The Taiwanese Bakery
Bakeries are to me a place to get some fresh bread so that I may make my cheese sandwiches or have my marmalade on toast in the mornings. For this I require a nice looking, freshly made lump of matter that has recently been mushed together from flour, water, salt and yeast - to name but the necessary ingredients. After this congealed mass has been thoroughly mixed, allowed to sit for a while to gain perspective: all that is required is some heat and a bit more time.
I just want some plain old bread.
The Baking War
Recently a baking culture has sprung up in Taiwan that has produced an endless stream of bakeries stretching from department stores, railway stations and school playgrounds to convenience stores, street corners, markets, hotels and offices. Everywhere one goes or looks a bakery or the smell of one can be sensed.
But it is impossible to get a simple loaf of bread in any of them.
It is fashionable to open a bakery. It is fashionable to shop in one and to buy the latest in cream sweetness. Competition is rife with the large chain bakeries fighting pitched battles with the single desperados who may have more money for his project than the chain store who has overstretched.
On one crossroads I recently noted that the pharmacists had closed down to be replaced by a glittering bakery. That made three of them, one on each corner. If I walked half a dozen yards down one street another bakery shines forth and should I wish to visit the local night market another two are always open for business. They are everywhere and the fact that many close down after a short period does not prevent others from starting up.
Although many bakeries fail along the way many manage to make massive profits and this is due solely to a Taiwanese sudden love for sticky buns, cream cakes and weird and wonderful breads with 'things' stuck in them.
On the infrequent occasions when I dare to enter a bakery I can only fight for survival as customers pick up the trays that await them at the door, the pair of tongs that hang nearby: to grab what they can in the melee. Weird assortments are on offer ranging from green been rolls and walnut and raisin bread to yoghourt curried buns and lemon flavored doughnuts.
The bakeries all tend to attack baking in two ways. The side that covers the sweet tooth and this pushes forward the thick cream cakes that have more cream than base and the doughnuts that range in size from large to extra large. And then there is the side that caters to the customers who are after a main course for dinner - the sausage rolls and the sliced chicken filled buns with shredded pork as the coating. Many varieties and styles are available but all tend to follow a similar pattern.
Taiwanese Fashion again intrudes into the way that bakeries operate. Chain Stores are favorable as they become trendy names to be frequented. Single enterprises must live up to fashion requirements by being squeaky clean, new and brash in the goods that they offer. Large glass windows are filled to over flowing with cakes that defy gravity and ooze high cholesterol and sugar. Cakes literally covered in cm's of icing sugar are dressed with weird and wonderful swirls of chocolate and assortments of green and red glacier cherries and they do not come is suitable sizes - these cakes can be had in sizes ranging from car tires to Ferris wheel monstrosities.
The shops maybe independent stores or chain stores but the food invariably comes from central bakeries and so without fail a cake that can be bought in one shop will be found in another. In the bakeries that operate as a single entity the bread matter is of a better quality but the end result always seems to resemble that of what the Chain bakeries have on offer. Whether this is due to a fear of being different, of becoming unfashionable or because they use the same recipe book I know not: but every shop that I visit and every cake that I sample all seems the same.
Having said all of the above it is not that bad. Certainly some of the sticky buns seem less sweet than a typical chain bread store offering back in the UK and certainly there is plenty of variety available. And when I look at the mothers and families who enter these establishments I can see that they have a massive love for the evening ahead. When they enter the bread shop they are normal human beings but as soon as the tongs and the tray are in their hands it becomes a fight for survival. A sort of madness enters the eyes, wicked lust-like looks shine forth and fight for cakes they will. A queue is something that the 'British' do and should I wait behind another to get to a certain tray of cakes I would be there forever. As one desperado leaves another barges in - from all angles and corners people fight using elbows and bodies to get to trays and cakes and all with this bulging eye-like fanaticism.
They love their cakes and sticky buns and good on them to.
But I just want my loaf of bread, my simple flour and water mixture, my sandwich making material and my lunch. And this I just cannot get.
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Published on 1/5/04