Monday, 22 February 2010

a tough assignment

Article in Amcham's TOPICS magazine:
Microbrewers Stake out a Market Niche
BY mark caltonhill

[Photo: Author carrying out research at Taipei's Breeze Center]

Wen Li-guo likes beer. He likes beer so much that he decided to try to make some for himself, and so in 2002 he attended a course in home brewing organized by Duan Kwo-jen, professor of food science at Taipei’s Tatung University.

Wen liked the beer he made, so he made some more. Wen’s friends liked the beer he made, so he made yet more. In fact, they liked it so much they suggested he give up his delivery job and start his own brewery. In June 2003 he followed their advice, and his North Taiwan Brewery (北台灣麥酒; Tel: 2299-7991) sold its first batch in August the following year. It now produces around 2,000 liters of fruit-flavored and Belgian-style beers every month.

But until eight years ago, what Wen does was illegal. Even his home-brewing hobby fell under a gray area of the law, since for the best part of 100 years, the manufacture and sale of alcohol in Taiwan had been a government monopoly, along with tobacco products and, originally, salt, camphor, and opium. This Monopoly Bureau was started during the Japanese colonial administration of the island (1895-1945), and then taken over by the incoming ROC government as a nice little earner that contributed as much as 8% of the total national budget revenue. Only with Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organization was the monopoly dismantled and licenses issued for private alcohol production. Several hundred of these licenses have been issued to date, but Wen estimates fewer than 100 have been for beer, and of these fewer than a dozen are currently making and marketing a product. And at least one, and not one of the smallest, has already gone bust.

Taiwan Beer, which as the monopoly bureau’s brand once commanded 100% of the market, still dominates with around 75%. It is followed by imported American, European, Japanese (mostly now brewed in China), and Chinese beers, which share almost another quarter, with Wen and his fellow microbrewers accounting for less than 1%. Clearly they are not called “micro” for nothing, though they generally prefer the term “craft beer,” claiming that their smaller quantities allow them to focus more on quality.

Aiming at the under-40s market, 41-year-old Wen and his two employees make lychee- and melon-flavored brews at 4% strength, a “White” wheat beer at 5%, and two “Abbey” beers at 6 and 8%. The fruit flavors are his biggest sellers, particularly popular among Taiwan’s growing population of female beer drinkers, so he is working to expand his range with apple and other flavors. He is also formulating a stronger beer, probably around 10%, having noticed a trend in male drinkers for beers with an extra kick.

“None of these will appear until I am certain about the stability of their quality,” Wen says. “For a small producer trying to establish myself in a niche market, quality is paramount. Also, it might entail significant investment as I would need larger premises.”

North Taiwan Brewery is currently located in Xinzhuang in Taipei County, just across the Danshui River from the city proper. “It is illegal to brew beer in Taipei or any other Taiwan metropolis,” he explains, “only in industrial zones.”

[Photo: Le Ble D'or with distinctive swing-top cap from Jason's etc]

Similarly, while the main outlets for fellow microbreweries Jolly, Deluxe (, and Le Blé D’or ( are located in Taipei City, their beers are brewed in Taipei County’s Zhonghe, Tucheng, and Sanchong respectively. Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp., the corporate, post-WTO incarnation of the former Monopoly Bureau, has also had to relocate its beer production from the prime Jianguo factory in central Taipei to Linkou and elsewhere.

Wen had originally wanted to call his beer “Taipei Beer,” but this was rejected by the licensing authority on the grounds that the Jianguo brewery was also known as the Taipei brewery, he says. His next application, for “Northern Taiwan,” was accepted, however, and he feels this is almost as good, since Taipei (台北; “Taiwan north”) and his “Bei-tai” (北台) brand merely have their characters reversed.

[Photo: LR Connie Guan of Guandu's 92 Shuiniao restaurant with her Shuiniao (Waterfowl) beer made by North Taiwan Brewery]

Around 70% of Wen’s outlets are in the Taipei area, he says. So far about 70 to 80 restaurants and shops are selling his bottled brews, either under his own brand names or their own, such as the Shuiniao Restaurant in Guandu that offers “Waterfowl” (水鳥) beer. Wen claims that these outlets contact him, and that he isn’t desperate to find more because that would mean expanding his operations and finding larger premises.

Nevertheless, with his beers gaining a growing following and with the apple-flavored brew almost ready for launch, Wen might not have much choice in the matter. Future plans also include a draft version of his beers for sale in bars, and with the shipment last month of the first export order to Singapore, overseas sales could be set to take off.

All in all, Wen gives the impression that he’s doing something he loves, but perhaps he’d still rather be making and drinking his homebrew than touting it in the fickle and faddish Taiwan marketplace.

Eddie Chang, founder, owner, and master brewer of Jolly Brewery and Restaurant (卓莉手工釀啤酒+泰食餐廳;, also clearly loves what he’s doing. But that’s about all he has in common with Wen Li-guo. Chang comes from the other end of the Taiwan-microbrewers spectrum. Rather than a hobby brewer turned professional, he’s a graduate of restaurant management who spotted a vacant niche in Taiwan’s densely populated food-and-beverage market and so turned to brewing. “To tell the truth, I don’t really drink beer,” he says. “Two small glasses get me drunk.”

Nevertheless, as a student in southern California he became fascinated by the microbrewing scene, with bars making beers in their basements and competing with the big players through local marketing and distinctive flavors and styles. Under the wing of one of his professors, Chang started experimenting with home brewing.

When he returned to Taiwan at the age of 31 in 1997, the monopoly was still in force, so he took a job with Thai Town restaurant. Chang knew that the alcohol monopoly would end one day, and probably sooner rather than later, so he continued his homebrew experiments courtesy of supplies sent by his Californian contacts. Finally, once the WTO negotiations were nearing a conclusion, Chang returned to the United States for an 18-month intensive qualification as a brewmaster at Siebel Institute of Technology.

The monopoly formally ended in January 2002, and by September of that year Chang’s Jolly Restaurant in Neihu (內湖) sold its first commercial beer. He says he chose Neihu because rents were cheaper than in central Taipei, and he found a suitable location in the new Donghu Road area where apartments were being purchased by professionals in his 30-45 target age range – people with sufficient disposable incomes and perhaps some knowledge of and interest in specialty brews. In 2005 he opened a second branch, this time in the downtown district near the Nanjing-Fuxing MRT station. “Qingcheng is a very unusual street, right near the MRT, but blocked off at one end so there aren’t too many cars, and with broad pavements suitable for walking,” he says. “So it is busy but not too busy.”

Jolly started with three brews: a 4.6% weizen, 5% pilsner and 5% pale ale. A stout at 6% was added in 2004, and a Scotch ale at 7.2% in 2006. In addition, Chang offers a “special brew.” In 2008 this was a Vienna-style lager, but Chang says he wanted to promote local produce, so in 2009 he switched to “honey ale” at 5.7%, and in July 2010 it will again change to passion fruit.

Chang says he listens to his customers’ suggestions a great deal, not just in regard to the next special brew, but for the layout of his restaurants, contents of his menus, and especially for the taste and quality of his beers. “This is something a small brewer can do more easily than a big company,” he says. And, as a consequence, his beers have matured over the years.

“I’ve altered some of the ingredients slightly,” Chang continues. “For example, I started by using dried yeast but later switched to a culture. I’ve also made changes to some of the timings and temperatures. Originally the mash temperatures were the same for all the beers, but altering them up or down within a two-degree range has helped improve the flavors.”

Jolly’s weizen beer has always been the customers’ favorite, accounting for around 25% of all sales. “It’s not too bitter, so it suits Taiwanese tastes,” Chang says. Second is the pilsner, perhaps because it is closest to the beers Taiwanese drinkers are most familiar with, or perhaps just reflecting the fact that pilsners are the world’s most popular beers. The stronger Scotch ale – Chang’s personal favorite for its malty, sweeter flavor – comes next, followed by the pale ale, with the stout and special brew bringing up the rear at about 7% of sales each. Still, Chang has no intention of dropping them from his beer list. “I want to offer customers as wide a choice as possible,” he says.

He brews a 1,000-liter batch of weizen every three weeks or so, and one of stout every couple of months. Last year he produced around 43,000 liters of beer for his two restaurants, though some is discarded so that only the freshest beers reach his customers.

“We don’t filter the beer or use high temperatures to kill the yeast, so it’s still present in the beer, adding to the flavor. This does mean the beer has a shorter shelf life than commercial brands, however, and needs to be stored at less than 5℃,” Chang says. This also explains his reluctance to move into bottled beer. “Yes, we could increase our profits by tapping into the huge take-out market, but at a risk to our quality and therefore a risk to our brand image.”

Nevertheless, he is looking at that possibility, but the most likely next move for Jolly will be opening another branch, perhaps in Taichung. Like most microbreweries, Chang would like to brew on the premises, not so much to save on transportation costs, but rather to put on a show for customers, and even to teach them something about home brewing.

Despite the Californian bars that were his early influence, Chang has designed his spaces with families in mind, making them well lit and using lighter colors for decoration. The name Jolly is meant to personify this atmosphere, and it is the attitude he tries to instill in his staff. Moreover, the bars do not dominate the restaurants; indeed, these are restaurants rather than pubs. He decided on Thai cuisine, partly because of his experience in that field but also because the spicy and sour flavors were similar enough to Chinese food but still exotic. Unfortunately for him, Taiwan has seen an explosion in Thai restaurants since Jolly opened in 2002, many of them selling cut-price cuisine. Nevertheless, Chang’s restaurants are always busy and he hasn’t considered switching menus.

“Thai food and beer makes a great combination,” he says. “And although I don’t drink much beer myself, I get a lot of pleasure watching customers enjoy their food and drink.”

So what is the future for Taiwan’s small microbrewing scene?

Not much, according to Michel Blanc, owner of The Tavern and Capone’s bars. He doesn’t sell them himself, although he says he would like to, and has long dreamed of having his own label on a locally produced microbrewed beer. But consistency remains a formidable challenge for the microbrewers, he says. “They cannot maintain a stable quality, and they won’t be able to while they produce such small quantities – and they won’t be able to produce large quantities because there simply isn’t the market for it.”

This is something of a catch-22 situation for the microbrewers. With their low capitalization, they cannot afford the promotional activities of the likes of Taiwan Beer or Heineken. But with only word-of-mouth, their growth is slow. Twenty-something Jenny Chiang is typical of Taiwan’s new generation of drinkers, opting for a sweeter, lower-alcohol, fruit-flavored beer when she goes out at the weekend. For her this means drinking an imported beer, however, as the only Taiwan beer she has ever heard of is Taiwan Beer.

Nevertheless, the microbrewers might be threatening to make a small dent in Taiwan Beer’s market, because the former monopoly brewer has recently launched a “craft beer” available at its Hualien Winery plant and selected outlets. On the other hand, one of the first new companies to start up after the WTO-led breaking of he monopoly, Taiwan Micro Brewing Company based in Kaohsiung, which made designer craft beers for restaurants and bars in Taiwan’s four largest cities, has already closed down. So recently did the Deluxe bar in Taipei Arena.

And what about Taiwan’s home brewers? Will one of them emerge as the next Wen or Chang? To judge from the lively discussions on internet forums, many foreign visitors to Taiwan, particularly those in the recently graduated English-teaching crowd, are keen to keep up their home-brewing hobby. But these threads mostly end in frustration, since ingredients such as malt and hops, as well as equipment, are not readily available in Taiwan. Even when they are obtained from abroad, the island’s tropical and subtropical climate is not conducive to most types of beer making. The best bet seems to be making ale, which ferments at around 18-24℃ compared with 10℃ for lagers, and doing it in the winter. The only good news is that the former gray legal area is now clearly articulated in black and white: Anyone can make batches of beer up to 100 liters, even in Taipei City. Happy experimentation.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A day in the life ... (Part II)

Feature article published in Amcham's TOPICS magazine

A Day in the Life of a Chef/Restaurateur
BY Mark Caltonhill

Thirty-two-year-old François Parveau is a chef from Pompadour in the Limousin region of central France. He first came to Taiwan four years ago to visit his girlfriend, whom he met when both studied at the Institute Paul Bocuse in Lyon. He stayed on, they married, and Parveau became a freelance chef catering for French consular events, business dinners, and other clients. He opened the LAB restaurant in Taipei’s Minsheng Community in March 2008. Taiwan Business Topics contributor Mark Caltonhill spent a day with him in early December.

9:30 a.m.

Turnips are the first thing on François Parveau’s shopping list. He’s running a little late – a group of customers spun out their last glasses of wine the night before – but he’s not in a hurry. He wanders around half a dozen stalls at the Binjiang vegetable market checking the turnips for size, shape, texture, and above all freshness, before returning to the second stall, where he selects just two. He repeats this process for cabbage, carrots, potatoes, asparagus spears, apples, lemons, tomatoes, and so on.

“No, Madame, I don’t want the imported potatoes,” Parveau says in accented but fluent Chinese. He uses local produce wherever possible, because of taste, freshness, and those deplorable carbon-footprint miles. But mostly because of quality. “If the potato cells are too big, they’re full of water and have little taste,” he explains in English.

“Quality first, second, and third,” he continues. “Still, you have to care about the cost, otherwise they’ll charge you crazy prices.” Parveau occasionally rejects a purchase because of price, but on the whole he reckons to get charged the same as locals. Most stallholders greet him, many by name. He’s obviously a feature here. He should be: he’s been coming here six mornings each week and has barely had a holiday since he opened his restaurant. (He had planned to take August off, like many restaurateurs in France, but fiscal realities made him reconsider. He will take three or four days at Lunar New Year instead.)
Parveau also greets fellow restaurateurs similarly shopping for their daily or weekly supplies. Although he says they treat him suspiciously as competition, he is happy to share information and help them with queries about French cuisine.

With all the vegetables and fruit on his list purchased, and nothing unusual catching his eye for an impromptu canapé, Parveau steps across a back street to pick up half a dozen sea bass he’d ordered by telephone from his car on the way over. Most of his fish and meat products come through suppliers, however. He says the standards at the market can be unstable, and claims of “high mountain” or “organic” less reliable.

10:30 a.m.

Back at his restaurant, Parveau puts his purchases into storage and then heads off across the Minquan Bridge to the flower market in Neihu. “Flowers are my one luxury,” Parveau confides. “Or I could say they are the most important thing. A form of respect to my customers.” He spends around NT$600 every two or three days on flowers, and around two and a half hours to buy and arrange them.

In fact, though he originally took responsibility for the flowers, their selection and arrangement are now undertaken – under his watchful eye – by his assistant and sole employee, Tiffany Cho. “She is an artist, and wanted to learn about flowers. Now she has surpassed my expectations,” Parveau says later, displaying her creations.

On the drive back, he says Minsheng was the only area of Taipei that he considered when looking for a restaurant location. “With its tree-lined streets, gardens, and low-rise buildings, you can see some daylight, making it possible to live here. A restaurant must be located in an area whose standard matches the standard of the food. It is not a noisy district, and as you walk down the street you can hear people playing music, practicing the piano, and such. I like that.”

11:30 a.m.

Parveau and Cho carry the flowers into the back part of the kitchen. Cho then starts cutting and arranging them; Parveau makes a cup of coffee and starts telephoning suppliers and customers. He taps his calculator buttons as he places orders in Chinese and discusses menus and wine choices in Chinese or English. Margins are tight, he explains.

Recently Parveau redesigned the concept for LAB. Originally he only catered for private groups, drawing up menus to meet their specific needs and charging anywhere from NT$3,500 on up per head, averaging around NT$5,500, he says. At the end of 2009, he switched to offering two cheaper set menus – in consideration of the economic downturn, particularly the crisis in the financial sector in which many of his clients worked, and more importantly the opening of the highly publicized L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon under the name of the Michelin 3-star French chef, which drew away a lot of business. Before its December relaunch, LAB did not even have a sign outside.

It now has a sign advertising its presence in the neighborhood and a sample menu that is browsed by passersby. Parveau is visibly pleased. One local woman even sticks her head through the window to ask if this is in fact a restaurant. It’s hard to believe LAB opened more than 18 months earlier.

12:30 p.m.

Parveau makes a run to the bank and post office. “It’s a little time-consuming going to the bank almost every day, but I cannot bank online as I don’t read Chinese. I need to stay on top of my accounts. It can be a little problematic as most suppliers don’t use receipts and invoices, and without them, I cannot claim the costs back against tax. Even those that will write me a receipt automatically charge an extra 5%.”
He discusses his relationship with the banks, which under the current circumstances is somewhat delicate, especially since the vicissitudes of his first two years in business have seen him fall behind his initial business plan.

Tiffany Cho starts to make lunch for herself and Parveau.

1:00 p.m.

Parveau returns, puts on plastic gloves and fillets the sea bass, carefully picking out the occasional bone missed by the vendor who has already removed the scales and innards. He cuts the fillets into 18 regularly shaped pieces for the 18 servings he will have available for customers of his more expensive “Connoisseur” menu. The scraps he gives to Cho to include in their lunch.

1:30 p.m.

Cho sits down to eat. Parveau should too, but he is constantly interrupted by deliveries and phone calls. Morel mushrooms from one supplier, edible flowers from Holland from another, and his prized celery root from a third. “It’s not easy to find,” he says of the celery root, “but for me it’s an essential accompaniment to the frogs’ legs.”

A man from a company providing what Parveau calls “the most expensive coffee in the world” turns up to check and service the machine and deliver supplies. “It costs me around one Euro per cup, but my customers expect it.”

The coffee man is followed by a husband and wife who are booked in for Friday. They discuss some aspects of the menu with Parveau and drop off a box of bottles of wine they plan to drink with their guests. For a fine French restaurant, LAB is unusual in allowing customers to bring their own wine. Previously it was even more unusual in not charging a corkage fee either. “Some customers abused my generosity, however,” Parveau says. “Sometimes they would bring ten different bottles, and I’d spend the evening washing 150 glasses for which I’d get paid nothing.” Since the relaunch, he charges NT$400 per bottle. Ideally he’d like to sell wine himself, but his customers’ taste for bottles costing tens of thousands of NT dollars means he cannot afford to stock them.

At the time of the interview he was drawing up a more modest wine list, and said he planned to offer nine wines in the NT$2,000-$4,000 range: one Champagne; three whites (Burgundy, South Rhone, and Bordeaux) and four or five reds (Burgundy, South Rhone, Bordeaux, and something Chilean or Argentine).

The couple is followed through the door by a laundry worker delivering tablecloths and uniforms. Eventually, bite by increasingly tepid bite, Parveau finishes his lunch.

3:30 p.m.

Preparation of the evening’s fare now begins in earnest. Cho, who trained as a pastry chef in Ottawa, does the cakes, while Parveau, who spent three of his seven months at La Chevre D’or in Eze between Nice and Monaco elbow deep in the icy waters of the fish department, finishes preparing the sea bass.

Over the next three hours, both work constantly, multitasking between peeling and preparing vegetables, steaming and sautéing, whipping and pureeing…and always tasting. Windows are opened as the kitchen heats up, and timers sound out incessantly, demanding Parveau’s attention at one or another burner or oven. The two do the washing up as they go along. “Sometimes I listen to music while working, but mostly not,” says Parveau. “Hearing is an important sense in making food too.”

Most suppliers and customers seem to know not to disturb him as opening time approaches.

4:45 p.m.

Parveau personally irons each tablecloth. “I’m probably the only chef who does this in Taipei,” he jokes. “But for me it’s part of the mutual respect between chef and diner.”

He then brings out the flowers and places them on each table, beside the entrance and in the restrooms, praising Cho’s handiwork as he does so. He finishes laying the tables, checks the overall appearance of the dining room, and heads back into the kitchen, which he refers to as the “stage.” Between the two is a large glass window, allowing the diners full view of the kitchen.

“The diners see something, they see themselves, and are seen. So it’s the theater.” They even get to see Parveau and Cho do the washing up. “I wanted to do the washing up in front of the people, so they know it is not a shame to clean.”

It sounds like Parveau is on a mission. “I want to learn something every day, every day of my life. This is a huge school. That’s why I called the restaurant ‘Lab’. We’re doing research. This choice is not the easiest way, and it is not the richest way for making money, but it is the richest way for knowledge.”

So he is learning, and he hopes his customers are learning too, about French cuisine and French culture, but more broadly about appreciating the fine things in life. That’s why his two new menus are titled “Neophyte” and “Connoisseur.”

6:00 p.m.

The first diners arrive. LAB doesn’t officially open till 6:30, so they are shown into the small marquee erected in the converted first-floor apartment’s parking space. They are served Champagne and canapés: on this particular evening Comté cheese and beetroot, cucumber stuffed with mustard mayonnaise and topped with a butter-roasted shrimp, and fish mousse. The various finger foods must match each other as well as the courses to follow, as “harmony at the table is paramount,” Parveau explains.

6:30 p.m.

The lights go on and Parveau adds the position of theater director and star actor to his earlier roles of producer, costume and set designer, and playwright, not to mention vegetable cutter, floor sweeper, tablecloth ironer, gardener, and so forth.

Interestingly, Parveau says he did consider studying theater design, following one year spent in the study of pharmacy, another of drawing, three of architecture, and one more of art history, before plumping for cooking at the suggestion of a friend who had tasted the creations he served up for his fellow students.

Squid and caviar risotto with veal gravy follows the canapés when the diners are seated. The risotto rice comes from another supplier with a grip on Taiwan’s limited market. “Many restaurants make what they call risotto using local rice at one-tenth the price, but that isn’t real risotto,” Parveau maintains.

After a suitable pause, he and Cho serve a dish of scallop poached in oolong-flavored oil with angel-hair noodles and oolong-flavored grissini. Parveau makes the grissini himself, but the bread rolls available throughout the meal come from La Fourviere. “I simply don’t have the space for a fermentation chamber and other equipment needed to provide a consistent quality of bread. Consistency is paramount in fine cuisine.”

The customers, his audience, then watch Parveau put the finishing touches to his steamed sea bass filet under breadcrumbs with fennel-based consommé and green beans. The use of fennel is typical of southern French cuisine, he says.

His beloved celery root next appears in a confit of frog leg in black truffle on celery root smoothie with poultry gravy, which is followed by the sixth course, free-range mountain chicken leg confit with morel and as a sausage with duck liver, accompanied by sautéed seasonal mushrooms and parsley.

Although the meal runs to ten courses, each averaging about 80 grams, Parveau insists this is not degustation, a current trend in Taiwan and promoted by Robuchon. “I am not offering these as a ‘taste’ of the dishes on the main menu. These are designed menus, with all items in harmony, intended to help ‘neophytes’ and ‘connoisseurs’ learn about French cuisine.”

Next, the morning’s carefully selected turnips reappear as beef steak with garlic confit potato, black truffle turnip stew and port-flavored gravy. Parveau engages at length with one customer about the relative merits of U.S., New Zealand, and Australian beef, which eventually focuses on the difference between grass-fed and corn-fed meat. They agree to differ.

It is time for dessert. The sweetness of chocolate fondant with Chantilly cream and mini crème brûlée is followed by a slight sourness of raspberry mousse on pistachio biscuit with sautéed kiwi fruit with sliced almonds. “I believe in ending the meal with a sour fruit,” Parveau says. “It leaves diners feeling satisfied.” Nevertheless, there is one last mouthful of a sweet served with coffee or flower tea.

10:00 p.m.

The last diner leaves, and Parveau enjoys a post-performance cigarette on the back doorstep.

11:00 p.m.

Although they did most of the washing as they went along, tidying up, sweeping, and storing leftovers takes the best part of an hour. Both Parveau and Cho are clearly exhausted by their 14-hour workday.

So is it worth it? “I’m sure I’m doing something good,” Parveau says, “something very different. And I’m still learning, still experimenting.”

LAB is at No. 20, Lane 12, Xinzhong St., Taipei. Tel. 0936-480151.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

fish of the day

just to show you how committed to FOTD we are here at VftH, here's a photo of a member of our staff (Mack Malarkey) uploading photos to the blog while on holiday
wearing a FOTD t-shirt

(btw, nice matching hat, Mack)

Monday, 15 February 2010

sun rises in the west

sun rises in the west
pigs fly
Malarkey does fruit

fish of the day

woman grilling fish at 7 am some 50km west of Bangkok

Sunday, 14 February 2010

fish of the day

woman grilling fish on a boat at the Taling Floating Market takes an order from a waiter above

spot the difference (eggs and eggplants)

ever wondered why eggplants are called "eggplants"?
(or for Europeans, why Americans call aubergines "eggplants"?)

I'm assuming this has something to do with it:

fish of the day

1 of 3 sacrifices (三牲)
on the side of a Bangkok street, in the run up to Lunar New Year

Friday, 12 February 2010

fish of the day (happy new year)



Thursday, 11 February 2010

A taste of Chiayi (a step closer to JiaBaBwey)

Feature article in TOPICS magazine:

Culinary Tourism in Chiayi

Eat your way across the county, from oysters on the seacoast to “turkey-on-rice” in the city, and Aboriginal fare in the mountains.


Ask Taiwanese people what they know about the cuisine of Chiayi, a county in south-central Taiwan with a city of the same name, and the only thing most of them will mention is Chiayi turkey on rice (嘉義雞肉飯). This ji-rou-fan is so popular that no night market or cheap student-restaurant area around the island would be complete without a shop or stall offering it.

Actually, most of those eating it aren’t even sure it whether it really is made with chicken, ji-rou (雞肉), as the name suggests, or rather with turkey (huo-ji;火雞). In any case, most people don’t even care, since in its most commonly seen version – a couple of slices of stringy white breast meat on a bowl of lukewarm rice – it is hardly haute cuisine.

This lack of knowledge is a great shame – first because the average NT$30 bowl of so-called Chiayi ji-rou-fan is a far cry from the way it is served in Chiayi itself, but also because the county of Chiayi (pronounced jia-ee despite the ch carried over from an earlier Romanization system) has a lot more to offer in the way of good food.

Located to the north of the historic capital of Tainan, Chiayi – then known as Zhuluo (諸羅; from its Aboriginal name Tsirosen) – was one of the earliest parts of Taiwan to be settled by Han Chinese, and its current inhabitants have a strong sense of tradition. The county extends a mere 25 kilometers from the Tainan County border on the south to Yunlin County on the north, but it is a much more spacious 80 kilometers west to east – from its coastal townships of Budai (布袋; “Cloth Bag”) and Dongshi (東石; “Eastern Stone”), through the agricultural plains of Xingang (新港; “New Port”) and Taibao (太保; derived from an official title), to the high mountains of Alishan (阿里山; “Ali Mountain”).
[Photo: Traditional farmhouses are common throughout Chiayi County]

The very mention of some Chiayi place names generally prompts thoughts about the county’s cuisine. Dongshi is famed for its oysters, and among older Taiwanese, for its asparagus; Budai is known for its eels; Xingang is famous for its cakes and pastries; and Alishan has its tea, Aboriginal cuisine, and something exotic called ai-yu (愛玉), which translates literally as “love jade.”

Starting on the coast

Chiayi has the second-largest seafood harvest among Taiwan’s 18 counties, averaging around 50,000 tons per year and worth in excess of NT$6 billion (US$185 million).

If the piles of oyster shells stacked up along Dongshi’s roadsides are anything to go by, a large part of this produce is ostrea bivalves. Oyster-related jobs certainly dominate the local economy, with aquafarmers renting beds from the government in the bay and further out to sea, where they then erect poles or anchor platforms with wires strung between. The strings of old shells hung from the wires attract young oysters already present in the seawater, and within six or nine months they are harvested simply by lifting the strings from the water. In recent years, some Chiayi oystermen have attempted to cater to the more lucrative half-shell trade, but this takes approximately three years for a harvest and requires a higher quality of clear water, so to date they have not been successful.
[photo] Oysterman throws strings of shells over fixed stakes in bay at Dongshi

A visit to Chiayi is not complete without a boat trip out to see the beds – as well as local birdlife and, if your timing is good, a beautiful sunset. The trip costs around NT$600 (US$18.50) per person and includes lunch.Not surprisingly, oyster dishes similarly dominate Chiayi menus, particularly but not exclusively in the coastal townships. (Oyster shells even dominate local art, strung together as curtains or joined to form sculptures).

[Photo: Woman shelling oysters outside temple in Dongshi displays one ready for the pot]

Three favorite dishes are o-a jhen (蚵仔煎; oyster omelet--see recipe below), o-a su (蚵仔酥; oysters deep-fried in batter), and o-a mi-swa (蚵仔麵線; oysters with bean-flour noodles). Although o-a is really the Hoklo Taiwanese word for oysters, while the Mandarin is hao (蠔) or muli (牡蠣), pretty much everyone on the island has come to use the Taiwanese form, even when speaking Mandarin. This apparently confuses visitors from China, who have been shown on Taiwan television asking for “wa-wa jhen.”

[photo: Fresh oysters straight from the shell adorn a Donghsi o-a-jhen]

Visitors should seek out roadside restaurants in the small coastal villages, particularly if their authenticity can be confirmed by the sight of elderly women (it always seems to be the job of elderly women) sitting outside shelling oysters. The oyster dishes will be a revelation, even for those who have eaten the same items in Taipei or elsewhere. The oyster in an o-a-jhen at Shilin Night Market, for example, will have been shelled at the coast and stored in water until being scooped out for cooking. While certainly fresh, they will have absorbed water, changing their texture considerably. When cooked, they release the water and the oyster shrinks. Oysters served directly from the sea are firmer and chewier and, of course, fresher.
[photo: Oysterman moors by floating bed and prepares to attach new strings]

Other seafood specialties from the Chiayi coast include clams (蛤蜊; ge-li), which are harvested once a year from mud-bottomed ponds; a seaweed (海菜; hai-cai) that is grown in similar ponds, often together with fish such as milkfish (虱目魚; shi-mu-yu) or tilapia (吳郭魚; wu-guo-yu); dao-a-hee (豆仔魚; “bean fish”), which are actually immature mullet especially fattened by growing in seawater ponds; and eels (鰻魚; man-yu).

[Photo: edible seaweed]

These dishes go well with white asparagus (蘆筍; lu-sun), which in the 1950s and ’60s was grown in almost every field in Dongshi due to the sandy soils. Locally grown asparagus can still be found without much difficulty; it is larger and more succulent than the green variety, but also tends to be more expensive. This is because growing asparagus is labor intensive, so Taiwan cannot compete with imports from China and Southeast Asia. Other crops that have largely disappeared from Chaiyi’s coastal fields in recent years include maize (玉米; yu-mi) and sorghum (高粱; gao-liang).

Another delicacy is the bean-flour noodles (米豆簽; mi-dou-qian) used in o-a-mi-swa and similar dishes, although the restaurant that the late President Chiang Ching-kuo used to frequent in Dongshi Village – and that later heavily publicized that fact – has since ceased operations. To try all these dishes and more under one roof, a visit to the Budai Fish Market (布袋魚市場) is recommended. As usual, if you want to select fish from the wet market and have it cooked for you, be on the lookout for restaurants and stalls advertising 代工 (dai-gong; “on behalf-work”).

[Photo: Deep-fried-fish vendor does brisk business at lunchtime at the Budai Fish Market]

Budai itself is famed for its eels, but also for dried radish (蘿蔔乾; luo-bo-gan in Mandarin, but more commonly菜脯 cai-bo in the Hoklo Taiwanese that is the language of Chiayi). Have a look at the Zhounan saltpans (洲南鹽場) just to the north of Budai. Although salt is no longer made there commercially by being dried in the sun, a small section has been kept to remind visitors of this earlier industry that was closely connected to the county’s culinary needs.

Crossing the plains

From the seventeenth century onward, Chinese peasant farmers from Fujian Province were attracted to the twenty-kilometer-wide strip of fertile plains lying between the coast and the mountains that start to rise from the eastern suburbs of Chiayi City.[Photo: Demonstration of traditional hand cutting and foot-powered threshing of rice]

“Oysters” are found here too, but this time it is the prized king oyster mushroom, Pleurotus eryngii (杏鮑菇; xing-bao-gu). Grown indoors in dark, cool warehouses, the mushrooms are not visible to casual passersby. Similarly out of sight in large huts but quite often audible are turkeys raised for ji-rou-fan and ducks destined for Chiayi’s almost-as-famous ya-rou-geng (鴨肉羹; duck-meat soup).

[Photo: New mural on old farmhouse wall in rural Xingang]

In this region, the town of Liujiao (六腳; “Six Feet”) lays claim to peanuts; Taibao to tomatoes; Lucao (鹿草; “Deer Grass”) to watermelons and honeydew; Puzi (朴子)to mung beans; and Shuishang (水上; “On the Water”) to lotus seeds.
[Photo: Traditional sweet potato grater]

Many of these food items and others are brought together with sugar – sugarcane was introduced to the area when the Dutch had a colony based in Tainan (1624-1661) – as ingredients for the sweets, cakes, and snacks famous in Xingang. Starting with the simplest niu-she-bing (牛舌餅; “cow tongue biscuits” – from their shape) made from little more than flour and sugar, the shops gradually developed their range to some two dozen items. These now include the rich wu-ren-bing (伍仁餅; “five-nut biscuits” and “double happiness” cakes (囍餅; xi-bing) given at engagements and weddings.

[Photo: Adding peanuts to make Xingang's famous 雙仁潤 (double nut) toffee]

Heading for the hills

[Photo: Mountain field in Alishan Township]

The eastern part of Chiayi comprises foothills and high mountains belonging to the Central Mountain Range. Originally hunting grounds of the Tsou (鄒) and other Aboriginal tribes, the area was inaccessible even long after Han Chinese immigration and remained sparsely populated until construction of a railway in Japanese colonial times. Although the postwar period brought proper roads, it only takes a severe typhoon like last year’s Morakot to sever connections with the outside world. The road to Alishan was closed while this article was being prepared – hence the poor coverage of Aboriginal cuisine – and the train is not expected to be back in service for another couple of years.

The five lower-altitude townships in this region are best known for their fruit: Meishan (梅山; “Plum Mountain”) to the north for its pineapples; Zhuqi (竹崎; “Bamboo Rugged-terrain”) for pears and guava; and Fanlu (番路; “Barbarian Road”) for fresh and dried persimmon; Zhongpu (中埔; “Middle Plains”) for various mushrooms, oranges, and betel nuts; and Dapu (大埔; “Great Plains”) to the south for bamboo shoots and the curious “fragrant manjack” (破布子; po-bu-zi).
Po-bu-zi, also known as shu-zi (樹子; “tree seeds”), are the fruit of a small tree in the cordia family, which are pickled and used as a flavoring for other foods, most commonly fish. Coincidentally, Dapu is the home of the Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫), whose cool waters are said to produce excellent freshwater fish.

[Photo: Tea picking on an Alishan hillside]

Finally, at the eastern extreme and highest altitudes of Chiayi County is the massive, sprawling Alishan Township. The former hunting grounds are still largely covered by forests, but since the construction of roads its agriculture has developed. In particular, its “high mountain oolong teas” (高山烏龍茶) have a world-class reputation.
[Photo: Tea picking in Alishan]
[Photo: Tea leaves are sorted for drying]

Less well known is that it now produces coffee too. In fact, locals claim that much of this ends up over the Yunlin County border, where it is passed off as Gukeng (古坑) coffee, since Gukeng Township has the bragging rights to coffee just as Chiayi does to chicken-on-rice.

Aboriginal fare is available at restaurants and roadside stalls. Typical items include barbequed boar and fish, barrel-cooked chicken (桶仔雞), bird’s nest fern (山蘇), and millet wine (小米酒).
[Photo: Roadside Aboriginal grill in Alishan Township]

Alishan is also respected for its high-altitude vegetables, whose slow growth is said to make them tastier, its free-range (and possibly organic) chickens, as well as oddities like shan-kuei (山葵), better known as wasabi since the Japanese sushi paste is made from its root.

[Photo: An Alishan farmer carries a wasabi plant]

Other unusual delicacies include “tomorrow leaf” (明日葉), actually Angelica keiskei, for which anticancer claims are made; “tree tomatoes” (樹番茄), Cyphomandra betacea, which does indeed grow in trees and taste, but not look, somewhat like a tomato; and the above-mentioned “love jade.”
[Photo: Bird eating seeds from ripe ai-yu fruit]

This last, Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang, a member of the fig family, has dark green fruit that hangs down from trees, attracting birds to feed on their numerous seeds after they have ripened and split open. Indigenous to this mountainous region of Taiwan – despite various fanciful etymologies, its Chinese name most likely derives from a local Aboriginal word – it was long ago found to make a tasty and cooling jelly by rubbing the seeds in water and then allowing the water to solidify.

[Photo: Dried ai-yu fruit]

Back in the city

And what about Chiayi City itself? Well, the number of ji-rou-fan restaurants is simply staggering. The citizens really do eat it by the thousands of bowlfuls a day. For locals it is the basic economy dish, much like lu-rou-fan (滷肉飯; “marinated meat [on] rice”) or zha-jiang-mian (炸醬麵; “fried sauce noodles”) elsewhere. But pay a little extra, say NT$50-60 per bowl, and you’ll find out why it is so popular. Instead of the stringy bits of poultry meat, it comes with slices of either lean or fatty meat (雞肉片) with a hunk of pickled turnip and some greens. And is it chicken or turkey? Turkey, say most locals, or better still, a mixture of the two.

[Photo: Gravy is added to a bowl of Chiayi turkey on rice]

Cook It Yourself

Oyster omelet (蚵仔煎)

Ingredients:8-12 oysters (蚵仔),Handful of leafy greens, typically 茼蒿菜 (Chrysanthemum coronarium; crown daisy) but something like bok choi (小白菜) is fine too;Egg (雞蛋),
1 cup sweet potato powder (地瓜粉; a form of tapioca; to make it crunchier), 2/3 cup potato starch (太白粉; to make it all stick together), 2 1/2 cups water (水), Pinch of white pepper (白胡椒粉)

Sauce ingredients:4 tsp. sweet and spicy sauce (甜辣醬), 2 tsp. soy sauce paste (醬油膏), 2 tsp. tomato ketchup (蕃茄醬), 1 cup water (水), pinch of starch (太白粉)
[standard recipes also call for 1 tsp. MSG (味噌) and 4 tsp. sugar (糖), but these can be omitted].

Wash the oysters with water and a little salt, drain.
Chop the leafy greens.
Mix the tapioca, starch, water and pepper to create a sticky paste.
Heat small amount of oil in frying pan, add oysters, and cook over low flame, turning 2-3 times.
Break egg over them, add small handful of chopped greens.
When cooked, add tablespoon of starch mix to bind. Turn and cook the other side. Serve with a splash of pink made from the sauce ingredients mixed.

[Photo: Mural on Chiayi City school shows traditional fishing method]

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

fish of the day

24-hour cycle, need energy?
from the red-bull caffeine+sugar+little-else school of energy drinks, FOTD naturally chooses the Masharkey brand