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Taiwan's appetite for takeout CNY feast grows
Publication Date : 04-02-2013
Sector now worth billions as players increase variety, keep prices steady
Buddha Jumps Over The Wall, ginseng chicken soup, braised pig trotters, claypot king crab - the reunion dinner feast looks as delicious as ever, and look, Mum has not a hair out of place.
For many Taiwanese women, the hours of toil and sweat in the kitchen on the day before Chinese New Year to whip up as many as 10 dishes or more have become a thing of the past, as families shrink and women spend more time on their careers - and the food industry grows in sophistication.
Since 2002, countless households have outsourced their reunion dinners to hypermarkets and convenience stores, corner eateries and hotels. Instead of getting up early in the morning to prepare an elaborate spread for the family, many mothers - and fathers - are buying frozen or ready-to-eat dishes as simple as carrot cake and as complicated as slow-cooked stews, or even entire sets of multiple dishes.
Advertising sales manager Chang Yi-wen, for example, will buy roast pork ribs, German-style roasted pork knuckles and claypot fish head for the traditional feast with her daughter and her brother's family of four.
"Since there's only my daughter and me, we usually join my brother for reunion dinner," said Chang, who is 43 and divorced. "Usually I'd buy dishes which are difficult to make and which we don't usually get to eat, budgeting about NT$500 (US$17) for each dish."
The market is now estimated to be worth several billion Taiwan dollars, following years of recession-proof growth of between 10 per cent and 100 per cent, although the actual figure is anyone's guess, since most players decline to reveal sales figures.
And each year, retailers up the ante by offering new dishes to increase variety to cater to new demographics, while keeping prices steady.
For example, 7-Eleven, the leading convenience chain store, with 4,800 outlets across Taiwan, is offering 88 reunion dinner dishes this year, including vegetarian ones and smaller set meals for smaller families.
"Besides the essentials such as pot dishes, soups and Buddha Jumps Over The Wall, this year, we also are offering new items including set meals for four, mini-Buddha Jumps Over the Wall for one or two people, dishes from famous restaurants like Din Tai Fung, and improved vegetarian food," said chain store spokesman Irene Chuang.
She estimated that the sales for this year will grow by up to 20 per cent over last year's.
Customers can place their orders at any 7-Eleven store and collect the food at any branch, or have it delivered to their doorstep. Most of its dishes are priced below NT$599, and selected ones even come with a CD containing instructions on the proper way to heat up the frozen food.
Over at hypermarket chain A.mart, which has 19 stores, more than 100,000 sets of mini-Buddha Jumps Over The Wall at NT$200 each have been sold since the middle of December last year. Orders of its set meals of five or six dishes for families of up to six people have hit 6,000 so far, 30 per cent more than last year.
"Our theme for reunion dishes this year is local delicacies, like those people would buy at the famous Nanmen Market in Taipei," said spokesman Andie Zheng. "Overall, we expect sales to increase by 30 per cent."
Hotels like the Regent and the historic Grand Hotel are reporting mouthwatering sales figures as well. But unlike supermarkets and convenience stores, their offerings are made fresh on Chinese New Year's Eve.
The Regent Taipei offers 500 takeaway family set meals with Chinese, Japanese or Western dishes, catering to families of four or six. Prices range from NT$3,888 (US$131) for an American steak set to NT$9,888 (US$333) for a Chinese set stuffed with expensive ingredients like abalone.
"We offer just 500 sets because everything is cooked on that day. Our chefs have to cook for some 5,000 dine-in customers on the night of Chinese New Year's Eve after they're done with the takeaway meals," said deputy marketing manager Lin Pei-hsuan.
The Grand Hotel - the accommodation of choice for VIPs such as top Chinese cross-strait negotiator Chen Yunlin - said sales for this year had already overtaken last year's total of NT$6 million (US$202,000) more than two weeks before Chinese New Year's Eve on February 9. Customers can order in person or on the hotel's website.
Its best-sellers are handmade red bean steamed cake, Cantonese-style carrot cake and vegetarian Buddha Jumps Over The Wall, which is available only during the festive season.
But perhaps the best thing is the price. "Although costs have been rising, we're keeping prices the same so that our customers can have a good year," the hotel said in a reply sent via e-mail to The Straits Times.