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The Power of Food Education:Raising Taitung’s Culinary Profile

2020-07-20
 
Cathy Teng /photo by Jimmy Lin /tr. by Scott Williams 
 
This rich mix of people, geography, climate, and scenery has given rise to the distinctive character of Taitung’s food. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
This rich mix of people, geography, climate, and scenery has given rise to the distinctive character of Taitung’s food. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 
“Fooding Taitung” is on a mission to reveal Tai­tung as a gastronomic powerhouse. Oper­ated by AGUA Design, the project launched in 2019 with the support of the Taitung County Govern­ment and the Taitung Design Center.
 
Taitung County’s varied terrain includes notable features such as the Rift Valley, a long and dramatic coastline, the Southern Link Highway, and outlying islands. Its population is similarly diverse, with Formosan Abori­gines, Minnanese, Hakka, and immigrants all res­iding in the county. This rich mix of people, geography, climate, and scenery has given rise to the distinctive character of Taitung’s food. Here, we’ll explore some of AGUA Design founder Agua Chou’s recommendations, visiting establishments in the Rift Valley to sample Taitung’s delicious offerings.
 
Agua Chou (right), founder of AGUA Design, says few people realize that Taitung abounds with food education capital.
Agua Chou (right), founder of AGUA Design, says few people realize that Taitung abounds with food education capital.
 
First stop: Taitung’s fruitful land
 
“Damn it! I’ve been kidnapped by Taitung’s food!” Zhuang Yuejiao, known as Big Sister A-Jiao, often swears when she speaks. A former food and beverage industry heavyweight known as “the queen of the restaurant business,” Zhuang visited Chishang, Taitung, a number of years ago as part of a short-term rural residency program offered by the Lovely Taiwan Foundation, and never left.
A-Jiao takes us on an early morning trip to the Guanshan and Chishang markets to begin our introduction to the breadth of Taitung’s food offerings. A-Jiao is well acquainted with many of the small farmers who operate stalls in the markets. While seeming to casually stroll past each, she is actually carefully scoping out the vegetables on display. When she spots something good on a stall, she exchanges phone numbers with the vendor so she can follow up with future purchases.
We drive back to A-Jiao’s home by Dapo Pond in a car packed with produce. She turns on the stove, and blanches some greens in the chicken stock she was given by the chicken vendor. She tells us to go pick a fresh banana leaf, wipe it clean and lay it on the table, where it becomes a platter for the blanched greens. “There’s no point in me telling you about it. You just have to try it for yourself. You’ll see.” she says with anima­tion. “All this food is freaking delicious.”
 
A-Jiao says that Taitung’s food so is “freaking delicious” that it “kidnapped” her.
A-Jiao says that Taitung’s food so is “freaking delicious” that it “kidnapped” her.
 
In the afternoon, she takes us to some small farmers she has contracts with. “They all used to sell their produce at a farmers’ market. [When I see produce I like,] I ask to visit the vendor’s farm. If the weeds are growing even better than the veggies, that’s what I’m looking for.”
A-Jiao gives priority to buying from a few small farmers who grow their crops on fractional plots by the river. “Someone whose life has gone very smoothly has no story to tell. Someone like me who has had a hard life [divorce and debt], you could tell that story for three frickin’ days and nights and still have more to tell. The land is like that, too. Every piece of land is different. Crops that have to really work to grow are sure to taste different. That’s why I prioritize buying theirs.”
She encourages us to pick and taste manganji peppers straight from the field. In addition to their natural sweetness, the peppers have striking vitality that goes right to your head. To A-Jiao, this is the essence of Taitung produce.
“You can’t dial your taste buds down, you can only try to heighten them further.” She says Taitung is blessed by nature. “It kidnapped me, but I was willing, you know?”
 
Feel like eating corn? Pick it straight from the field!
Feel like eating corn? Pick it straight from the field!
 
When A-Jiao spots high-quality produce, she exchanges phone numbers with the vendor so she can arrange future purchases.
When A-Jiao spots high-quality produce, she exchanges phone numbers with the vendor so she can arrange future purchases.
 
Second stop: Jin-Ping Primary School
 
When we arrive at the campus of Jin-Ping Primary School in Taitung’s Haiduan Township, we are drawn to the colorful paintings on classroom exteriors. “Millet is an important Bunun crop. Bunun work and life are structured around the growth of millet and the cycles of Nature,” explains school principal Xu Shuwei. That’s why she arranged to have paintings depicting millet’s growth process, along with nature scenes from the time of year of each of its stages, added to the school’s walls to enliven the campus environment.
Jin-Ping Primary has been promoting food and farming education for four years. The initial goal was simply to use idle space on the school’s grounds to grow vegetables. But Xu wanted the students to do more than simply harvest and cook what they grew—she also wanted them to understand the reasons for what they were doing. “Food education means promoting understanding of both food and how it comes to be.” She had her teachers use food and agriculture as a gateway, as a means to gradually build each grade’s understanding of knowledge systems and skills. “You could say that food and farming education is both my method and my curric­ulum.”
The construction of a food and farming environment isn’t limited to classes on the subject. If a Nature class happens to be studying changes in the environment, the teacher can bring up the example of wild boars coming into vegetable gardens to dig up sweet potatoes, which leads students into discussion of whether damage to mountain habitats leads to food shortages for wildlife. Teachers and students explore the links between events step by step, connecting topics to students’ own lives in tangible ways that make more of an impression than their textbooks.
 
Highlights from a visit to Jin-Ping Primary School include the paintings of Bunun life on the exterior walls. (photo by Cathy Teng)
Highlights from a visit to Jin-Ping Primary School include the paintings of Bunun life on the exterior walls. (photo by Cathy Teng)
 
School principal Wen Shangde believes that food education is life education.
School principal Wen Shangde believes that food education is life education.
 
Third stop: Yongan Primary School
 
We next visit Yongan Primary School in Luye, a township known for its hot-air balloon festival. School principal Wen Shangde brings us onto the campus on a day when parenting author Wang Pi-chu (pen name “Saffron”) is scheduled to give a talk while guiding students through preparing lunch.
Saffron poses questions to the students as she speaks. Listening to their interaction, we learn that many students know when to harvest potatoes, that cellophane noodles are made from mung beans, and that dou­ban­jiang (a chili and bean sauce) is made with fermented soy beans. Students answer these seemingly challenging questions with ease, affirming Agua Chou’s statement that Taitung’s kids have a solid understanding of food.
There are a number of reasons why they know so much. Yongan’s grounds feature a wonderfully diverse habitat. When a documentary on the origins of life that was screened last semester piqued students’ curiosity, a teacher bought an egg incubator, acquired chicken and duck eggs from a neighbor, and began incubating them. Now the school has a flock of chickens and ducks that join the children for classes. The school also has its own Ceylon olive (Elaeocarpus serratus) and peach trees, as well as roselle bushes (Hibiscus sabdariffa). When the fruit ripens and the flowers bloom, they harvest them, boiling olives and making their own preserved roselles.
“As long as a lesson is based on food, or uses something food-related as a starting point, I consider it part of Yongan’s food education curriculum,” says Wen.
The teachers occasionally have the students bring their lunches to a corner of the campus where they all take off their shoes, bathe their feet in a cool stream, and enjoy a relaxing outdoor meal. The school also offers a class in making rice wine. Taiwan’s Amis people see wine as a medium for communicating with one’s ancestors and the natural world. In the process of making the wine, students learn to respect their loved ones and express gratitude. Wen views all of this as a form of food education.
“Food is a medium. It enables students to learn skills, to learn to interact with other people. If they go on to change the world, even in a tiny way, then our food education will have borne some fruit,” says Wen.
 
Amis tribespeople use alcohol to commune with their ancestral spirits and the natural world. By teaching students to brew rice wine, the food education curriculum at Yongan Primary School is passing on the Amis culture’s respect for Nature and humanity.
Amis tribespeople use alcohol to commune with their ancestral spirits and the natural world. By teaching students to brew rice wine, the food education curriculum at Yongan Primary School is passing on the Amis culture’s respect for Nature and humanity.
 
Fourth stop: Memories of food
 
Mala Huang graduated from National Taitung Senior High School 12 years ago, and the school still holds an important place in his heart. He recently returned to cook for the students, warming their bellies with hot meals.
In Huang’s student days, the school used to serve students bowls of gong­dan­fan—white rice topped with minced pork, leafy greens, a slice of meat, a meat ball and a soy egg. The meals were a high point of Huang’s high-school career. “Student life was basically going to class and studying, but my short, half-hour lunchtimes were packed with memories.”
The gongdanfan disappeared four or five years after Huang graduated, and he became interested in bringing it back. He subsequently quit his job and moved back to Taitung, where he acquired a basic certification in food preparation and hygiene. Seeking to bring back the flavors he remembered from his youth, he reviewed the school’s food delivery records from when he was a student to see what ingredients were used, and then looked up different minced pork recipes on the Internet. After experimenting with what he found, he succeeded in recreating something close to what he remembered. “The ­flavor of the modern one is definitely a little different,” says Huang. “But I think it’s even better than the old one.”
For Huang, memories of gongdanfan were like a magnet, pulling him back to his Taitung home. You could almost call his return to his teenage home and the good life there a kind of food education butterfly effect.
 
Mala Huang has fond memories of a dish from his high-school days: white rice topped with minced pork, leafy greens, a slice of sausage, a meatball and a soy egg.
Mala Huang has fond memories of a dish from his high-school days: white rice topped with minced pork, leafy greens, a slice of sausage, a meatball and a soy egg.
 
Fifth stop: Building a food education brand
 
Agua Chou explains that her company’s efforts in Taitung food education were about “how to make outsiders see what Taitung has to offer, and help Taitung’s own people recognize what’s here.”
“Taitung really has a lot of food capital, a true abundance, but it isn’t immediately obvious.” If you visit, you’ll find a number of crops that are uncommon elsewhere in Taiwan, such as gac (Momordica cochin­chinensis), Valencia oranges (Citrus sinensis ‘Valencia’), and Japanese scallions (Allium chinense), which many people mistakenly think are unique to Japan. AGUA Design’s goal is to raise awareness of Taitung’s “food power.”
An AGUA team conducted a field survey in the Rift Valley last year, documenting the passage of the seasons and using it to create an illustrated guide titled “Fooding Taitung 365.” The team also published video clips and a book, 15 Taitung Recipes Learning Before 15, for which they invited experts to design menus. The team then distributed the book to Taitung children under the age of 15 so they could cook the delicious dishes for themselves.
An online event launched this year explores delicious and healthy recipes for people from zero to 100 years old. For this project, the editors invited people involved with fine food in Taitung to share what they eat for the day’s three meals, how they eat it, and who they eat it with.
You needn’t be physically present in Taiwan to have an interest in Taitung food. The Internet has already linked together more than 10,000 fans, and posts on Fooding Taiwan’s year-old Facebook page have been viewed by more than 2 million people. In fact, every time a food-­related post goes up on the Facebook page, the comments come alive with enthusiastic discussions of how and where to eat it, and how to prepare it.
In addition to conducting surveys, AGUA’s team is also gathering information on foods from around the world, such as the diversity of foods in various nations, how those foods are cooked, and how food education is carried out. The team envisioned the project as an opportunity for Taitung to learn about the world, and in so doing, to learn about itself. International-caliber chefs are constantly searching for good ingredients they can use to create uniquely local dishes. Agua Chou suggests that increasing awareness of Taitung could attract the interest of such chefs, introducing an international seasoning to the county’s bucolic character.
 
The whole world should know about Taitung’s fantastic food and stunning scenery! (photo by Jimmy Lin)
The whole world should know about Taitung’s fantastic food and stunning scenery! (photo by Jimmy Lin)
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