2002 / 8月
Eric Lin /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
Bing (iced treats) hold a special place in Taiwan's culinary culture, with cuabing (shaved ice) being the king of summertime chillers. Other noteworthy discoveries of our ancestors include cool and squeezably soft gelatins made with aiyu (jelly-fig seeds) or xiancao herb. A plate of aiyu or xiancao gelatin, covered in crystalline shaved ice, and then topped off with fruit, sweets, or syrup-it's heavenly! No wonder there is an old Taiwanese saying describing the most profitable professions which goes: "First, become a doctor; second, sell bing; third, open a brothel."
Everybody knows that ice sells. Now with global warming stretching out summers longer and longer and the economy beginning to heat up again, consumers are coming out of hibernation, and this year Taiwan's bing market has become intensely competitive.
Talking about the ice wars that have spread across Taiwan at anything but a glacial pace this summer, Kuo Ching-i of Chen Shan Mei Food Products, which runs the Ice Ice chain of bing shops, draws a metaphor from ancient history: "It's like the barbarian invasions of China!"
Kuo prefers this parallel over the "Warring States Period" because there is a definite non-native element to this struggle. For example, Hui Lau Shan features Hong Kong-style "sweet soup," introducing to Taiwan the Hong Kong concepts of elaborate decor and bing products with ingredients from Chinese medicine. Ice Ice, combining konjac from Japan (widely used in a flour form and in gelatin candies, for example) with old-fashioned Taiwanese-style "sweet soup," offers up bing that are meals in themselves, and are said to be ideal for those trying to lose weight.
Of course let us not forget the local contenders. Ice Monster, the famous shop on Taipei's Yungkang Street, virtually single-handedly launched the mango bing fad that has swept the country so thoroughly that any bing shop, whatever its specialty, that fails to have mango bing on the menu is definitely "uncool." Meanwhile, there are several new chains owned by media personalities. This is indeed a heady mix of local and foreign, traditional and modern. In the last two years alone, at least a dozen new bing chain stores have opened, and that only counts the ones that have featured prominently in the media!
According to a survey conducted by the famous Hong Kong bing chain Hui Lau Shan, Taiwan loves iced treats more than any other Asian country. Just check out the streets of Taipei and you'll see.
When you go along Yungkang Street, renowned for its many eateries, you'll discover that there are two places where there are long lines continuously from morning till night. One is Ding Tai Fong, which has been one of Taipei's premier restaurants for many years, and serves Northern Chinese cuisine. The other, rather unexpectedly, is a place that has scratched its way up only in the last few years: Ice Monster.
It's especially amazing that whereas you would expect Ding Tai Fong to be unaffected by the changing seasons, and have long lines all year-round, over the last couple of years the same thing has been happening at Ice Monster. It used to be that there was only a market for bing in summer, but now even when cold fronts sweep across the city, you can still find people lined up around the block.
Ice Monster has created the two amazing miracles of summertime mango bing and wintertime strawberry bing. In only two or three short years, shaved-ice houses which somehow fit the Chinese characters for Ice Monster into their names have sprung up all over the country, some even using signs of exactly the same color and design. This extreme demonstration of the "swarm effect" is enough to send chills up your spine.
The legend of mango bing
When you mention the "legend of mango bing," Ice Monster owner Luo Tung-yi modestly says that it has all been a matter of luck.
Seven years ago, recalls Luo, about the only choices for an ambitious young person in Taiwan society were to go into high-tech fields like semiconductors or otherwise to find some traditional business in which one could "make a breakthrough." So he rented a storefront on Yungkang Street and began selling bing.
At the beginning, his menu was about the same as a traditional bing shop, and it proved to be a failure. Luo ran losses for three straight years, until finally he decided he had no choice but to allow someone else to take over the storefront. However, one night just as he was in the process of closing up the shop, some customers came and asked for some shaved-ice treats. Because he had already put all his ingredients away, all he had in hand was a bag of mangoes that he had coincidentally just bought. He asked them if a mango bing would be okay.
Totally unexpectedly, doing no advertising whatsoever, within a month his store was packed with customers, and he quickly recovered all his losses, even his original investment.
Now the Yungkang Street Ice Monster gets 3000 customers on a typical day, one-third of them Japanese tourists. And the prices are by no means cheap: One mango bing costs more than NT$100. What is so special to justify this price?
Luo Tung-yi says that it is simple: You have to know fruit and also fruit-harvesting seasons so that your ingredients are fresh, and you have to have the perfect balance between sweet and tart.
But these tricks of the trade are not nearly as easy as they sound. Someone has to control the flow volume of fresh fruit throughout the day. You can't peel too many at once, because after fruit is cut it turns bad quickly. In order to time purchases correctly, it is necessary to keep an eye on mango production in southern Taiwan. For example, normally the first mango crop from Tainan is immediately followed by the one from Pingtung County. But this year the latter was a few days late, creating tremendous headaches for Luo Tung-yi as he tried to figure out where he could get the best fruit.
As for controlling tartness and sweetness, Luo Tung-yi thinks that the key to delicious fruit is in the acidity. Totally sweet mangoes get boring quickly. Therefore, when he brews up his mango bing sauce, he's especially careful not to let the tartness escape.
Most people might think that if you want to make big money, you should go into franchising. Especially now that Ice Monster's business has fallen off by five percent because of the stiff competition, isn't it a pity not to expand? Yet this is not at all the way that Luo Tung-yi thinks. He feels that his success has been entirely a matter of good luck, and he would rather focus on doing well what he does now than going for the big money.
"If one day someone eats here and thinks it's bad, then that customer is lost forever," says Luo Tung-yi. He doesn't believe that the typical "central kitchens" of franchise operations can reach the high standards he sets. It will be enough for him to "transfer technology" to a few carefully screened nationwide chains. "I would rather devote my energy to coming up with even more tasty fruit bing," he explains.
Ice in their veins
Luo Tung-yi is rather old-fashioned. But the story is very different over at Hui Lau Shan, which calls itself "the original ancestral home of the mango bing." They estimate that they will have 100 stores open by 2003.
Hui Lau Shan got its start back in the 1950s in Hong Kong, where there are now 55 shops. Its fresh fruit sago (similar to tapioca), launched in 1993, rocketed to popularity, just like mango bing in Taiwan.
In fact, Hui Lau Shan was first brought to Taiwan eight years ago. But its high prices and Hong Kong flavors proved unacceptable to most people at the time; after only a brief period the franchise ended up on the rocks. In its current incursion into Taiwan, the company is succeeding not only because of new products which have proven to be a hit in Hong Kong, but even more because of investment from a large Taiwan conglomerate.
Like many Western chains, Hui Lau Shan has adopted the tack of bringing its original model to Taiwan lock, stock, and barrel, and moreover directly operates all stores itself, in order to protect its technology from piracy and ensure a uniform standard of quality.
It's not only the taste that is Hong Kong; so are the decor and the names of the foods. Inside the large palace-style red doors, the menu lists numerous lu and shuang. It's hard for a native of Taiwan to read the menu, and you only know what a lot of the dishes are by asking the staff. It turns out that lu means sago, while shuang is a term that refers to a drink-like concoction made with fruit, juice, and jelly. The exotic ambience and interesting names really whet the appetite.
Hui Lau Shan specializes in Hong Kong-style "sweet soup." It is supposed to be healthful, being made with expensive ingredients used in Chinese medicine like sparrow's nest and harsmar. Different flavors are created by mixing in different kinds of sago and fruit.
Hui Lau Shan's products can be divided into four major categories. The first type, luye, is made by pouring fresh mango juice and crushed ice onto a super-cold (-18°C) pan, and then stirring the mixture like food being heated in a wok. Staff have to carefully control the time, speed, and intensity of the stirring; too slow and the mixture begins to freeze, too fast and it becomes too thick, instead of having a spongy texture. Luye is served in a shallow bowl, and topped with fresh fruit and ice cubes; the result is a luxurious, visually pleasing icy treat.
Shuang are made by layering gelatin, fruit or fruit juice, and sago in a clear plastic cup. As you imbibe the concoction through a wide straw, different textures and flavors unfold in your mouth. First-timers invariably find the sensation to be delightful. The ordinary sago and boiled products, meanwhile, are made the usual way, with variations depending upon the combinations of ingredients used.
On the cutting edge
The mango bing is the main attraction at both the Ice Monster and Hui Lau Shan, but the taste is very different. The Ice Monster's mangoes are sweet, but carry a tart kick, while Hui Lau Shan favors sweetness through and through.
Celine Huang, general manager for development at Hui Lau Shan says: "Like other shops, in summer we use Taiwan-grown mangoes, but the difference is that we insist that they are really sweet." When winter comes, they import Southeast Asian mangoes, which are even sweeter.
The mango bing fad in which Ice Monster and Hui Lau Shan are the leading players might be seen as a war, but that is not the metaphor preferred by Samuel Chen. Chen, the boss at Royal Sweets, says rather that these two operations are the pickets in the first skirmishes of the import fruit wars that are a consequence of Taiwan's entry into the WTO.
The recent upsurge in bing shops has created tremendous overlap: After all, almost all of these places just offer variations on the same themes of processed fruit. And another thing they have in common is that they are not cheap-a plate of mango bing costs as much as NT$100 or more. Many people are beginning to wonder: Will mango bing turn out to be another "flash in the pan" like Portuguese egg tarts?
Ice Monster boss Luo Tung-yi is not worried, because, unlike egg tarts, there has always been a market for shaved-ice treats in Taiwan. But he does hope that next year things will cool down a bit, and that the different shops will develop their own bing styles, rather than taking chips off the same old block.
More bing for the buck
An interesting aspect of the mango bing phenomenon is that people from the world of entertainment, who have always been avid investors in restaurants and food products, are likewise going in for ice in a big way, but in this case they are opting for traditional tastes. Examples include Ice Ice, founded jointly by TV star Pai Ping-ping and Chen Wei-hsiang of Dashin Music; Auntie's Old-Fashioned Bing, started by producer Chou You; and Hsu Hsiao-shun's Fuchow Uncle's Sour Treats. All feature traditional chilled or shaved-iced products. Of these, the person getting the most attention-the same one who struck out in his attempt to bring Hui Lau Shan to Taiwan eight years ago-is Chen Wei-hsiang.
"Chairman Chen Wei-hsiang learned a great deal from the failure of Hui Lau Shan eight years ago," says Kuo Ching-yi. Taiwan has a rich cuabing culture, and while non-native iced treats might attract a great deal of consumer curiosity at first, high prices pose a serious barrier that must be overcome in order to sustain operations over the long haul.
"Shaved-ice treats are considered ordinary food by Taiwanese, so the trick to maintaining a chain over the long term is low prices and localized tastes with a little added variation," says Kuo. Kuo explains that Ice Ice has adopted a policy of low prices, narrow profit margins, and high volume, and this, combined with having entertainer Pai Ping-ping, one of the shareholders, as spokesperson, allowed the chain to become an instant sensation as soon as it was launched last year.
There are few barriers to entry for selling bing. Most of the costs are in materials and labor, and little in fixed capital, so there is great flexibility and you get rapid returns. Ice Ice recognizes this, and sells franchise rights for a mere NT$1.5 million, which includes equipment, decor, and royalties. If a shop can maintain a certain level of sales in the summer, then it should be no problem to earn back the investment.
Most of the sales at Ice Ice shops are for delivered orders. Most outlets are in mixed commercial-and-office districts. There are presently nearly 50 franchises, and the number is expected to rise to 200 by next April. Because the central kitchen is in Wuku in Taipei County, which is too far away to serve southern Taiwan, once a southern central kitchen is established, the number of shops could grow even more quickly.
Ice Ice has adopted the selling point that its products are healthful, refreshing, and delicious. The main offering, konjac, is a new weight-reducing product from Japan. The accompanying ingredients include various traditional cuabing grains, like mung beans (said to "eliminate toxins" and "relieve summer-heat" according to theories of traditional Chinese medicine), kidney beans (to "supplement the blood" and "promote nutrition") and coix seed (to "remove heat" and "promote metabolism"). Consumers can choose a simple and nutritious treat to match their needs. In order to avoid the sanitary problems that can arise from impurities in the water used to make ice, and to conform to the precept of Chinese medicine that one should directly consume ice as little as possible, the products at Ice Ice are only refrigerated, and no ice is used.
"A woman working in an office doesn't have to expose herself to the summer sun, and for NT$35 a glass can have a healthy weight-reducing drink delivered for her lunch." Kuo Ching-i feels they are definitely on the right track.
"Fruit bing" and "nutritious bing" are the two main fronts in the shaved-ice wars, with franchising being the main operational model. Ice Ice says that you can figure on a steady profit at NT$1.5 million per franchise. But there are also people who are planning to start a "nutritious bing" chain at NT$150,000 per franchise.
Kao Yu-shu, who finished second in the 1998 Miss ROC pageant and holds an MA from the graduate school of biotechnology at Chungshan Medical University, will open her first shop in Tai-chung in mid-August. Her iced products will be made using maple syrup and other special ingredients, including many micronutrients. They can be taken as substitutes for all three meals, providing energy and nutrition.
Live long and prosper
However, even if the global climate is warming, Taiwan still has four seasons. The only way to tell the real winner of this summer's bing explosion will be to see who survives the chill of winter.
Most chain stores are well aware of this fact. It is still unknown whether their products will sell as well in winter as does the strawberry bing on Yungkang Street. The key will be whether they have some alternative plan for coping with winter.
Ice Ice has already weathered one winter. Their experience was that, despite making hot versions of all their products available, business was still only half of what it was in summer. "We are not very optimistic about the hot drinks market, so our approach is that as long as we are making a profit from April to September, then we only look to break even for the rest of the year," says Kuo Ching-i.
But many people are more ambitious than that. Hui Lau Shan, which prominently features hot foods using high-grade Chinese medicines like sparrow's nest and harsmar, is prepared to make the most of winter. Royal Sweets, which like Ice Monster got its start on Yungkang Street, advertises its sweet soup as being suited for both summer and winter. It is going into business with the Ganso food products conglomerate to open shops that will hopefully do well all year round. It appears that we can expect a serious "sweet soup war" to break out this winter.
But no matter whether we are talking nutritious or delicious, when you add all the new bing shops to the existing chains of iced tea stands, there is an omnipresent temptation to "chill out." So it is best to keep in mind the advice of Ho Tsung-hsien, a doctor of Chinese medicine. Ho says that while it is not impermissible to imbibe cold drinks to counteract the summer heat, those whose bodies tend to be "cold" are best off minimizing their intake of ice and fruit. Even those in good health must take their time when consuming cold foods. This summer's hottest ice treat, mango bing, is categorized as a "dry-heat" fruit, so it is best not to eat too much at a single sitting.
All bing shops are hoping, during this economic downturn, to make hay while the sun shines. But no matter how hot the battle for market share gets, consumers with a bing in hand can just chill out, and the summer heat will pass by unnoticed.
Ice Monster on Yungkang Street is jammed with customers all year round, setting off a ferocious battle over the bing market that has been likened to the ancient period of chaos sparked by a barbarian invasion of China.
At Ice Monster on Yungkang Street it's invariably hard to find a seat. A lot of people just stand in the sun to chow down. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
The mango bing created by Ice Monster boss Luo Tung-yi is a lot like love: sweet with a tart kick. It has become a contemporary Taiwan legend. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
Hui Lau Shan is a famous chain from Hong Kong; even the decor has a very Hong Kong feel to it.
Hui Lau Shan features "sweet soup" with Chinese medicinal ingredients.
Making a good "mango luye" requires an expert touch. The photo shows the cook demonstrating the right stirring technique.
Ice Ice uses konjac (below), a weight-reducing product imported from Japan, to make its "healthy bing products" that are so popular with consumers. Even kids love them (above).