiwan is my second home, where I spend several months each year, ostensibly to write books helping young professionals learn English. Secretly, however, one of my great joys is experiencing the food. Nowhere takes their eating more seriously. On almost every street you can find someone selling delicious noodles, rice, fresh vegetables and fruit in a bewildering array of tasty sauces. It may be an established restaurant or maybe the front room of someone’s house. It is all pretty amazing. I am really pleased, therefore, to find that Taiwanese food is making a splash at the design festival, and even more so as I am shortly to taste, see and smell it in all its glory.
WHAT IS EATAIPEI?
Eataipei is a unique event to introduce Taipei to London through a series of food performances and exhibitions of outstanding contemporary Taiwanese design. This is ahead of one of next year’s not-to-be-missed events in Asia: Taiwan is hosting a mega cultural event having been appointed World Design Capital 2016.
I arrive early and have a chat with designer Shika Tseng who tells me that I am about to experience an immersive and sensory exploration of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, through five exquisitely crafted dishes which explore Taipei’s history, landscape, people, lifestyle and future. It will involve taste, touch, sound and smell. There is a table, around which we stand, with ten settings situated in the middle of a vast exhibition hall. People cannot help coming up and taking pictures. I have never eaten in public before. I remember learning at school that Louis XIV did this every day and I wondered how it must have felt, something I am about to find out. A young chap appears at the head of the table with a microphone and welcomes us all. He is to chat throughout the experience and introduces the first dish.
This is called ‘Mixture of the Past’ and is a layered rice cake with chef’s special sauce. It is explained to us that the past residents of Taiwan Island – the Spanish, Dutch, British, Chinese and Americans – have all left their footprints and made Taiwan the multi-cultural society that it is today. This dish is a twist on the traditional turnip cake and takes its inspiration from a core sample of earth in which the layers of cultural, political influences are represented
This is called ‘The Land Surrounded by the Mountains and the Sea’. It is spinach-flavoured mashed potato with fried shallot, Jherico ham, coriander and seaweed broth. The chap with the microphone explains: ‘Volcanoes, basins, rivers, plains, oceans and beaches surround Taiwan. Within minutes of any major city you can be in the mountains, deep within a forest or you can arrive at the sea and sink your toes into the soft pink sand. Taiwanese people spend a lot of time hiking, surfing and exploring the natural environment. This dish formally presents the proximity of the city to the mountains and the sea.’ The presentation proceeds in stages – first there is the grass which is set alight to create a visual spectacle – and also produce a ‘leafy’ aroma – representing nature. Then the seaweed broth is poured around the mashed potato and ham to highlight the sea. Then all is brought together as the main dish is placed on top of the flaming leaves.
This is a simple dish of soft steamed bun – Taiwan is famous for its wonderful steamed bread – and squid ink layered on top. A torch then softens the ink so that it runs down the bread. The reason? Taiwanese are often conservative in their habits and can seem very serious on first meeting. But melt their hearts and they reveal their warm, loving side. The squid ink melting indicates this process.
Here we have three teaspoons on which are: honey-soaked tapioca; Oolong tea foam and popping candy. You eat each of these from left to right and then drink the zesty lemonade with citrus peel. It is incredible as you try each of the products – your mouth becomes very ‘noisy’ and little ‘sparks’ go off on your tongue. The lemon drink is fabulously fresh and the feeling at the end is of a totally refreshed palate. It is explained that this dish is all about the energy of Taiwanese folk – in particular those in the creative hub that is the capital city, Taipei. It is designed to stimulate all the senses in your mouth.
The finale is spectacular both in sight, sound, action and taste. First the chef produces a tray of fruit pieces on wooden sticks. Alongside these are six fruit dips. There is also an empty metal drinks bucket. The chef appears, to much applause, and pours a steamy, bubbly mixture from a flask into the bucket. This is liquid nitrogen. He then takes a fruit stick, dips it into one of the dips and immerses it into the liquid nitrogen for ten seconds. Then he repeats this process with two more dips. The result is a personalised fruit ice cream. This reflects the creative, multi-faceted nature of the island of Taiwan – everyone has multiple talents and reacts with other people to form unique and wonderful bonds. We are paired up and all make our own ice cream. It tastes sensational. We also make bonds with each other as we laugh and create. If there is one thing I could not imagine I would ever do – apart from eating in public, and now there is an increasing crowd around our table, flashing away with their cameras – it has to be making my own food dish using liquid nitrogen! The whole experience is fabulous, but then, so is Taiwan.