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Text: Steven Crook
Thanks to Taiwan’s fabulously diverse landscape and climatic variations, the country’s farmers are able to grow almost every kind of fruit and vegetable, including many which aren’t native to the island.
If you’ve spent your life in cool climes, you’ll be excused for not knowing what taros (yutou) and sweet potatoes (fanshu; also known as digua) look like, or how they taste. Every Taiwanese can tell you in some detail how taros differ from sweet potatoes, however, and not only because they have grown up eating them. The Chinese names of these root vegetables are used as cultural code words: “Sweet potato” is shorthand for a Taiwanese person whose ancestors came to this island from mainland China before 1945, generally from the early 1600s through the mid-1800s, while a “taro” is someone who (or whose parents/grandparents) arrived after 1945.
The taro has its origins in Southeast Asia, but these days is grown on a significant scale from Nigeria in the west to Polynesia in the east. No one knows when taros were first cultivated in Taiwan (long before 1945, that’s for sure), but there’s no doubt which part of the island is the Republic of China’s taro capital: Dajia, a bustling town of almost 80,000 people, which is part of a district of Taichung City.
Downtown Dajia, just 6km from the sea, is home to one of Taiwan’s preeminent places of worship, Zhenlan Temple (also spelled Jenn Lann Temple; www.dajiamazu.org.tw). This shrine is the starting and ending point of an annual nine-day pilgrimage that honors Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea and Empress of Heaven.
It was near Zhenlan Temple, at the Dajia Farmers’ Association office, that Travel in Taiwan met up with Huang Rui-yang, who works for the association. Mr. Huang started by giving us a few facts and figures. Dajia produces more taro than any other area in Taiwan, he said, with around 400 of the district’s 2,100 hectares of irrigated farmland devoted to the crop. Dajia’s well-drained, sandy soil is highly suited to taro cultivation, he explained. The weather – neither too warm nor too wet – is ideal.
Like many other farmers’ associations around Taiwan, the Dajia cooperative helps farmers by adding value to what comes out of local fields. During the September-to-June taro-harvest season, the association’s processing center handles around 1,500kg of the tubers each day.
Much of the work – scraping off the soil, washing, and dicing – is done by hand. Cleaning reveals the vegetable’s distinctive ridged, pale-brown skins. The white insides are flecked with short strands of purple fiber, the stuff which gives processed taro products their distinctive hue. Then, using machinery too costly for an individual farmer to buy, the center turns the chunks of taro into tasty products sold in supermarkets and via the Internet (www.tachia.org; Chinese only). Near Zhenlan Temple are shops full of candies, cookies, and other beautifully packaged taro-flavored goodies you can take home for your friends and relatives.
Among these goods are cans of soft, processed taro – it makes a delicious dessert when served with ice cream – and bags of frozen taro chunks for adding to hotpots. Mr. Huang told us the latter are deep-fried briefly before freezing; otherwise, they would likely break up while being simmered. For tourists without access to a kitchen, the easiest way to sample Dajia’s most famous foodstuff is to buy a bag of taro chips. They’re like potato chips, but slightly chewier and without the salt.
No investigation into Taiwan’s taros would be complete without visiting a taro farm and talking with a man who knows a thing or two about growing the vegetable. Mr. Zhang Jin-yi clearly knows a lot about cultivating the tubers: A former firefighter, he won second prize in the competition section of last year’s Dajia Taro Festival, which was held on September 22, 2012 – no mean achievement when you consider 62 farmers joined the contest.
Dajia has been holding annual taro-themed celebrations for the past 12 years, and if you attend one you’ll find not only taro delicacies but also other special products from every corner of Taichung. Dajia’s relationship with the taro is also celebrated inside the town’s railway station, in the form of giant fiberglass taros on which waiting passengers can sit.
Mr. Zhang is also a rice farmer. He has to be, he explained, because if he were to repeatedly cultivate taros on the same piece of land, the plants would likely suffer from fungus. To avoid this, each time taros are harvested from one of the rice has been gathered, the land is once again used for taro production.
At his invitation, I pulled out a taro that was ready to harvest. It came out surprisingly easily, unlike some of the weeds Taiwanese farmers have to deal with. But there was disappointment when we examined the tuber. It had a cavity the size of a coin, which Mr. Huang told me was caused by a pest called the golden apple snail.
These gastropods, known as fushouluo in Chinese, are not native to Taiwan. They were introduced to the island from Latin America in the early 1980s by farmers who hoped they’d become a lucrative exports. Things didn’t work out as planned, because the snails are considered far from delicious (which perhaps explains why those Taiwanese who do collect and eat wild snails leave golden apple snails alone). Discarded snails spread quickly, and now infest a great many fields. Youngsters feed on young rice plants as well as taro shoots; adult snails adore taros that are almost ready to harvest.
Taros are generally harvested between the Mid-Autumn Festival (sometime in September) and Tomb-Sweeping Day (in early April). As Mr. Huang explained, quality is usually best in the first third of the harvest season, when the tubers are at their healthiest, but prices are often higher later on. Some farmers postpone harvesting so they can sell at a higher price, but doing so brings the risk of losing a significant part of the crop to pests or extreme weather. Also, if too many farmers decide to wait, a glut could drive prices down.
Mr. Zhang sticks to what he knows best: with the help of his wife, cultivating high-quality taros, washing them as soon as they’re out of the ground, and then without delay sending them off to markets as far away as Taipei. Each taro that leaves his farm bears a quality sticker copyrighted by the Dajia Farmers’ Association, plus a code number unique to Mr. Zhang. Consumers can therefore be certain where the taro they’re buying was grown.
Annie Lee’s approach to agriculture is altogether less traditional. Eleven years ago she and her parents transformed their land into Annie’s Sunflower Farm. It’s within sight of some of the many wind turbines that dot central Taiwan’s coastline, and conveniently close to Provincial Highway No. 61, an expressway that runs along almost the entire west coast.
Annie’s Sunflower Farm offers tourists more than fresh air and a chance to wander through fields where taros, cabbages, and sunflowers thrive. If they give Annie advance notice, groups can slow-cook a feast in a kongtuyao (NT$2,500 for 10 people; all food and materials included). Roughly translated, this term means “dirt oven,” and it’s a fitting description. A fire is set in an oven made of dried mud, and when it’s hot enough, the flames are extinguished. Food (typically sweet potatoes and mushrooms wrapped in aluminum foil, plus a chicken placed in a tin canister so it cooks in its own juices) is packed inside and cooked by the heat coming off the oven walls and floor.
If you don’t have time for a kongtuyao, try some of Annie’s excellent home cooking. The menu includes taro rice, which is a meal in itself – small chunks of steamed taro, minced pork, tiny shrimps, and garlic added to wholesome white rice. The burger-like fish cakes are another must-eat. These savory delights are made according to a traditional recipe.
Annie asks that groups and weekday visitors contact her by e-mail at least two days before visiting; her English is good enough to handle foreign tourists.
Several other leisure farms in the rural northwest of Dajia District offer fun activities and variations on kongtuyao. For more information about these farms, visit the website of the Dajia Farmers’ Association at www.tachia.org.tw/artisan (Chinese).
Dajia has taros, but for sweet potatoes the place to go is Shalu, less than 20km hue south. Shalu’s uplands, near Taichung Metropolitan Park and the city’s airport, are notable for well-drained Mars-like red soils in which sesame and peanuts, as well as sweet potatoes, thrive.
Travel in Taiwan sat down with Mr. Chen Ji-qing, a farmer whose sweet potatoes are widely enjoyed in Taichung’s night markets, usually baked and eaten hot (kao digua). He told us that each sweet-potato season begins with the planting of various kinds – some are white or purple inside instead of the usual yellow – around the time of the goddess Mazu’s birthday, which falls around mid-April.
If the June and July rains fall as normal, the sweet potatoes are ready for harvesting three or four months after planting. Unlike Dajia’s taro farmers, Mr. Chen doesn’t grow other crops on his land. Rather, during the colder months, his fields are full of yellow-flowered Indian Sesbania. These plants, which are also grown in fallow rice fields, fix nitrogen in the soil and hinder the growth of weeds.
What are fans of sweet potatoes to do when it isn’t the right season? Mr. Chen is well aware that demand doesn’t let up throughout the year, so he cooperates with farmers in other parts of Taiwan to ensure his customers don’t run out. That’s good news, as few things go down better on a chilly January evening than a baked sweet potato!
Delicious and Healthy:
Taro is filling yet low in calories; both taros and sweet potatoes are fibrous and thus good for the digestive tract. Taro is a good source of vitamins A, C, and E. Although sweet potatoes contain five times more sugar than regular potatoes – they wouldn’t be sweet otherwise – they’re also extremely low in fat and fatty acids. They have more vitamin B6 and slightly more calcium than white rice, but just a quarter of the carbohydrates.
Getting to Dajia:
Dajia is on the coastal railway line, and served by 20 express trains each day, plus dozens of local trains. Only a few local services link Dajia with downtown Taichung, however, so if you’re coming from that direction it makes better sense to take a bus from either Taichung Railway Station, Taichung High Speed Rail Station, or one of the many stops on Taichung Harbor Road; expect the journey to take about an hour. Several buses per day between Hsinchu City and Dajia follow a coastal route which is scenic but not especially quick.
English & Chinese
Dajia Farmers’ Association 大甲區農會
Dajia Taro Festival 大甲芋頭節
Indian Sesbania 田菁
kao digua 烤地瓜
Taichung Metropolitan Park 台中都會公園
Zhenlan Temple 鎮瀾宮
Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly January February Issue, 2013