By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Eating in Taiwan and Chinese food culture

I have been in Taipei, Taiwan, the last few days -- I am faculty chair for an executive education program, now in its third year, for up-and-coming forty-something civil servants in the Taiwanese government. I teach them in Taipei for a week, and then they come to Boston for three weeks in the early fall, where a slew of Kennedy School faculty teach them management and leadership. This is a fantastic program, because the students are smart, really hardworking, and very sincere and friendly.

For Saturday lunch I went by myself to a traditional Beijing-cuisine restaurant near my hotel that I like. Sunday lunch, last year's class invited me to lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant -- the latest food craze in Taiwan -- for a class reunion.

The crowds were very different. The traditional Beijing-cusine restaurant was filled with groups of middle-aged and elderly men or women (not mixed), and with some families. The Thai restaurant was jam-packed with teenagers and young people.

In both cases, there were virtually no single people or even groups of two or three at the restaurant (when I went to the Beijing-cuisine restaurant, I was the only person there alone). Instead, Chinese see eating as a group experience, sitting around a large round table (so they can all see each other) with a lazy susan on which big plates of food are placed. (Notice our word for this -- it implies that the host/ess is derelict in their duty by not serving people individually.) The Chinese see eating from the common plates at the center of the table as part of the experience. When people from Chinese cultures go in a group to McDonald's and order french fries, they normally take the contents of all the bags of fries and dump them out onto a napkin or napkins they place at the center of the table, and then eat from the pile rather than eating individually from a bag of fries.

At the table next to ours at the Thai restaurant, a group of 10 or so young people was taking pictures of each other(picture-taking is ubiquitous in Taiwan). I asked my colleagues whether this was a birthday party or what. They asked the kids at the next table, and it was just a group of office coworkers getting together for a Sunday meal. "They feel that if they get together to eat, they will work more effectively as a team," I was told.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Aug 28, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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