Monday, August 8, 2011

East Meets West: Where am I, Anyway?

My daughter, Emily at TGI Friday's in Taoyuan City,  Taiwan
Taiwan is starting to look a lot like the United States; at least it’s looking that way in certain areas. There has always been a certain amount of foreign food in Taiwan, but it seems that lately things are really beginning to take off for American food restaurants.

I took my daughter to lunch the other day, and she is my culinary opposite. She likes to eat the familiar things, I'm more of, "what did you say I just ate?" kind of guy.  I prefer to eat Chinese food and usually at the food carts, but my daughter’s tastes run to American food. She’s a beef and potatoes type of person. She likes good old-fashioned steak and French fries. So I thought I would take her to a restaurant where a friend had taken me, recently. Rebel Burger.

Rebel Burger's Bacon Cheeseburger, fries and a Sprite
Rebel Burger, that’s about as American as you can get. Big beef patties, avocado, mushrooms, bacon, all the decadent, fattening stuff you can put on a burger and more. It was pretty good. One thing I have discovered, though, is that if you go to dinner with a American in Taiwan, I don’t care how long they’ve been here; they want American food. To me it’s like going to Nebraska and ordering sushi. There isn’t an ocean for thousands of miles, why would you eat fish? Or going to Mexico and eating Italian. I don’t get it.

When I first came here, a friend, knowing I liked Mexican food, wanted to take me out for a treat and took me to a Mexican restaurant in Taipei. “The best Mexican food in Taiwan. Bro!” But the flour tortillas were raw, and they only had Tabasco sauce when I asked for hot sauce. I’m not complaining, I could see that they really wanted to make the best Mexican food they could, but this isn’t Mexico.

This is Taiwan and the best food in Taiwan is Taiwanese. That’s what I want. When in Rome, eat what Romans eat. When I’m in Mexico, I’m going eat Mexican. When I’m in America, I’m going to eat…probably Mexican. But that’s another story. This isn’t about me, this about Taiwan looking a lot like America restaurant-wise.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taoyuan City, Taiwan
American food has become pretty popular for the younger generation here. American fast food has been here for years. Kids have grown up on it. Young people like it and are starting to open their own restaurants and serving it up to other young people. That brings me back to Rebel Burger. This place is for young people. They have pictures of famous rebels all over the place: James Dean is there. So is Che Guevara, although I’m not sure what he has to do with America, but he is a famous (actually, infamous) rebel.

Because of American food’s newfound popularity, American restaurants have sprung up everywhere. They have Outback Steak Houses, Chili’s Restaurants, Bangles, TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. I’m sure there are probably others that I’ve missed. Hopefully, my children won’t find out about them and I can continue to miss them.

The thing is, though, they have the same menu as their American counterparts for the most part, but they all seem to have a Taiwanese twist. For example, Pizza hut has a fixed menu. In the U.S. you go to the restaurant and you can pick the toppings you want on the Pizza. But in Taiwan they have only a few choices, and sometimes don’t know how to react if you want to change something. My wife has stood in the restaurant while they called the boss to ask him what to do when she wanted something different than their menu showed.

TGI Friday's, just like in the good ol' USA
McDonald’s has Fried Chicken, rice and other Taiwanese favorites, along with the Big Macs and milk shakes. They know what sells, where and they serve that. McDonald’s also doesn’t have my personal favorite, (it takes a very secure man to admit he likes McDonald’s), the Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Taiwanese people aren’t really all that fond of cheese and one-quarter pound of red meat seems unhealthy to them.
At KFC you don’t specify whether you want original, crispy or spicy chicken…you get what they have on hand at that moment. If you say, “I don’t want biscuits,” you’re likely to get them anyway, because that’s what goes in that package.

Bigger restaurants, like Chili’s or TGI Fridays, or Outback Steak House just serve exactly what they serve in the U.S. I guess they figure that’s the drawing card; eating like you’re in America. If you’re inside the restaurant, it’s just like being in the U.S. In fact, that’s why my kids like to go to those places, it reminds them of home. It reminds me of America, too, but to me this is where I live, so this is home.
Sometimes I just forget where I am, "Sure are a lot of Asian kids working here.  Oh yeah, this is Taiwan."
Other posts you may be interested in:

An American Presence:  What I Don't Miss in Taiwan
Eating My Way Through Taiwan:  The Stink of Adventure

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