As the great Canadian philosopher Avril Lavigne once asked: “He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?” Hello and welcome back to Catastrophic Reviews, the Kitchen Catastrophe series where Jon takes a break from talking about food and food history to talk about a food show or book. Today’s topic is the Taiwanese romantic comedy, A Perfect Match, available on Netflix.
The story of how we came to this point is a confusing, but thankfully brief one: as the blog has gone on, I’ve reviewed several pieces of Asian-focused media, including the Netflix shows Samurai Gourmet and Street Food. What you DON’T know is there’s also a couple shows I started watching, but did not complete, and therefore did not review. Mostly this is because the show failed to ‘click’ with an important member of the media-review group, by which I mean “it was too long to watch on my own, and either Nathan or my mom ended up not liking it.”
Don’t be like that, Kantaro. I personally liked your obsession with desserts!
As such, the household Netflix has been, slowly but surely, taking on a more Asian-centric viewpoint. This recently culminated in world consuming point of critical mass, as it caused my mother to discover Taiwanese Dramas, a genre she has since spent the last 3 months binging in a way that actively offends the sensibilities of both my brother, myself, and ANYONE I explain it to. (She will watch a couple episodes, then jump to the FINAL episode, to see if she likes how it will end, and then go back and watch the rest of the show…fast forwarding through any plotlines she thinks are unimportant/boring/too mushy/generally objectionable in some way.) IN order to better understand what appeals to her about these shows, and to generate ‘easy’ content (a statement I will bitterly regret later), I decided to tackle one of these shows for a post…and have, for the first time, failed to overcome it. This is the FIRST review for a show where I have not completed the show. Because it’s also easily the LONGEST show I’ve tried to tackle. And to explain how/why, let’s do a quick genre breakdown.
When There’s Trouble, You Call TW.
Amazing, a title joke that requires you know Asian fan culture, and the theme song to a Disney cartoon cancelled…Before my little brother was born. These are the niche jokes we come for, Title Jon.
Let’s get fuckin’ DANGEROUS, BOIS!
Anyway, Taiwanese Dramas or “TW Dramas” are part of a cultural phenomenon that’s been encompassing East Asia, based on the “Four Asian Tigers/Dragons”, a term used to refer to South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, four Asian nations/city-states that, since the 1960’s, have rapidly and thoroughly industrialized into ‘modern, developed’ nations with booming economies: the four nations combined had a higher GDP in 2018 than the entire continent of Africa.
In tune with their technological and industrial rise, the nations have recently begun experimenting in taking on another huge global issue: The American Cultural Hegemony. By which I mean the fact that “a lot of TV, Movies, and Music are made to American tastes, since we invented Hollywood, FM radios, etc. This is why, in the last decade or so, you’re seeing more Asian-focused movies, and why K-Pop became a thing.
And a lot of this has to do with, as we kind of noted in the previous post, the Korean War. Basically, American troops showed up in the east Pacific and said “okay, if we’re going to have military bases out here, we need you guys to figure out electricity, computers, air-conditioning, and so on. And we’re bringing in our USO performances.”
“It’s the fifties, we all know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Which was a MUCH more timely reference than “The Sexier Monroe Doctrine”.
As such, Korea and Taiwan have been part of what’s called the “Korean/Taiwan Wave”, referring to their growing popularity in other nations. Japan was the original, close target, but they also spread into China, and the US.
So Taiwanese Dramas are fascinating, because they’re kind of an example of convergent cultural evolution. Taiwanese dramas are shows based around the confusing ups and downs of the relationships of handsome and beautiful people, focusing on long explorations of all their character’s motivations and feelings, and shocking new revelations about previously established plot points or characters. And if all that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s basically the same description as Soap Operas.
Oh come ON, Susan Lucci!
Yes, Taiwanese Dramas are basically just Soap Operas through a different cultural lens. For one thing, they tend to wrap up quicker, so they don’t get quite as crazy with the “my twin brother has kidnapped my fiancé with amnesia”, levels of twists. For another, in my experience, most of the characters are generally nicer, though that may be a misjudgment due to relatively small sample sizes. I just see fewer mustache-twirling villains in the TW shows. Some are explicitly not “dramas”, but rather “romantic comedies”: as Mrs Lavigne implied, we start the show with a boy and a girl, and we know WHERE we’re going, we just don’t know how we’ll get there. They’re also explicitly aimed at older Taiwanese women, and take their time re-establishing key plot points so you’re not lost if you miss an episode. The biggest difference is that while they air less frequently than daily soap operas, they compensate by taking their goddamn TIME with the show: and average episode is over an hour, probably eating up a whole hour and a half with commercials (assuming a roughly similar rate to American channels.)
AS such, I jumped into this 22 episode show, to realize that meant I had committed to over 25 HOURS of television consumed in less than 2 weeks, while working and maintaining a social life (please hold your snide comments), as well as a weekend where I was intending to be gone for 2 days. In the end, I was going to have to watch over an hour and a half per day to get it done. And I fell behind, so I threw in the towel and said “alright, I’ll get to the Halfway point, and talk about that.” So this is what I think about the first HALF of the show Perfect Match. I’ll eventually get around to the second half, but for now understand that I am speaking solely in reference to what occurs in the first 11 episodes of the show.
A Match Made in Hainan
The reason I picked this particular show is because it’s much closer to the blog’s oeuvre than the other show my mom had already binged fully: THAT show is about a girl disguised as a boy falling in love with a Triad leader, and their budding friendship/romance. THIS show is about a Night Market Vendor challenging the chef of a high-class restaurant, and their budding friendship/romance.
This is literally the end of the intro sequence, so understand they’re leaning into the Chef thing pretty damn hard.
The crux of the show, culinarily, is Curry. Our female lead, Wei Fengqing, is the daughter of a deceased chef who was known as the “Curry King” and she hopes to one day regain his title for the Wei family. (remember that in China, name orders are reversed. She’s “Fengqing, of the Wei family”) She works at a night market, which are essentially a permanent farmer’s market/fairground vendor area. They’re very popular in Taiwan, as a slightly more refined version of the Street Food we’ve been discussing this month (in that there’s like, a food court area and seating), as well as several other East Asian nations like…actually, all 4 of the Tigers have similar things…which feels kind of weird, but also…not, in a way that feels a LITTLE racist… Anyway, if you can’t mentally relate to that, imagine I said she “runs her family restaurant”. Her signature dish is “Shrimp Curry Mini-Burgers”
The male lead, Huo Ting’en, is, as is pretty standard in these sorts of shows, rather different. Huo Ting’en was trained at Le Cordon Bleu, the famous French culinary school, and ‘manages’ a menu-less (a “so fancy you don’t order, the chef decides what you eat”) restaurant, La Mure. His job would more accurately be called something like “Executive Chef” in an Western Kitchen. And he specializes in a dish of “Curry Lobster”.
If you needed additional scale for how ritz-y his restaurant is, “the chef suggests you add COGNAC to the LOBSTER BRAINS”
This is actually the inciting incident of our narrative (though not the actual START of it, which we’ll get to): one of the night market vendors posts online calling Wei’s burgers “the Night Market Huo Ting’en”, meaning “if you’re too poor to eat at his restaurant, come try her stuff!” This challenge irritates Ting’en, right as he’s in the middle of a minor crisis: his mother and some important investors are coming to dinner at the restaurant, and his chef is fainting from high blood pressure. Ting’en must make the dinner himself for these important backers. A process made more awkward when it’s revealed that this isn’t just a dinner, it’s a date: Ting’en’s mother and another member of the corporation have come with the man’s daughter, a renowned food critic, to try and set-up the chef and the critic as potential spouses, because they have similar interests…AND because then they’d hold a majority share in the corporation they’re all part of.
Oh yes, this is a full soap opera/rom-com situation: both Ting’en and Fengqing come not just with tragic backstories, not JUST with love triangles, BUT ALSO with ongoing personal conflicts/arenas of intrigue. Frustrated by the surprise date, Huo goes for a walk with the show’s best character, his Front-of-House Manager Peng Xiaobin.
Seen here reacting in a pretty typical manner.
The two end up at the Night Market, and Ting’en tries Fengqing’s shrimp burgers, declaring them “alright, but cheap, and made with no real training.” He then proceeds to show that using the exact same ingredients she does, he can make her burgers better than her, which her OWN FRIENDS have to admit is accurate when they try them. She responds with the assertion that if she were allowed to eat his curry lobster ONCE, she could make it just as good as he can. A challenge he cockily accepts.
To his surprise, he discovers that Fengqing has basically a ‘perfect palate’: she can break down the flavors she’s tasting extraordinarily well, and remakes his curry lobster ALMOST perfectly. And then impresses him even more by refusing to accept her product: it’s only 90% correct, so she was wrong. But, she asserts, if he gave her seven days of learning, she could do it. Impressed by how close she got, and her acknowledgement of still not being quite right, he accepts, thinking (he explains later) that she has a true talent for cooking, and he wants to train her, rather than see that talent wasted in a night market.
And while sure, that SOUNDS really patronizing, in his defense, 50 Taiwanese dollars is, as of the writing of this post, $1.60 American. So either rent is really cheap over there, or holy shit does this shop have some tight profit margins.
The first half of the show covers the entirety of the 7-day training regime, which actually ends up being a little longer in “real time”, as they agree if he doesn’t train her on a given day, then it shouldn’t count to the total. And, this being a soap-opera/rom-com, there’s plenty of hijinks and twists that take place in those “7 days”.
Let me give you a BRIEF example: This is Meng Ruxi, aka “Gina” (no, I don’t get it either) the food blogger from the blind date.
A flirty, confident, helpful hot chick.
So of course she’s totally inappropriate.
While initially reluctant, after a charming dinner, and what she thinks is Ting’en playing hard-to-get, but is literally just him misplacing his phone and having a work emergency, she decides she’s into the idea of being with him. Like, “announces to her father that he should expect a new son-in-law” levels of into it. Ting’en tries to let her down easy…only for his brother to send her flowers with a nice message, on orders of their mother. This starts an ongoing chain of misunderstandings and miscommunications: She offers to get him something for a hang-over, and interprets his flippant response (“Do you want A or B?” “G, I guess.”) to mean “Make my hang-over cure PERSONALLY, Gina.” Which she DOES. There is a conversation where she finally goes “You don’t want to court me, do you?” to which he responds “No. I don’t.” And her response is “Then I guess I have to court you.” What I’m saying is this woman is DRIVEN, and I wish that I was a famous chef and scion of a wealthy corporation.
THIS, on the other hand, is Shaowei, Fengqing’s rival love interest.
Seen here in his least denim/track-suit based outfit.
He is maybe the worst character in the show. He’s not the worst PERSON in the show, but he’s the CLASSIC “I’ve been in love with her for years, and we’re going to be together because we’re so compatible” male best friend of an ambitious female lead character. His primary redeeming quality is that he is surprisingly less selfish than those characters usually turn out to be in Western shows.
Like, his constant refrain isn’t just “She’s going to be mine, and we’re going to be happy together”, but rather “She’s going to understand she loves me, and I’M going to be the one who helps her reach her dreams!” And yes, he’s whiny and possessive (there’s at least 6-8 scenes of him lecturing her for not telling him before she stays out late/doesn’t come home), but he’s also pretty self-sacrificing. He lets himself be stranded on a mountain for several hours so the two leads can make it to a dinner service after a car accident. He spends a day making sure his romantic rival’s big dinner goes off perfectly, because he thinks it’s important that Fengqing and Ting’en part on good terms, not owing each other anything. He is ALSO the estranged brother of Meng Ruxi, Ting’en’s rival love interest. That’s right, we got SECRET SIBLINGS, Y’ALL!
This is legitimately the only real spoiler I’ve given for anything not in the first 2-3 episodes. Because this is in the 6th episode. ALL OF THE DETAILS I HAVE COVERED AREN’T EVEN HALF OF WHAT’S IN THIS THING.
Yeah, turns out he gave up his money because he dad said his girlfriend at the time was a gold-digger, and wouldn’t let them date, so he disowned himself…at which point his gold-digger girlfriend left him. Ouch. So both the rival love interests are from the SAME family, approaching from different class positions: the high-class critic and potential corporate aide, and the “money corrupts, only good hearts and hard work can be trusted” exile. PRIME Soap Opera-stuff.
A Saucy Summary
Food-wise, the first 10 episodes contain a LOT of discussion about food. Fengqing has plenty of experience, but little formal training, so a lot of the early show is about Ting’en explaining things, like different varieties of curry mixes, or the different weights of lobsters, etc. But a lot of it can also be the philosophy and theory of restaurants in general, and his restaurant in particular. There’s a bit where she tries to modify a recipe, and he points out she hasn’t tried it the ‘real’ way first: how can she know she wants less or more of something, if she didn’t try the original? You have to set ground rules before you improvise. Another time, they’re making a dinner to celebrate a 30th anniversary, and Fengqing is certain she’s found the exact recipe the couple ate that day, and insists on making it. Ting’en lets her, and has her watch as the couple is served, and they announce the dish is perfect…only for him to reveal to her that he replaced her version. Not because she was wrong, but because the couple has been on a low-sodium diet for years due to health reasons. They wouldn’t have recognized the REAL recipe, as their palates have changed, and their memories have shifted over the years. He uses this to illustrate the danger of being stuck in the past and cooking without thinking about the customer.
I’m sure this sounds less…dumb…in Mandarin.
All in all, the show’s got a weird pace by western standards, and my mother tells me that the latter half is MUCH more focused on corporate politics, which I am SO looking forward to, but I’d recommend the first half as a nice show to pop in once a week or so and watch an hour or two. It’s got pretty pictures of food, relationship drama, and it’s a neat insight into Chinese culture. OH SHIT, That reminds me.
Three quick things you’re going to want to know about Taiwanese culture/language before you get into this to make things a little more intelligible:
The female lead’s name sounds like the word for “fiancée” in Chinese. There’s SEVERAL points where people react with confusion when she gets introduced, and it’s not until episode 11 that someone SAID fiancée, and I heard the sounds and went “Oh, THAT’S why there was that bit like, 5 episodes ago.”
Number codes. There’s an ongoing bit about “number codes” in the show, which is a Chinese/Taiwanese phenomenon. Basically, a bunch of numbers in Chinese sound like other words, so you can arrange numbers to make sentences: “Five-Two-Zero” for instance, sounds like “I love you”, which is why May 20th is a popular wedding day in China.
Contracts. I don’t know why, nor can I find many sources for it, but there seems to be a much more rigid cultural acknowledgment of what agreements/deals/contracts represent, ie “once you’ve made a deal, that shit is LOCKED”. There’s a running joke across multiple shows where after any minor agreement or praise, one party insists the other repeat it, into this phone, so they can record it for future evidence.
And that’s literally everything you need to know about the rich culture and history of Taiwan to watch a show about chefs, that presents this sequence of images.
I legitimately have nothing to add about the content of this gif.
I will apologize for the QUALITY of it, as I’m still very new to working with the file format, but the content is untouchable
I think the evidence speaks for itself
MONDAY: IN HONOR OF LABOR DAY, WE WILL NOT BE POSTING. THAT’S DEFINITELY WHAT’S HAPPENING, AND HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE FACT THAT IT’S ALREADY SUNDAY, SO I’D BE WRITING AND POSTING THE NEW THING IN ONE DAY.
THURSDAY: I TALK ABOUT ONE OF MY FAVORITE SUBJECTS. WHICH ONE IS IT? TUNE IN TO FIND OUT.