Most important folk culture events and Taiwanese occasions are celebrated with a boisterous feast or a banquet, ranging from weddings, birthdays of local deities, lunar year-end parties, the Ghost Festival, to other major social gatherings. In Taiwan, some are served on the roadside in a banquet style, also known as "bando" in the local language. The roadside banquet is particularly popular in Yilan, and in central and southern Taiwan regions.
Bando, literally meaning "to set tables," is not just about foods, but about a unique experience offered to guests. On top of tasty foods, the event usually has one to five entertainers performing on the stage in front of banquet tables covered in red cloth. The entertainer could be a master of ceremony, also known as emcee, and a singer at the same time, who has to create a rundown with his or her client beforehand, perform and say lucky words to cheer the host and guests throughout the show.
The preparation works for a roadside banquet starts from very early in the day. A big tent is usually erected on the road next to the host’s house or front yard. Decoration varies on different occasions. Red is the color most chosen for table coverings, chairs, and tents.
The catering team has to nail down the menu and size for preparation after discussions with the host or client. On the day of the banquet, the bando chefs have to shop for ingredients in the early morning at wholesale markets and drive the team to the venue for preparation in order to serve massive bando dishes on time.
To show hospitality to guests, each bando banquet usually serves up as many as ten to twelve dishes, usually in even numbers, as it is customary to regard even numbers as being more auspicious than odd ones. Also, each dish has to have an auspicious and lucky name to attract good luck and good fortune.
Traditional bando dishes (In clockwise order: stewed pork knuckle, deep fried shrimp, sticky rice with grilled eel, and abalone )
Cold appetizers are usually served as the first dish while waiting for guests to arrive. They usually contain bottarga, or salted fish roe, fish roll, boiled shrimp, sliced cuttlefish, cold chicken jelly, and salted jellyfish. Each dish has an auspicious name. For cold appetizers, it could be named "The Five Blessings Descend," which can be understood that the dish contains five ingredients, or "The Four Large Blessings," which means four main ingredients are used in the cold appetizer dish.
Guests would find that most of the dishes served on the table are either deep-fried or stewed. The cooking techniques and ingredients for bando have their own historical context. According to a joint study by Providence University and National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism professors, in the 70s and 80s before the country's economic boom, many Taiwanese were living in poverty and couldn't afford to eat meat frequently. Also, transportation infrastructure was not well developed back then, so the guests usually traveled a long way to join the banquet.
With that, the dishes served at the banquet were typically large with deep-fried delicacies and stewed meat such as fish, chicken, pork, and beef intended to feed guests well, and guests can take away their leftovers to share with their families or to reheat them at the following meals.
The steamed crab is one of the most popular Taiwanese bando dishes. (Photo by Sophia Yang)
Today in central and southern Taiwan, Yilan and suburban Taipei, this Taiwan-style catered banquet at wedding ceremonies, celebrations of birthdays of local deities, and other social gatherings is still popular. The settings could be on side streets, private properties, or other public spaces. If you happen to be there, you can witness a dozen people hustling around the temporary kitchen next to the seating area in order to offer one sumptuous dish after another.
Unlike the days in the 80s, Taiwan today has become a country with nominal gross domestic product per capita at US$22,263. People have become more weight- and health-conscious, demanding higher levels of quality and food safety. Traditional bando chefs can't do business as usual without paying attention to ingredients and avoiding certain dangerous additives.
Apart from the food safety issue, bando guests today are encouraged to pack up leftovers themselves and bring them home, with the noble reason to reduce food waste and the environmental footprint of food systems. Therefore, don't feel surprised to see takeaway bags ready on tables. But don't worry, those bags are generally opaque pink, some with lovely prints, and won't embarrass you while carrying them on the go.
The takeaway bags (Photo: Sophia Yang)
The emcee is hosting the show to entertain guests. (Photo: Sophia Yang)
The entertaining performance has been a crucial element in a traditional bando feast. Performance varies at different occasions. For a wedding party, singing is the most popular show. The emcee has to be multitalented: she or he can sing while taking charge of the rundown to make sure the show goes without a hitch. The emcee usually invites guests to sing or to show off their talents on the stage to entertain the crowd, making everyone happy.
Lisa Chen told the Taiwan News reporter that she had been to several bando feasts intended to celebrate local deities' birthdays in Yilan and southern Taiwan, where the entertainment included Budaisi, also known as Taiwanese glove puppetry, and pole dance by a young girl in bikini.
She recalled one time she was at a bando feast hosted by a Taoist temple in Changhua County, where the show was even more outrageous – a woman in her late 20s on the stage took off her clothes one by one in front of guests, mostly men in late 50s or older. “It is part of Taiwanese culture too, regardless of which performances they offer,” Chen said.
Traditional bando banquet setup (Photo Courtesy of 安比小姐 Ms. Ambie）