October 10, 2013

What's in season in Taiwan?

We have so much to learn from the Taiwanese

Or "How to eat well"

Taiwan – 臺灣 (or 台灣) – the island in the middle of the Chinese sea – East Chinese Sea above us, South Chinese sea below. Many people in Europe told me that they didn't realise Taiwan is a whole country, not just a city when I told them I was moving here.   Many of them were also surprised when they looked up my new location on the map and realised that Taiwan is bigger than they thought. It still isn't big the way you would think of Germany, France, Spain, Sweden and other countries with huge landmass, but there are a lot of people living on the island, this mountain in the sea. Still, you can get from the north to the south very fast if you just take the high speed train that cuts through the country - or even with the normal train, but Taiwan is definitely not just a city, it is so much more than just the capital, Taipei ( 臺北 or 台北 depending on what character you use for "Tai").

Hiking in the hills in the norht of Taiwan
Taiwan as so much to offer, not the least when it comes to nature! It is a beautiful country with beaches as well as high mountains, with natural hot springs (it is after all a volcanic area, the whole of South East Asia is full of them – something I became aware of not at least when I was in Indonesia a few years back and Mount Merapi, a volcano in the middle of Java erupted when I was in town...), with fantastic hiking areas and with beautiful little (and big) parks. Almost everything grows in Taiwan; The island may be small, and it is a tropical island, but with the higher altitudes the temperatures goes down and it is possible to grow also things that aren't normally found in tropical climate. Furthermore there are definitely different seasons here, as well as differences between north and south of Taiwan; Taipei, the capital, gets twice as much rain as Taichung City, if the numbers I saw somewhere a while back are correct, and still it's only two hours apart (less than one with the high speed train).

One of the things that I enjoy most with Taiwan, except for the wonderful people that live here – the Taiwanese are as a general rule very friendly, very helpful, and really help you feel welcome – is the food markets. And I don't mean the night markets where you can buy all kinds of cooked food for more or less nothing if you are used to European prices; No, I mean the food markets where you will go to buy the food you will cook yourself.

Local market in Taichung, one of many
The selection here is amazing. If you want the typical foreign food, like peanut butter and European cheese you can find it, in the big supermarkets and special stores, there are plenty of those around. But just like in Europe I try and avoid big supermarkets, the big supermarkets are more or less the same all over the world, and it doesn't excite me. The peanut butter, the English teas and the Italian pasta I'll let someone else eat; European food I ate in Europe, now I am in Asia. What I am after is the local food, the fruits, the vegetables, the meats, the fish – definitely the fish. Taiwan IS an island after all. I can wander around in the food markets just staring at all the food, getting inspired, thinking about what to cook next, making plans for the future. My cooking is to some degree based on European cooking as that's where I was fostered but I am inspired by food wherever I go and want to use the local products and learn from the locals. Here it is easy: Everything (more or less, with a few exceptions) grows in Taiwan – just not all the time! And that's what really impresses me; The Taiwanese culture is very much to use what is in season; I have met foreigners who went to Taiwan and told me that certain fruits and vegetables just can't be found and that's something they find so sad – and then it turns out they were just in Taiwan the wrong time of the year. The Taiwanese have so much to teach us, in many cases things we used to know in Europe and the western world, but things we seem to have forgotten. Eating what's in season is only one of those things. 

Waterfalls in Yilan county
Tomatoes aren't yet, so you will find it difficult to find tomatoes right now – but I know from experience that there will be plenty of tomatoes later in the year; tomatoes that are absolutely superb, so full of flavours that I much prefer them to any kind of sweets, and when I visited Taipei in the beginning of the year I did just that; I bought big bags of tomatoes and just snacked on them, carried around my bag the way others carried around backs of gummibears and other sweats.

Pomelo season started around the time of the moon festival (link to my post about that here).

Pineapples are coming in season right now, at least some types of pineapples (others are later or earlier), and when you pass outside some of the fruit markets you can smell the aroma of the freshly cut fruit and it draws you in like a magnet. However, pineapples are so important for the Taiwanese (Pineapple cake is a speciality) that they have made sure they grow many types of pineapples – so there is pineapple season a couple of times throughout the year.

Other things typical for a special time of the year are green onions - or scallions - (grown a lot in Yilan county, on the north east coast), wax apples – a special fruit from Asia, very popular in Taiwan (here is a link to an official Taiwanese government website where you can find out more), various melons and cucumbers – well, basically every fruit that is grown in the country; I am very excited to be here and be able to take part in the Taiwanese food year, to see and learn as the year moves on and we go from autumn through Taiwanese winter, to spring and later on summer. I am also very much looking forward to having a kitchen and be able to even more explore the markets and the local food.

A local market in the winter in Taipei
Taiwan is really food heaven in so many ways. This is how especially fruits and vegetables are supposed to be enjoyed; When they are in season, when they are the most nutritious and when they are bursting with flavours. What's with eating tomatoes that taste nothing, in December, the way we do in northern Europe? What's with eating strawberries all year around, when it is only for a month or three that they really taste something? What's with transporting food half the way around the world just because you don't want to plan your cooking depending on what is in season? In (almost) every country I have ever visited there is plenty of food to be had, also in the winter, even if you decide to mainly go for local food - the challenge is to adjust your cooking, but if you learn how to do it, you can always have good food on your table.

Yes, I agree, there are times when you have special food cravings that you have to do something about - but I mean what you normally eat - don't eat something out of habit, try something new! Something local! If you are in a new location; Embrace it!

After having travelled a lot I no longer cook what's out of season – it's not just a waste of my time and taste buds, it is also far more expensive. Even when money doesn't really matter that much I prefer what is in season – and you know what, for that I am in the right country (that said, I always look to see where the fruit is from before I buy it, there is some fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world, but when I can, I want to eat locally produced food).

I am very happy I decided to come to Taiwan; I have so much to learn from this country, and I believe we all do...  Coming here may have been the best decision I have made in a long time.


Rachel said...

I've heard of Taiwan's greatness many times but I still haven't had a chance to visit. I can't wait to experience it and see everything it has to offer. Good luck to your staying in Taiwan! :)

TravellingAK said...

Rachel, you definitely should if you have the opportunity. It is an amazing country with a lot to see. And taste :-)