A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #3)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

This extract from Chapter 5: The Farms That Feed Taipei describes the poor economic situation many farmers find themselves in, and some of the cultural, social, and regulatory factors that undermine agriculture across the island.

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Without them, meals in Taiwan would be dull and less healthy, and the country’s food security situation much worse. Yet Taiwanese farmers are poorly rewarded. Since the early 1970s, agriculture has never accounted for more than 40% of the total income of the average farming household. In the same period, the total disposable income of farming households (one in eleven of all households in 2015) has fluctuated between 62 and 78% of that in non-farming households. When the economy boomed between the 1960s and 1990s, many farmers – male and female alike – spent as much time laboring on construction sites as cultivating their fields.

A lingering sense of gratitude to the land that fed them and their ancestors motivates members of the older generation, but rarely inspires their children to pursue a career in agriculture. At the same time, this emotional attachment means landowners are reluctant to sell or lease plots they no longer cultivate. Around half of Taiwan’s farmers are over 65, and three quarters of them think no one will take over their fields when they are gone. But agriculture is clinging on, and cultivated land still accounts for more than 6% of Greater Taipei’s surface area.

Over the past half century, an expanding population and changing eating habits have left the island dependent on foodstuff imports. Wheat, corn and soy are grown in miniscule quantities, and less than 5% of the beef eaten is local. Few countries have experienced such a rapid collapse in their ability to feed themselves. Before 1968, food production in caloric terms was roughly equal to domestic requirements, but within two decades, self-sufficiency was below 50%. Even before Taiwan joined the WTO in 2002, farmers faced foreign competition due to rampant smuggling from China of mushrooms, tea and offal. In 2014, the self-sufficiency rate recovered slightly to 34.1%, and the authorities hope to lift it to 40% by 2020.

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While the cultivation of genetically modified crops is not permitted, the country imports dozens of GM food products, Taiwan Business Topics pointed out in its May 2015 issue. Because inheritance customs give the oldest son half of his father’s land, with other sons (and sometimes daughters) sharing the remainder, farms have been getting smaller and smaller. By the end of 2010, average cultivated land per enterprise was down to 1.9 acres (0.77 hectares), with just one farmer in five having more than 2.5 acres. One expert who praises Taiwan as “the world’s best exemplar of high-tech, mechanized small-plot agriculture” believes government-sponsored efforts to achieve economies of scale are crucial to the future of farming. An initiative called “Small Landlord, Big Tenant” was launched in 2008 by the Council of Agriculture, the central government agency which oversees farming, fisheries and food affairs. Despite its flaws, the policy has succeeded in making thousands of acres of land available to younger professional farmers, some of whom are applying technological skills they learned in other industries. Taiwan is unlikely to meet the majority of its food needs anytime soon, but the future which faces the island’s farmers is slightly brighter now than it has been for some years.

 

A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #2)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

In this extract from Chapter 3: Iconic and Emerging Foodways, we outline the remarkable culinary impact made by a small group of ethnic Russians who arrived in Taipei during the chaos of 1949, and how it was made possible by supplies of US flour and other agricultural commodities. At that time, Taiwan was so poor that the sacks in which flour arrived were cut up and turned into children’s clothes; the boy in this painting is wearing pants which bear the words “Sino-American Co-operation,” a slogan often stamped on US food aid to Taiwan.

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That pineapple cake has become the default food gift when Taiwanese interact with foreigners is appropriate, as the modern pineapple cake was developed in the early 1950s by a Russian working with American flour and milk powder at Astoria Confectionary and Cafe. This culinary landmark is located roughly equidistant between Taipei Main Station and the former Japanese governor-general’s office, now the Office of the President of the Republic of China. Founded in 1949 by six White Russian former residents of Shanghai with the help of Archibald Chien, who was not yet 20, Astoria became a pioneering Western-style bakery. “We practically introduced birthday cakes to Taiwan,” Taiwan Today quoted Chien as saying in an October 16, 2009 online report titled, “Astoria, a corner of Taipei’s history.”

The Russians, who had fled to Taiwan as the Communists tightened their grip on the mainland, are long gone, and Chien (who eventually became sole owner) handed control of the business over to his daughter some years ago. Nevertheless, Astoria continues to sell borscht, Russian soft candy, mazurka cake, and other items seldom seen in East Asia. But few Taiwanese know the real significance of the place.

Donuts did not come to Taiwan from the US, as many assume; Astoria was the first bakery to sell both freshly baked and deep-fried donuts. The Russians could not find cranberries or blueberries, and rejected Chien’s suggestion that they use candied fruit. In the end, they made fruit jam using oranges from Yangmingshan, the range of mountains immediately north of the capital. Chien later found papayas and carambolas suitable for jams. Astoria’s seasonal fruit jams are still star items today.

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Along with vanilla biscuits and almond flakes, one of the three most popular handmade cookies was a Taiwanese-style macaron. While French macarons are made using egg whites, for Astoria’s early Taiwanese-style macarons (which have a drier texture) the entire egg was used; the white and the yolk were separated, then each was whisked with granulated sugar. In that era, no Taiwanese (or Russian resident of Taiwan) would have contemplated wasting anything as valuable as a yolk. What is more, the eggs available then came from native tǔjī hens and were fairly small, so a recipe using only whites would have been a shocking misuse of resources. Making one butter sponge cake required eight tǔjī eggs.

European macarons did not catch on until some years into the 21st century, with the manager of the Taipei branch of a Parisian pâtatisserie reporting that families were buying the confections for shōuxián ceremonies. This ritual involves the relatives (and often their friends) of a four-month-old baby stringing cookies around the baby’s neck, breaking off pieces, and then rubbing them on the youngster’s lips in the belief the infant will then stop drooling. Macarons are thought to be ideal for this because they come in different colors, making for appealing photos of the event.

A shortage of walnuts and blueberries stymied the Russians’ efforts to recreate the rich fruit cakes they had baked before reaching Taiwan, but Chien persisted, eventually making a longan-and-raisin version. He brought a chocolate cake to market in 1961. And, within a few years, Astoria was offering Taipei gourmets croissants, chiffon cake, and Taiwanese-style Swiss rolls.

Speaking to a New York Times reporter for a March 30, 2008 feature, Chien admitted that much of what Astoria has sold over the decades was Russian by inspiration, if not replication, and that this truth had to be disguised for political reasons. In the 1950s, Taiwan was on the Cold War frontline, and ruled by a paranoid dictatorship that saw the Soviet Union as an implacable foe. Astoria’s Russian presence – and the frequent gatherings of intellectuals – invited state surveillance. But perhaps the organs of state were simply ensuring the safety of two regular VIP customers who had a taste for Russian fare: Soviet-educated Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor), and his wife, an ethnic Russian born in what is now Belarus.

 

A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (extract #1)

Between now and the end of the year, Katy Hui-wen Hung and I will be sharing some excerpts from our new book, which is available direct from the publisher and also via Amazon.

In this extract from Chapter 9: Teaching, Sharing and Learning Taiwanese Cuisine, we describe how an Australian-trained Taiwanese chef introduces and teaches common Taiwanese dishes to foreign and local culinary enthusiasts.P_20170501_094032

Calvin Tu pitches the small group classes he teaches at GOTUCOOK in Tamsui as a travel experience. “There’s nothing better than learning about a local culture by tasting and experiencing the food. Even better is experiencing this food culture by learning how to cook local cuisine yourself,” says the chef.

Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and TAFE South Australia in Adelaide, where he specialized in modern Western and Asian cuisine, Tu worked as a chef in Australia until returning to Taiwan in 2011. At GOTUCOOK, he sets his prices so the classes are affordable by young travellers passing through Taiwan, and he endeavors to teach (in English and Chinese) in a way that is, “as hands-on as possible, with plenty of one-on-one time for questions and answers.”

“I do this to connect with people,” says Tu, who first learned to appreciate food and cook with his mother. “Food gets people together, but food is also memory. I’ve been sensitive to flavors since I was a child, and good food flavors make for good memories. Sharing good memories with people who have the same interests and passions is delightful.”

In a typical class, Tu’s students may learn how to prepare beef-shank noodle soup with tomatoes and carrots; Taiwanese-style pickled cabbage; and a platter of lǔwèi. Asked which Taiwanese dishes he most recommends to Western gourmets, he names lǔwèi, three-cup chicken, and shredded chicken with gravy on white rice. The magic ingredient in the last one, he says, is deep-fried scallions. Tu helps Westerners understand Taiwanese food by relating local dishes to items they are familiar with. For instance, he introduces ròuzào fàn as “pork Bolognese sauce on rice.”

Tu has found certain local foodways are more difficult for Westerners to accept than others. Americans, he points out, think pork gēng looks a bit like porridge, which they consider a breakfast food. Also, few of them find the concept of savory porridge appealing. A similar mental barrier stands between some people and the iconic oyster omelet. Not only do they think that eggs dishes should be served for breakfast, rather than after dark, but they find the lumpy texture off-putting. Most have eaten tofu, yet are caught off guard by the use of fermented black soybeans (dòuchǐ) as a condiment.

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“In general, I think Taiwanese are pretty adventurous when it comes to food,” Tu says. He teaches culinary skills and restaurant management part-time in local vocational high schools, and concludes young people’s interest in non-Taiwanese cuisines is not driven by any particular fascination with Western culture: “They can accept different flavors, and they’re ready to explore, not just Western, but also Southeast Asian cuisines. The key thing is taste, not geography.”

Highways & Byways

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Highways & Byways is the title of my weekly travel column in Taipei Times, Taiwan’s leading English-language newspaper (and a paper I wrote several articles for, including this one, back in the first decade of the 21st century). When Richard Saunders, a regular contributor of travel articles to Taipei Times, decided to move back to the UK, he asked me if I was interested in taking over his spot. Without hesitation I said “yes.” A key reason for taking on this job is that these months I’m busy updating my Bradt guidebook. The third edition is due out in the first half of 2019, so I’ve been traveling all over the island, seeing what’s changed, what’s new and deserves to be included, and what can be dropped.

The first installment of Highways & Byways came out on August 3, when I wrote about historic buildings in Tainan’s Anping District that are open to the public but fail to provide much in the way of information. Among the places I’ve covered since then have been a couple of hiking routes in Chiayi County, the delightful old town of Beipu near Hsinchu (where I took the photo here), and sites related to local food history in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan.

 

History at every turn: A stroll through Lukang

lukangwenkaiEvery few months I write a travel or cultural piece for Les Isles (previously called En Voyage, and before that, Verve) the inflight magazine of EVA Air and its domestic and regional subsidiary, UNI Air. Among the destinations and themes I’ve covered for them over more than a decade are: Taiwanese opera; the historic side of Tainan; the Hakka township of Meinong in Greater Kaohsiung; Neimen’s Song Jiang Battle Array; indigenous cuisine; and Taiwan’s branch railways.

In the July 2018 edition of Les Isles, I have a 520-word article about Lukang, a place I never get tired of visiting or writing about. It can be read online here. The photo here shows part of Lukang’s Wenkai Academy.

Exploring Taiwan by train

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I’ve just returned from rainy Taitung, where I bounced between little towns in the southernmost part of that county for Travel in Taiwan. Since November 2016 I’ve researched and written eight explore-by-rail articles for that magazine. Possibly the most enjoyable was the very first, where I took the Coast Line through Miaoli County, but each trip has been an education… not to mention an excuse to get away from the computer for an entire day, or even two.

All this train travel prompted me to count up how many of Taiwan’s stations I’ve been to over the past 27-plus years. The high-speed railway has just 12 stations, and I’ve boarded and/or disembarked at all but two. Taiwan Railways Administration, the government agency that operates the island’s conventional rail system, currently has 227 functioning passenger stations; after some back-of-an-envelope reckoning, I think I’ve been to about 90 of them. I don’t count Duoliang Station, pictured here, because trains no longer stop there, even though it’s a popular tourist attractions.

I expect to tick off a few more TRA stations in the near future – but the list of never-visited stations is about to grow. In the next year or two, several new stations in Taichung and Kaohsiung are set to begin serving commuters in those cities. At least one of these, Sankuaicuo in Kaohsiung, will actually be reopened station.

 

Hiking (and assessing) Tefuye Historical Trail

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Hiking in the Alishan region yesterday, I succeeded in killing three birds with one stone. For my own satisfaction, I wanted to properly explore a trail that has long intrigued me. I also wanted to gather information on the area because I’m updating my guidebook. Finally, I needed to complete a commission from a US publisher that first reached out to me over three years ago.

The publisher, through its Asia editor in Manila, contacted me because they’re compiling a series of books about hiking and walking trails throughout the world. These aren’t guidebooks in the conventional sense, but instead books that evaluate how these paths and routes are presented to those who use them. Are the signs and information boards up to scratch? Do they provide all the necessary and desirable information? The first volume is already out (but not sold on Amazon, for some reason) and being pitched to national parks and similar bodies around the world as a reference work that will help them follow the best international practices when planning or revamping hiking trails, cycle paths, and the like.

When I was invited to choose a popular hiking route in Taiwan for the second volume, I was told not to concern myself with the physical condition of the trail, or how well it appears to be maintained, though I should note any dangers and annoyances – including that of getting lost – which the signs and information boards fail to address or address inadequately. (In Taiwan, where typhoons and earthquakes are frequent, not even the best-funded government agencies can keep paths open or in good condition all the time.) I also need to assess official webpages that describe the route. All in all, it’s an interesting little project, and not a million miles from the government-sponsored bilingualization work I’ve done.

Tefuye Historical Trail, pictured here, links Zizhong (where there’s an abandoned police station, a bathroom, and a friendly lady who sells soups and other hot dishes from the back of a truck) near Alishan with a farmer’s road 6km from the little indigenous village of Tefuye. Hikers get few long-distance views from the path, but its appeal is understandable. The forest hereabouts is indeed alluring; but for having to get to the other end and then hike not merely to Tefuye but on to the more substantial settlement of Dabang in time to catch the last bus back to Chiayi, I would have moved much more slowly…

So what kind of thing am I going to include in my report on the trail?

Taiwan’s Forestry Bureau actually does a pretty good job when it comes to signposting hiking routes, although it doesn’t seem to have an English-language page dedicated to the Tefuye Historical Trail. (On this page, the name of the path is wrongly rendered “Futeyeh,” and other details contradict signs and information boards on the ground.) Accordingly, most of my suggestions are in “ideal world” territory. For instance, I came across what looked to be eco-friendly engineering alongside the trail. Many visitors would be interested in learning about this, but none of it is labeled. And what about the old, twisted sections of rail track that rust beside the path in two or three places? A bit of tidying and labeling would convert these remnants from being near-eyesores to positive additions to the landscape.

Translations

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Seeing one’s work in a different language provides a singular satisfaction. Several of the articles I’ve written for Taiwan government publications – this one, on the emergence of co-working spaces around the island, is the most recent – have been translated from English into French, German or Russian. What makes the experience even more pleasurable is that the government asks my permission in advance, and then pays me an additional fee, approximately 30% of what I got paid for writing the article in the first place.

The article shown here appeared in the March 2008 issue of Taiwan aujourd’hui. The French-language title means “The Green Libraries of Taipei” but the three-page article is actually a condensed version of a 2007 piece of mine called “Green Buildings Paint Bright Futures.” Sustainable architecture is a subject that fascinates me and to which I often return, for example here and also, from a somewhat different angle, here.

Should you set financial goals?

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Last month on her Facebook feed, Clarissa Wei – who writes about food and related subjects for Vice and other outlets – shared some good news: “Whoo! I surpassed my [modest] income goals for 2016.  This is my second year of full-time freelance writing. I started this lifestyle as an experiment in fall of 2014 and I’m shocked that I’ve lasted this long because…this is not a lucrative lifestyle…AT ALL.”

She goes on to say that each year she has an income goal, “and I tell myself that as long as i can reach it, I will continue doing what I’m doing. If I’m short, then maybe it’s time to reconsider… For those in doubt of going rogue, I say go for it. You may be pleasantly surprised. Just remember to set concrete goals and be realistic. Don’t expect to rake in a competitive salary in the first years… but also keep in mind that unlimited vacation time and freedom to go wherever and whenever is worth money in and of itself.”

Wei has a tip for freelancers: set a base monthly goal and “keep track of your income streams via Excel… It will fluctuate, undoubtedly, and you won’t always reach it… but it’ll give you a good idea of where you are at and how much harder you need to work.”

I don’t use Excel, rather an old-fashioned notebook. And I’ve never set an actual income target. I simply try to write as many articles as I can fit in to the time available, so long as I’m getting paid a reasonable amount and the subject is somewhat interesting for me. (I do write about things that don’t especially interest me from time to time, invariably because an editor I respect and want to keep sweet has asked me to, and the pay is reasonable.)

Very sensibly, Wei doesn’t regard money as earned when an article is commissioned or even when it’s published. The dollars aren’t counted until they’ve arrived in her bank account. She hardly travels in luxury, she points out, but she did get to 11 provinces in China this year, and fit in some intensely interesting experiences (I still haven’t got to Smangus here in Taiwan). “One thing is for sure though: this is a hell of a lot more fun than sitting in an office. If you’re a writer, prepare to constantly be working. I don’t do weekends or days off, but because my life is my job, it doesn’t matter too much for me,” she goes on to say.

I spend a lot of time in my home office, lately doing much more editing than writing. And while my mind is always alert for feature ideas, I seldom work between Saturday lunchtime and Monday morning. I feel very lucky: I get a good bit of excitement and satisfaction by being a freelance travel/feature writer, and also a fair amount of the stability enjoyed by conventional, middle-aged workers.

Why it never hurts to ask… and payment issues

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At the beginning of the summer, I wrote an article for a certain inflight magazine. I’ve written for that magazine several times, and know without needing to ask that the standard word count for features is 1,200. Experience has taught me that a decent editor can find at least 5% flab in anything I write, so I delivered a bit over 1,300.

When the article appeared, I was a bit surprised to notice just how much had been cut out. When the payment paperwork arrived, I saw I was to be paid for 986 words, so I immediately emailed the editor: “Is the target word count still 1,200? I ask because my last article was cut down to under 1,000…”

To his great credit, he quickly replied: “I think I cut the article because there wasn’t enough space to fit all the text in the layout I was given. But you are right, you should be paid according to the 1,200 target. A new payment form is attached. Please disregard the old form.”

I like writing for that particular magazine and hope to write for them many more times, so this wasn’t an issue I would’ve burned bridges over. But if I hadn’t asked, I would now be US$68 poorer. Not a fortune, but where I live that buys a very decent dinner for two people. And hopefully this has set or reinforced the notion in that particular office that writers should get paid for the work that was commissioned, even if not all of it was used.

In the two decades I’ve been freelancing, in only a handful of instances have publications not used work they asked me to do; perhaps half of those have paid me “kill fees.” Reading reports like this one, it seems I’ve been very lucky when it comes to getting what I’m owed, likely because a lot of the work I do is directly or indirectly for government agencies. Slow payment is often a problem the first time I write for an organization. It isn’t unusual to wait three months before the money arrives. But once they’ve got your details in their system, things are far quicker. Usually, that is…