Tue, Sep 25, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Secret sauce: The surprising origins of Taiwan’s Mid-Autumn Festival barbecue craze

Taipei residents enjoy a street-side barbecue during last year’s Mid-Autumn Festival.

Photo: Fang Pin-chao, Taipei Times

The sight of gaggles of friends, family and colleagues clustered around disposable barbecues by the road side, sweating over glowing coals as the aroma of singed meat permeates the sultry evening air, is a familiar scene to anyone who has experienced the Mid-Autumn Festival in Taiwan. However, the custom of cooking alfresco under the light of the full moon isn’t as old as one might suppose; rather it is a prime example of the power of advertising.

The practice of barbecuing during Mid-Autumn Festival actually dates back no more than three decades, when two of Taiwan’s largest soy sauce manufacturers, Wan Ja Shan Food and Kimlan Food, jousted with each other in an advertising war to sell their respective barbecue sauce brands.

In 1986, Wajashan Food released a television commercial for its Wan Ja Shan Barbecue Sauce in the run-up to the Mid-Autumn Festival. It included the slogan: “When one household grills on the barbecue, ten thousand families smell the aroma.” The commercial featured sizzling-hot celebrity of the moment, Chang Yung-yung, as the condiment’s brand ambassador, helping ignite the craze for Mid-Autumn Festival barbecuing.

Three years later Kimlan Food released its own television commercial as part of a saturation advertising campaign for its rival Bar-B-Q Sauce. The advertisement featured footage of food being liberally doused with barbecue sauce to an infectiously catchy jingle. Not to be outdone, Wajashan Food launched a counter-offensive, releasing an updated version of its original hit television commercial.

Around the same time, new supermarkets and wholesalers such as Wellcome, Carrefour and the now obsolete Makro began to offer discounts on barbecue food ingredients and accoutrements in the lead-up to the festival. The combined effect of these commercial campaigns gradually led to barbecuing being associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival in the minds of the Taiwanese public. Char-grilling everything under the sun — from Chinese sausages, pig’s blood cake and Taiwanese-style tempura — is now so popular that it has become the number one activity associated with the festival in Taiwan.


1. advertising war phr.

廣告大戰 (guang3 gao4 da4 zhan4)

2. brand n. 品牌 (pin3 pai2)

3. slogan n. 標語 (biao1 yu3)

4. saturation advertising phr.

轟炸式廣告宣傳 (hong1 zha4 shi4 guang3 gao4 xuan1 chuan2)

5. commercialized adj.

商業化 (shang1 ye4 hua4)

6. mass-produced adj.


(da4 liang4 sheng1 chan3 de5)

7. retail industry phr.

零售業 (ling2 shou4 ye4)

By contrast — similar to Taiwan prior to the mid-1980s — in China the Mid-Autumn Festival is still largely celebrated in accordance with its harvest festival origins. Families come together to celebrate the legend of Chang E, the Chinese goddess of the moon, by watching the full moon appear in the nighttime sky and feasting on moon cakes: small round sweet pastries traditionally filled with red bean or lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk.

In Taiwan, while the “grill-industry” now rules the roost during Mid-Autumn Festival, sales of moon cakes and seasonal pomelos (the fruit is eaten while the carefully-preserved emerald green peel is worn as a novelty hat) are still big business over the holiday period. Whether one views the modern barbecue craze as a positive evolution of the festival into a unique Taiwanese celebration, or an ancient festival hijacked by corporations and clever marketing, is a matter for debate. One thing is certain though, it is a salutary lesson in the power of advertising to, for better or worse, influence not just consumer behavior, but even alter the mores and traditions of an entire society.

(Edward Jones, Taipei Times)


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