Monday, April 16, 2007

Jambalaya Jumble

Saturday saw another event that perfectly illustrates my cursed government's hamhanded inability to interface with the world outside the US: a jambalaya competition on the 85th floor of Taipei 101. AIT has the call:

In recognition that April is Jazz Appreciation Month in the United States, AIT’s Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) and the Southern US Trade Association (SUSTA) will support a visit to Taiwan by Cajun Chef Roy Lyons from Rayne, Louisiana from April 10-22, 2007.

Chef Roy is a celebrity chef who travels around the world introducing people everywhere to Cajun cuisine which is a "fusion" blend of French, Spanish, German, African, and native American Indian foods. From April 10 – 22, 2007, Chef Roy will participate in a series of events organized by the ATO to promote Cajun cuisine using high quality U.S. food ingredients from media lunches, to commercial chef training programs, to a Jambalaya cooking competition on the 85th floor of Taipei 101.
Among the high quality food ingredients promoted was US medium grade rice, which all contestants were required to use. Six chefs were competing to see who could produce the best jambalaya. Other US ingredients, such as processed meats, were to be used as well in what was part of a month-long promotion. UPDATED: I should add that the competition was an NT$1,800 a plate dinner.

My first response when I heard about this was "What's jambalaya?" Having never been nearer to New Orleans than the freeway exit outside of it, I had no clue.

Looking it up, one finds that it is basically rice simmered or fried in a spicy tomato-based sauce, with various kinds of meat. It's easy to see that this would be a big hit here, since Taiwan has no fried-rice dishes of its own, and spicy dishes from abroad are in big demand, as anyone could tell from the Sri Lankan curry houses found all over the island.

Hey wait a second....

Yes, you read that right. Somebody paid a chef in Taipei to promote fried rice in Taiwan.

The US actually exports rice here (we're usually the #3 or #4 exporter of rice in the world), though Taiwan does not need it. Nearly all US rice exports to Taiwan are exports of California rice. The purchases are made not because Taiwan needs it, but because the island committed to minimum imports under the WTO agreements (Read here for everything you want to know about US rice exports). The mind boggles to imagine that a US trade association is spending buckets of cash promoting sale of a product the island is self-sufficient in but is more or less forced to purchase, from an industry that is only profitable because of massive water and agricultural subsidies (EWG says California has received $2 billion in rice subsidies 1995-2005 -- that's just agricultural subsidies). The entire northeast Asian market of Japan, Taiwan, and Korea is worth a piddling $200 million to California -- and all of it is purchased under the WTO agreements.

One could go on all day about the subsidy situation, but what stands out about this Jambalaya cook off is that a trade association (SUSTA, in this case) paid good money to promote food that Taiwanese have zero interest in -- Cajun cuisine. From my angle it looks like somebody was having a really good time on someone else's dime....but perhaps I'm just too cynical.

24 comments:

Mark said...

Oh, but you have no idea how good jambalaya is! Propagating cajun food around the world is a public service for sure. It really is that good.

Actually, I don't think it clashes that much with Taiwanese tastes; they just haven't been exposed to much. Shrimp, catfish, gumbo... mmm...

v said...

if i were living in taiwan, i would buy california rice. there is heavy metal contamination in many rice fields in taiwan. you won't know if the rice you're eating is contaminated or not. then you can't always trust food labelling in taiwan either. when my first daughter was born, we gave her a formula that was touted as coming from an american company. she loved that formula. so when we went to the us on a visit we wanted to buy some more. i called the company. they said yes, they were an american company, but the formula was produced in taiwan. the advertising led one to believe the formula was produced in the usa.

super dave said...

If you're ever in New Orleans, the place to go to get jambalaya is Mother's Restaurant. It's unbelievably good.obiwan84

Big Ell said...

I second what Mark said! Jambalaya is fantastic and I would love to taste the real deal cooked by Chef Roy.

Prince Roy said...

well, jambalaya tastes nothing like Chinese fried rice. 'Simmered' is a more accurate description. the event was quite successful among Taiwanese from what I hear, so I think it is inaccurate to say Taiwanese have no interest in Cajun cuisine.

I agree with Mark that Cajun food will be popular here as more Taiwanese are exposed to it. And Taipei has a big enough expat population that a Cajun restaurant could conceivably do quite well here.

MJ Klein said...

so, was it good? were you happy that you got to try it? wish i was there!

Arty said...

If Taiwan opens the market for rice i.e. free trade, US rice producers will crush Taiwan producers regardless how much Taiwan producers can produce. Because the cost to produce pre/ton in US is 200 dollars and in Taiwan is about 600 dollars (see USDA data), that's exactly what happened when NAFTA passed. We crushed Mexico farmers down south and literally force the devaluation of Mexico pesos. WTO policy is actually in Taiwan's favor.

Btw, there are expansive Cajun food, and Jambalaya just part of it. Some of the seafood that is cooked in Cajun style could only be found in top US restarants.

Anonymous said...

. 'Simmered' is a more accurate description. the event was quite successful among Taiwanese from what I hear, so I think it is inaccurate to say Taiwanese have no interest in Cajun cuisine.

PR, it was an $1,800 a plate meal. Of course it was a success! What kind of Taiwanese do you think would show up? What do you think are the prospects for widespread dissemination of this cuisine among locals? Do Taiwanese ordinarily eat spicy foods, and spicy foreign foods? How did an $1,800 a plate event contribute to a wider encounter with ordinary middle-class Taiwanese who might spend money on this cuisine should they like it and sustain an export market? And how will SUSTA recoup the money spent -- since virtually no southern rice is exported to Taiwan, the US sausage you find in Taiwan is Johnsonville (Wisconsin)....maybe if they sell 50,000 bottles of tobasco sauce...

There are lots of ways to spend money to promote US goods. An $1,800 a plate meal on a regional cuisine isn't a good one.

Michael

prince roy at-large said...

Michael,

I think you're confusing the issue. I wasn't involved with the event, and didn't go, but I doubt its purpose was to 'contribute to a wider encounter with ordinary middle-class Taiwanese'. Trade functions of this kind almost never have that intent. They are mostly for industry players and bigshots, in this case, the local hospitality and service industry.

I did read some media coverage which suggested that several Taipei chefs met with Chef Roy; maybe some of the ones doing Western fusion will take some creative inspiration away.

Widespread dissemination prospects? I'm no Carnac the Magnificent, but I think you may be underestimating Taipei restauranteurs. After all, just look at how the face of Taipei cuisine offerings have changed in the last 15 years.

I think Cajun cuisine could be quite compatible with Taiwanese tastes, especially the seafood dishes. And Cajun cuisine isn't really that spicy. Bland as the local palate is, I think people can handle a dash of cayenne. Of course, as a Louisiana native, I'd like to see a seafood gumbo stall in every night market.

Wulingren said...

Michael,

I have to disagree with you on this one (though not necessarily about the rice or the price). Having tried cajun cooking, I feel it is a perfect food for the US to promote, as it is one of the truly authentic American cooking styles, and also delicious. Better than only being known for hamburgers and hotdogs. It is also the product of a local culture in the US, one that has taken a very big hit recently (think Katrina). It shows that there is more to the US than most people see; there are regional differences, etc. What could you find wrong with that? I hope you get a chance sometime soon to try real jambalaya. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Michael Turton said...

Widespread dissemination prospects? I'm no Carnac the Magnificent, but I think you may be underestimating Taipei restauranteurs. After all, just look at how the face of Taipei cuisine offerings have changed in the last 15 years.

PR, Taipei is Taipei. If you've only been to Taipei, you've never been to Taiwan. That's one reason I think it would be good if the capital relocated to southern Taiwan, then people outside Taiwan would get a view of what the 20 million in Taiwan who live outside Taipei are actually like. And adjust their views accordingly. I bet the US trade people would be a lot more realistic about the island if they lived in Taichung....

I take a long view because I've been here a long time. To take only one example, after being introduced here 25 years ago, how many mexican restaurants are there on the island? Outside of Taipei? I can count them on the fingers of one hand. How many of them are good? How many ingredients do they import from the US? So what on earth would make anyone who had loads of cash to spend in a good-faith effort to expand US trade here focus on promoting Cajun food, none of whose ingredients need be sourced from the US? One doesn't need to be Carnac the Magnificent to see the obvious conclusion that SUSTA's $$ could have been better applied elsewhere.

Michael

Michael Turton said...

Case in point; Taichung. As you are aware, Taiwan has at least five Indian restaurants but just one Tex-mex place. Is this because of high-level promotions that Indian trade organizations have conducted with Taiwan importers? Or is it due to immigration of overseas Chinese from India as well as a recent influx from Central Asia and India? I would bet $$ that in ten years Indian restaurants in Taiwan will be sourcing more stuff from India by volume and value than Cajun restaurants in Taiwan from the US.

Michael

Mark said...

"PR, Taipei is Taipei. If you've only been to Taipei, you've never been to Taiwan. That's one reason I think it would be good if the capital relocated to southern Taiwan, then people outside Taiwan would get a view of what the 20 million in Taiwan who live outside Taipei are actually like. And adjust their views accordingly. I bet the US trade people would be a lot more realistic about the island if they lived in Taichung....

I take a long view because I've been here a long time.
"

Michael, PR has lived in Taizhong. He lived there in 1989 and has been in Taiwan on and off ever since. A lot of the rest of the time was spent in US universities surrounded by Chinese students, where he could see first hand how they reacted to different foods. I think he's seen a richer and more varied view of Taiwan than just about any of us (except Poagao).

"As you are aware, Taiwan has at least five Indian restaurants but just one Tex-mex place."

I've personally been to eight tex-mex places in Taiwan, two of them down south. In any case, I don't think the comparison with Mexican food is a very good one at all. Mexican food is loaded with cheese, which has never been a favorite here, and Cajun is full of seafood, which is well-suited for local tastes.

You said in your post that you didn't even know what jambalaya was (which surprised me). Why not try it first and then see what you think?

Michael Turton said...

Michael, PR has lived in Taizhong. He lived there in 1989 and has been in Taiwan on and off ever since.

Yes I know....but now he lives in Taipei. And that's what he referred to in his comment.

A lot of the rest of the time was spent in US universities surrounded by Chinese students, where he could see first hand how they reacted to different foods. I think he's seen a richer and more varied view of Taiwan than just about any of us (except Poagao).

You mean, he's been in the US universities with an upper crust of Chinese.....whose eating habits and openness are manifestly different...

...and Mark, you're not seriously going to imply that PR has had a richer experience of Taiwan than me? Which Taiwanese citizens are PR's children? His wife is from where? His kids go to what schools? He worked for what Taiwan independence groups? He works for what local companies? PR isn't a long-term Taiwan-based expat.

Poagao is God, no question.

"As you are aware, Taiwan has at least five Indian restaurants but just one Tex-mex place."

Correction! TAICHUNG! Sorry, man.

I've personally been to eight tex-mex places in Taiwan, two of them down south.

Great, that's ummm....ten in how many years? What kind of export market do you think this represents?

In any case, I don't think the comparison with Mexican food is a very good one at all. Mexican food is loaded with cheese, which has never been a favorite here,

Cheap processed cheese markets have EXPLODED in recent years, Mark, especially among the young. Have you had a jyu kao yet? Cheese in watered down form is very popular here. Just look in the cheese section now found in supermarkets in even the smallest towns. But then there is the problem of selling blue cheese...do you think it might have some bearing on the acceptability of Cajun food?

and Cajun is full of seafood, which is well-suited for local tastes.

Quite true. What sort of hike in seafood demand would you expect? What seafoods would be imported from the US to service it? From the SUSTA area? Because Alaska alone supplies roughly a quarter of US seafood exports to Taiwan (total for US to Taiwan is ~$30 million), but this event was paid for by southern US trade people. Of course, Oz exports something like 6-7 times what we do to Taiwan. Who will benefit most?

Hamburgers, which someone mentioned above, are a good example of how this works. Quintessential American food, but the major chains here source their burger beef from....you guessed it: Oz. In fact as I recall they all use the same importer.

You said in your post that you didn't even know what jambalaya was (which surprised me). Why not try it first and then see what you think?

Because Mark, it is absolutely irrelevant what I think about it. It's only relevant to what the locals think. That's exactly the error that is being made by the people who set up the exhibition in the first place: that the opinion of Americans as to the possible success of jambalaya is somehow relevant.

Michael

Arty said...

"You mean, he's been in the US universities with an upper crust of Chinese.....whose eating habits and openness are manifestly different..."

That's a huge assumption here. I enjoy as much as a good humburger from In and Out Burger and a good meal in any of the fancy restaurant charging more than $50 per person minus drinks. And guess which one I eat more often.

Also, just because some Chinese or Taiwanese are in the US university do not make upper crust. They are definitely harder working or smarter but it does not mean they are all from wealthy or well off families. We don't just give you a degree because your family are rich. You may get accepted but if you don't pass the classes, you won't graduate. It is known that good,i.e. a real accredited one, US universities is harder to graduate than any Taiwanese University, and when you can't be a Ph.D., we give you a master and tell you to get out.

Wulingren said...

I tried to post a comment here yesterday, but for some reason it didn't get posted. I think I understand what you are saying economically, but I don't really understand your reaction to jambalaya--the product of a unique regional cooking style in America, in an area that has been hard hit in recent years (think Katrina). Why would it be a bad thing to promote--or at least expose people outside the US--to something more than hamburgers--that there are also various regional cooking traditions across the US? I think it is probably impossible for anyone--whether they have been in a country for 1 year or for 100--to know for sure what will catch on. Cheese was not an immediate hit in most places in this part of the world, including in Taiwan. Now it is. Anyway, to me, one of the jobs of diplomacy is to expose. I remember hearing that the Thai government was setting up Thai restaurants in other countries as a way of promoting Thailand around the world (I don't know if it was a success). I think that anywhere there will be those who are willing to try new things and those who are unwilling, and as in the US, there will be some areas like Taipei and New York that have a greater diversity of international styles and other areas they are more uniform. I'm not really making a case for or against the organizers of this event; just saying that there is a logic to promoting Cajun cooking, besides the mere fact that it is delicious. Yes, the latter part is my opinion. I cannot speak for the 23 million citizens of Taiwan. But who can?

Michael Turton said...

Prince Roy --

I think my comments were rather more harshly written than intended. I hope you accept my apology.

Michael

Michael Turton said...

They are definitely harder working or smarter but it does not mean they are all from wealthy or well off families.

Arty, someone willing and able to travel overseas is someone who by definition is probably more open to new experiences than someone who is not either. "Upper crust" was a bad choice on my part. Please forgive me.

Michael

The Foreigner said...

I like jambalaya - even had some in Taipei a few years back - but Michael's right. It probably doesn't much matter to the marketers whether a few foreigners like it; what matters to them is whether Taiwanese like it.

But I'm not completely skeptical about jambalaya's LONG-TERM reception in Taiwan. I'd like to point out that Taiwanese have plenty of ways to prepare chicken, too - yet in the 7-11 downstairs from my apartment I can buy a "New Orleans Chicken" sandwich in the refrigerated food section.

Can't vouch for its authenticity, but it does represent at least one case of New Orleans food (or New Orleans-inspired food) which HAS managed to catch on here. I think that jambalaya has the virtue of being a food which is different from local food, but not TOO different. At any rate, the marketers in this case are certainly in a more enviable situation than some hapless American trying to sell the locals limberger cheese.

Now, selling jambalaya at $1,800 a plate in Taipei 101 isn't going to do much to market the dish among average Taiwanese - in the short term. But then, that's the way a lot of goods are initially marketed. What was the price of a GOOD digital camera 10 years ago? Whatever it was, it was a price that only the rich could afford. And what would the price of that very same camera be today? Heckuva lot lower.

Same thing here. They're trying to create an awareness among Taiwanese about an exotic rice dish called, "jambalaya," which few people here have ever heard of. Given a limited budget, it's easier for them to target a small niche (in this case, the wealthy) rather than the mass market. It's entirely possible that a few of those in attendance own their own local restaurants, and may now consider adding jambalaya to their menu. At any rate, if jambalaya catches on among that small marketing niche, it might subsequently catch on with a broader market after the price falls. Just as the case was with digicams, and about a million other kinds of consumer products.

(Personally though, I think it's a little too optimistic to hope for jambalaya carts at the local night market.)

One final thought on this. If the goal here is to market American products that Taiwanese will use to make jambalaya, then Michael's right: The money spent on this has been wasted because there are cheaper available substitutes. (ie: Aussie beef for local hamburgers.)

But maybe that's not the goal. Imagine a Taiwanese saying to himself: Last week I had a "New Orleans Chicken" sandwich from 7-11; today I think I'll have the "New Orleans-style" rice at a local restaurant. And what's this I hear about a new place that has "New Orleans-style" prawns...

In other words, maybe the goal here is to create brand awareness for the city of New Orleans itself. Get people eating New Orleans food, and maybe they'll end up talking about the place. Maybe they'll go home and listen to some New Orleans jazz, or watch a related Travel Channel video. Maybe they or their kids will dream about the city, and vacation there someday.

If only a few do, then the cost of this marketing trip might very well be justified.

Michael Turton said...

Wulingren,

I think I have pointed out here several times. The purpose of funds for such promotions is to increase exports of US goods. None of the components of jambalaya or any other Cajun food must necessarily come from the US. Cheese is a good example of how this process works in real life -- when you walk around Taiwanese supermarkets -- whose sales volume is dwarfed by traditional markets -- where does all the cheese come from? High end cheeses come from Europe, mass market cheeses from New Zealand and Australia. What comes from the US? Yet the US introduced cheese here.

An $NT1,800 a plate, by invitation dinner is not the right way to reach large numbers of people in Taiwan. For the same money several ordinarily good chefs could have cooked up massive pots of it in a big public place and handed out free samples to passers-by. Or a restaurant could have been funded. Or any of several other ways. Compare what global businesses do when they want to establish a totally new product in a market.

Michael

The Foreigner said...

My comments at 7:36 am represent my real thoughts on the subject, but I think the discussion is incomplete without at least one person raising a limited-government objection to the marketing program.

The money that was spent on this campaign (which may very well have been wasted) could have been otherwise spent providing law enforcement to cut New Orleans' crime and government corruption. The protection of life, liberty and property is a much more fundamental responsibility of government than trying to sell fried rice to Taiwanese a half world away.

Anyways, just thought I'd toss that one out there...

prince roy at-large said...

Michael,

Thanks, I think you can sooth my hurt feelings with the beverage(s) of my choice next time we meet.

In my own defense, I was a starving student during all my time in Taiwan except the present; upper crust I most certainly was not.

I think Cajun food is definitely compatible with Taiwan, but only time will tell. Of course, a lot depends on promotion.

Like I argued earlier, this event was not intended to connect with the mainstream Taiwan consumer, but rather the important players in the Taiwan hospitality industry. The Foreigner's assessment is spot on.

I would take slight issue with your assertion that Taiwan can produce jambalaya ingredients on its own. Some things yes, others, definitely not. For instance, the best jambalaya includes andouille sausage, which is a very specific process. No other sausauge I've had is remotely comparable.

Interesting comments from everyone. It's great to see folks talking about Louisiana!

Wulingren said...

Michael,

I guess both of my posts did go through. Beyond the issue of jambalaya and whether cajun food could catch fire in Taiwan, I agree with your assessment that the purpose of this event was most likely to "increase exports of US goods," especially since a trade association was sponsoring the event. I also agree with Prince Roy's call that "this event was not intended to connect with the mainstream Taiwan consumer, but rather the important players in the Taiwan hospitality industry." I don't think any event staged on the 85th floor of Taipei 101 would be geared towards the mainstream consumer. I picture hotel managers/owners, heads of companies like Uni-President, etc. Maybe a new cajun sandwich will suddenly appear in Starbucks or 7 Eleven or MacDonalds. The way it looks to me at the moment is that the Southern United States Trade Association was the major player in this event, and that AIT was just a vehicle for SUSTA to act. I did a quick google search on SUSTA. I am skeptical that they are pushing California rice, since "SUSTA helps southern U.S. exporters promote high-value food and agricultural products," though that might be AIT's part in this. Interestingly, SUSTA is located in New Orleans, which would explain why they are promoting Cajun food. It has nothing to do with anyone's opinion of what will sell in Taiwan. SUSTA promotes products of companies that hire its services. Another interesting discovery has to do with Cajun Chef Roy Lyons from Rayne, Louisiana. He does regular marketing stints for SUSTA, and Taiwan is just one stop for him on a world-wide exporting circuit (http://www.susta.org/partners/chef_event_photos.html):
"The chefs who participated in the demonstrations used skills they learned in SUSTA's Culinary Training Program." So, this promotional seems to be about local Louisiana products and suppliers. Money is being made. My question is: will this money be used to help rebuild New Orleans or is it just padding the wallets of some fat cats who have no intention of sharing with their fellow human beings. Sorry for the excessively long comment; I wanted to share my findings, though I probably should have just posted them on my blog.

Wulingren said...

I don't know if this is related, but last night on my way home, I noticed KFC is now offering Louisiana-style chicken wings. Perhaps there is no connection; these fast food companies are always concocting new offerings (it would be fun to work for the laboratory that develops them). But the timing is interesting.