2013 / 2月
Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Geof Aberhart
After starting out as a hunger-buster for passengers on the trains that run up and down Taiwan, the biandang—Taiwanese-style boxed lunch—has become an omnipresent part of Taiwan’s culinary landscape. Those railway biandang are still sold today, and are in fact a growing market, going from NT$150 million in sales in 2007 to a whopping NT$400 million in 2012. And now biandang are set to go international, starting with giving the Japanese the chance to sample the old-fashioned taste of Taiwan on their own trains.
So what is it that makes biandang so memorable?
How much do Taiwanese love railway biandang? Enough that for many years, the number-one complaint to the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) was that “the biandang keep selling out before I can get one!”
Upon opening the octagonal wooden biandang box, one is immediately greeted by a big slab of soy-stewed pork cutlet surrounded by cauliflower, carrots, water bamboo shoots, a soy-stewed egg, some kelp, a piece of fried fish, and the irreplaceable pickled cucumber. Available for just NT$80 at places like Taipei Railway Station, they truly are a big meal for a little money.
Even as they open their doors at 11 a.m., the TRA Biandang Store already has long lines of hungry customers. One older woman from Wanhua District excitedly explains that what makes railway biandang different isn’t just the stewed cutlet, but more the tofu skin and pickled vegetables, which give them a real nostalgic, down-home flavor.
Some 500,000 people pass through Taiwan’s railway stations every day, buying as many as 24,000 biandang, with Taipei Railway Station accounting for the greatest percentage. “A lot of those biandang are being bought by high-speed rail passengers,” laughs director of TRA’s Catering Service Department Dennis Ju, “which makes them the only aspect in which the traditional rail business is actually beating the HSR.”
What makes so many Taiwanese nostalgic for railway biandang is the close connection with many people’s childhoods.
To those born in the 1950s and 60s, when times were tight in Taiwan, railway biandang came to represent those rare occasions when they got to go traveling, whether for leisure or for family gatherings. The combination of the scents of the biandang and the anticipation of travel and family occasions have left such a deep impression on many that these simple boxed lunches are valued more than any exotic delicacy.
To make sure they keep the flavors the way people remember, the Taiwan Railways Administration even asked retired master chefs to teach and supervise the new guard.
Another way in which the TRA has tapped into that nostalgia was the 2000 relaunch of the old round, stainless-steel biandang boxes. Ever since, the TRA has released different old-fashioned biandang boxes to satisfy the nostalgic cravings of their public, selling them in annual limited editions of just 40–50,000.
This nostalgia comes despite the TRA only having used the stainless-steel boxes between 1961 and 1979, before changing to other materials that did away with the hassle of collecting and cleaning the used boxes. Dennis Ju explains that in the early days, they used thin wooden boxes, changing to stainless steel in 1961, and then later to aluminum foil, cardboard, and polypropylene, before finally moving back to cardboard and wood in 2003 when plastic boxes were banned.
Just like the wheels of the trains, the wheels of time have kept on turning, and where a basic railway biandang once cost only NT$20, by 1990 that had risen to NT$60, or NT$80 for the deluxe version. Since then, the price of a pork cutlet biandang has remained the same.
In 2011, the TRA worked with nutritionists from Mackay Memorial Hospital to create new biandang that meet modern expectations for healthy food, including roast salmon, roast chicken drumstick, and vegetarian risotto. But in terms of sales, the classic pork cutlet biandang is still the champion.
Today the TRA produces its biandang at five stations—Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, Hualien, and Qidu—supplying the many trains that run up and down the island, as well as the TRA Biandang Stores located at some TRA and HSR stations.
The biandang produced at the five stations are prepared in essentially the same way, but true biandang connoisseurs can, surprisingly, still tell them apart.
In late October 2012, the TRA organized a competition between the five stations, pitting their stewed pork cutlet biandang against each other, with Qidu Station ultimately taking the gong.
For a while, the TRA intended to then “unify” the pork biandang of the various stations to match the flavor of Qidu’s winning recipe, but they hadn’t counted on the opposition that the suggestion sparked. Bowing to public pressure, the TRA walked back the idea, sticking to the various original recipes.
While all the stations that produce the pork biandang stew their pork in a soy-sauce-based concoction, the Qidu Station ones add a little something extra.
“It’s scallions,” says head chef Xie Binghong. By adding scallions to the stew, they give the meal a touch of old-fashioned flavor. “Whenever someone cracks one of these biandang open, the people around them basically can’t help but go buy one themselves,” Xie jokes.
The folks at Qidu Station produce some 4,000 biandang a day, with most being sold on trains running the eastern and western trunk lines. The day after Qidu’s biandang won the TRA competition, demand skyrocketed, with sales from a stand outside the station itself shooting up from 100 to 800; for a while, the kitchen just couldn’t keep up with demand. While the craze has died down somewhat now, even today they still sell some 400–500 biandang a day.
There’s a good reason why the stewed pork has remained for so long the star of the biandang show.
“There are a lot of environmental factors to take into account when putting together a biandang,” says Xie. The pork used in TRA biandang is marinated, fried, and stewed, with the aim being to produce a pork cutlet that stays mouth-watering even at room temperature.
The recipe for TRA stewed pork cutlets is basically this: after tenderizing, the cutlet is steeped for two hours or more in a marinade containing scallions, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar, sesame oil, rice wine, white pepper, and five-spice powder; next, it is dredged in sweet potato starch and shallow-fried at about 160°C; and finally, it is stewed for 20 minutes, completing the process.
Of course, the side dishes are also no place for carelessness. Xie Binghong explains that when picking side dishes, he looks to things with lower water content like cauliflower, mustard greens, pickled vegetables, and cabbage. The reason is that vegetables that contain too much water tend to make the rice overly moist, giving the whole biandang an unappealing mouthfeel.
Today, TRA’s biandang business pulls in almost NT$400 million a year. Sales long ago expanded out from the trains and train stations to include anywhere within three kilometers of the five producing stations, with any purchase of NT$1000 or more also enjoying free delivery. According to Dennis Ju, the TRA is now considering setting up a chain of retail outlets, and plans are underway to take the biandang international this year.
In March 2013, Ju says, the TRA will begin selling a seafood and pork cutlet biandang in Hokkaido, Japan, in cooperation with Japan Railways; this new combination will also be sold in Taiwan.
The plan is to have long, rectangular boxes that are one half TRA biandang and one half Japanese bento; the Taiwanese half will be headlined by a pork cutlet, while the Japanese half will be salmon and fried egg. Excitement among the train-taking public erupted almost immediately on the announcement of the plan, and many people have already begun calling the TRA to ask when they’ll finally go on sale.
The TRA stewed pork cutlet biandang has been a local favorite for more than half a century, going from train carriages to full-fledged stores, and now to another country. Truly the story of the TRA biandang is one not only of fond remembrance of times past, but also of innovating for the future.