culinaria eugenius in taiwan: preserving traditions

Part V of a photo essay of my trip to Taiwan.  See Part IV on paparazzi in the night market here, Part I on crabs here, Part II on fish/seafood here, and Part III on fruit here.

As a certified Master Food Preserver, I was quite interested in master food preserving in Taiwan.  I already posted about our trip to the Agrioz Candied Fruit Factory.  But all manner of foods were preserved.  I was most surprised to see the varied traditional uses of preserved meat, including indigenous salted pork products.  Sausages are often made with unusual ingredients like fermented black bean soy sauce, tuna, glutinous rice, and rice wine.

At traditional and wonderful Nanmen Market, the Jinhua ham, smoked over sugarcane, hung at several market stalls behind sausages hanging overhead.  Below ground, there was an entire area for pickled vegetables, about the size and shape of a cheese cooler-counter in a good deli.

It almost pains me now to look at the gorgeous, fresh whole heads of cabbage and greens pickled in various stages of funk. It would take me a year to eat through the varieties at this single stall alone.

We mustn’t forget (to kill that gnawing appetite of mine) the tubs of duck and pork blood cubes the size of tofu loaves next to the pickled vegetables.  I won’t post the picture, as a courtesy to my more delicate readers.

But even odder preserved meats were offered at newer places, including canned roast beef in a supermarket and finely shredded “floss” beef jerky-coated bread loaves at a fancy bakery in Taipei 101.

To each his own tastes, no?

We visited, as I’ve explained before, a splendid teppanyaki restaurant Shen Yen Teppanyaki restaurant in the township of Loudong in Yi-lan Province.  You can see that the restaurant looks rather humble from afar, crouching under the green roof on a river that floods the rice paddies and plains around it.

But as we approached the front door, we were greeted by the jars of fermenting apples in juice, which apparently are turning into vinegar.  I captured a few more shots of the fermentation process for apples and, I believe, dates.  Perhaps these liquids were used to make the drinking vinegar we sipped at the start of the meal, or even the wonderful homemade liqueur at the end.


Also just outside the restaurant, crocks of thick, rich soy sauce made with little fish burbled away.  The chef allowed us to try several kinds of his own soy, without question the best soy sauce I’ve ever tasted.  I tried to find premium soy sauce to take home, without success.  Next time.

In Loudong, we also visited a farmers’ cooperative.  The city slickers in our group were less patient with the tour, but I love these kinds of places, as they provide small producers a way to provide their goods en masse and house the beating heart of an agrarian community.  Could have done without the requisite introductory DVD presentation, but I still regret not buying the green onion paste, a specialty of the region, offered at the cooperative.

Oddly, we didn’t taste green onions or almost any fresh produce, with the exception of a pomelo that I spied in the office area stacked along with the wall with dozens of its brothers. Instead, we made our own tofu and drank a range of bottled soy milk products.

We also visited a small production facility that was making 1,000-year or lime eggs, a preserved duck egg that ferments in its shell in a tub of solution for over a month.  When it emerges, two studious workers tap each shell for quality control and the eggs are sorted by size (below).

What emerges when open is a multi-hued, beautiful, and strange creature, a jellied egg in a range of greens and reds.  The interior holds a slightly sticky black yolk.  The crystalline formation on one end of the egg indicates it is of the best quality.  The 1,000-year eggs are eaten with the morning congee rice porridge.

Other delicious preserved products included the fresh passionfruit jam we ate at breakfast each morning and the variety of Japanese and Chinese breakfast pickles that attended rice and congee.

Ah, yes, and we drank fermented beverages.  The Taiwanese aren’t big alcohol drinkers, but they’ve managed to make quite decent beer and whisky.  Aged in Kentucky oak barrels but named after an indigenous tribe and bottled in small glass versions of Taipei 101, delicious Kavalan whisky, redolent of tropical fruit and vanilla, was sipped.  The stuff is sadly unavailable in the U.S., another purchase I regret not making.

I can buy, luckily, oolong tea, which is grown in the mountains south of Taipei.  We visited a demonstration tea garden ringed by camellias and kumquats, and tasted the famous Iron Goddess of Mercy (tie-guan-in) oolong grown in the region (below).

I only wish we had had more time to explore Taiwanese tea culture.  We didn’t have a chance to visit any traditional tea houses or try tea cuisine.  Luckily, we’ve got J-Tea in Eugene (and a new, expanded website with online ordering, ooh!).  I consulted with Josh, the owner, who lived and studied tea in Taiwan for many years, about the trip.  I’m glad I can stop by the shop for a little bit of Taiwanese culture when the urge hits.

And last but not least, we ate (or some of us ate) the Taiwanese national snack, stinky tofu.

Fetishized in the media as the enemy of foreigners, stinky tofu has the texture of a well-wrung sponge and the flavor of a slightly mildewy sponge.  Does that make it bad?  Well, no. I actually liked the fried stinky tofu surrounding the soup.  It was served with a quick-pickled cabbage and salty umami sauce.  The soup, strongly scented with stinky tofu from the big pieces swimming in it, however, was not my favorite.  I heard from a friend that there are more deeply stinky, creamier versions that mimic good, strong cheese.  I wish we could have tried that!

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