Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reason #9 to Love Taiwan - Seasonal Foods

Young snow pears being cultivated in Lishan

I teach a class in Tucheng Industrial Park every Wednesday morning (I know - and it's really hard to get up for that class on days like today with steely skies and bursting wind). On the way there I can barely keep my eyes open as the MRT snakes towards Yongning Station, but on the way back I usually plug in my headphones and play a few TED talks.

This time I listened first to Jennifer 8. Lee talking about the origins of Chinese food (I've been to the Wok and Roll and seen Yanching Palace that she mentions) and then to Jamie Oliver's prize-winning talk on the state of food and obesity in the USA.

Listening to Jamie Oliver caused me to stop at the market on the way home. I picked up snake eggplant, two bell peppers, a pile of sweet potato leaves, half a pound of tofu, two large carrots and a bunch of cilantro (and got some free green onions as one should). The entire bag cost a grand sum of approximately US $3.

It was bought off the back of a wooden cart, sold by the woman who helped grow it.

That's what I love about Taiwan: fresh, seasonal food. One year I decided I absolutely had to make chicken curry for dinner - so I went to the market to buy tomatoes. It wasn't the season for tomatoes, so there wasn't a single one to be found! Not even Wellcome had tomatoes (to be fair, my local Wellcome is quite small). Sure, hard, greenish ones were available at Jason's for three times the normal price, but that was it. No chicken curry until tomatoes came back.

And just try to buy a custard apple, green jujube, dragonfruit or pomelo out of season, or get your hands on cilantro when it's not growing well.

In the USA I felt divorced from the idea of seasonal food. Under the great equalizing fluorescence of the supermarket, I could get almost any fruit or vegetable I wanted from whatever continent could grow it at any time of year. In Arlington, Virginia, if I wanted an orange in January or asparagus in December, I could find it. It might cost more (not punitively so) and taste like a pale imitation of the real thing, but I could get it. It wouldn't even seem that expensive, although while American produce prices don't seem that high when you're there, my $3 bag of healthy goodness sure makes them appear stratospheric by comparison.

Here, if I went to the local wet market right now and asked for, say, a dragonfruit, I'd get laughed at by more than one vendor.

To be fair, not everything in Taiwan is local and you can get out-of-season foods if you are willing to pay more, but that's just it: you do have to pay more and often hunt them down. In the USA the costs might fluctuate slightly but not enough to punish out-of-season cooks who can't (or don't care to) discern flavor differences in less-fresh produce.

I'm not a total mushy-heart though - I don't for a second believe that the market vendors don't sell out-of-season produce because "it's not as good and not as nutritious". They don't sell it because some of them are direct representatives of the farm that grew the food, and you can't sell what you can't grow. Others are middleman vendors who buy from various sources (which is why you can get California and New Zealand fruit in the wet market, too), but they sell mostly seasonal foods because they know the frugal market shoppers - often grandmothers who will bargain you down for a shaved penny - aren't going to pay inflated prices. If nobody will buy it at an out of season price, they won't sell it.

That's what happened with the cilantro, anyway: when it wasn't available I asked why not. One vendor assured me she could get it but she wasn't going to, because "I'd have to charge 75 kuai a bunch and do you think these people are going to pay that?" she said as she gestured towards the crowd. It's the invisible hand of the market, but in this case, it works.

It forces me to think seasonally, cook seasonally and as a result eat seasonally - something that more people should be doing.

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