On Friday night Mr Taiwanxifu and I went to a charity dinner. It was not any dinner — it was a Rugby function at the Shangri-la Far Eastern Plaza Hotel with former Wallabies Coach Eddie Jones as guest speaker.
Now let me just be clear at the start that I am not a rugby player. Neither is Mr Taiwanxifu. Neither are any of our close friends. We don’t have anything against rugby players — we are just not one of them. We’re not part of the team. So the blokey and at times extremely non-politically correct humour at the dinner was not our usual scene, and some of the conversation about famous matches was lost on us. But having decided not to feel insulted, we had fun. An almost indecent amount of fun. And I suspect those that got stuck into the sponsored whiskey had even more fun and I did.
It would be easy to dismiss this event as just an excuse for a piss-up — with good nosh — by a group of expatriate guys and their glamorous girlfriends and significant others. (And I should add that there were also some extremely handsome young gents there as well: one male at our table declared he almost wished he was gay.) But that would be to ignore the serious side of this event — the fact that it was a charity fundraiser with a purpose.
Ten years ago, on 12 October a group of rugby players from the Taipei Baboons was in Bali when terrorists attacked the Sari Hotel. Sadly, some of them never came home. Rather than wallow in grief, the Taipei Baboons established the Bali Trust Fund to help victims. Their fundraising helps to provide ongoing support to a team member who was severely burnt in the bombing and still requires laser surgery each year. Beyond support for the victims, they also raise money in support of worthy charities in Taiwan. Past assistance has included to a young man paralysed from a sporting accident, in support of the Harmony Home HIV orphanage and for a baseball tournament for disadvantaged Taiwanese aboriginal children. This year they plan to support new programs including setting up a sporting program for the Salvation Army’s home for disadvantaged boys in Puli, near Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan.
If that wasn’t enough inducement to attend the event, the food was outstanding. I am always impressed with the cuisine of the Shangri-la Far Eastern Hotel. I go to many diplomatic receptions and internationally themed events, and the food at the Far Eastern is always spot on. Many restaurants in Taipei are very good, but I feel that only the Far Eastern, under the leadership of Executive Chef Beat Enderli, consistently recreates cuisines that resonate with people from that culture. I remember feeling positively homesick at this year’s Australia Day reception because the buffet selection — which included everything from Beef Wellington, to corn fritters, dips and lamingtons — reminded me so much of Australian cuisine without being tacky or stereotypical. Actually, I thought at first that an Aussie rather than a Swiss chef had designed the menu.
So what to feed a hungry horde of rugby players from countries such as the United Kingdom (English, Scottish and Irish!), South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Taipei and Japan?
Entrée was homemade dill cured salmon with honey mustard sauce. The thin fan-sliced salmon was predictably good, without being fishy or salty — or dull. I liked the honey mustard sauce, but would have preferred a more visually satisfying accompaniment. But the traditional soda bread was outstanding; I usually try to avoid bread and butter before a meal, but the bread was dense and chewy and home-made wholesome.
Soup of the day made me pause halfway through. It was chicken mulligatawny soup with a kick (no rugby pun intended I am sure), and yes it did have a slight zing to it. This was a much nicer choice than the more usual pumpkin or mushroom soup, and suitable for a group of Commonwealth-affiliated expatriates who probably don’t mind a good curry now and then. My pause was in part because of the chilli content — not enough to be uncomfortable but enough to notice — and in part because I wanted to slow down and savour every mouthful. I’m sure this chicken, rice, lentil and cilantro soup was on par with something made by Seinfeld’s infamous Soup Nazi.
I don’t think I have eaten such a satisfying roast beef meal. Shaped like the continent of South America, my slab of beef was huge. Given the size of the portion, perhaps I should take up rugby to wear it off; or at least do some decent exercise. But it was worth every mouthful of the generous pepper crusted prime rib. The Yorkshire pudding was also an authentic British touch, and a good sponge for soaking up the gravy.
Dessert came just as Eddie Jones got up to speak, so it was a tussle between listening to an engaging speaker and enjoying dessert. The decadent whisky and chocolate cake with rich vanilla ice-cream won the match; at least for the brief moment it took to consume it. Compared with the large slab of beef, the chocolate cake serving was tiny. But like the mulligatawny soup it also packed a punch, with the whisky and nut cake hitting an unmistakable touch down. The half-moon of vanilla ice-cream was seriously good, and I craved for more. But any more after the meal I had just enjoyed would be gluttony, so just as well it was portion controlled.
Eddie Jones was an engaging speaker, reflecting on his career in rugby coaching, while trading rugby jokes with his audience who lapped up his every word. Currently working as National Coach for Japan, he spoke with passion about his hope that Japan might win the World Cup when it plays host in 2019. But he acknowledged they had a long way to go and a desperate need for a new strategy. Jones, whose mother is Japanese, began his coaching career teaching rugby (aka sport English classes) in Japan. Since being introduced to Japan by Cambridge tutor Edward Clark in 1890, rugby has become a popular sport in all major universities. And Japanese firms recruit rugby players from universities, offering them a lifetime corporate career that continues after they ‘retire’ from rugby play.
The Rugby Charity Dinner is an annual event in Taipei organised by the British Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. This year was especially signficiant, as it marked a decade since the first Bali bombings.