Sunday, March 26, 2017

Taipei's Little Burma

New York and London have multiple ethnic enclaves, but while it’s likely true that Tianmu (天母) has a higher proportion of Western expatriates than other parts of Greater Taipei, Taiwan’s capital has perhaps just one true immigrant neighborhood: Little Burma in New Taipei City’s Yonghe District (新北市永和區).
It’s said between 20,000 and 40,000 people in Greater Taipei have Burmese roots. Some of them arrived as early as 1954; others came more recently to attend university in Taiwan. Almost all are of Chinese descent and many fought in KMT units which retreated to what’s now Myanmar after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Several of those units were kept combat-ready for years at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek, who never quite gave up his dream of retaking mainland China by force. Many of the men were originally from Yunnan in China's southwest, which is why you'll see a number of restaurant signs (like the one above) offering Yunnanese dishes. Gradually, these aging soldiers and their dependents were allowed to settle in Taiwan.

Huaxin Street (華新街) is the heart of Little Burma, and I set foot there for the first time a week ago. I walked the 550m from Nanshijiao MRT Station (at the southern end of the Orange Line; leave by Exit 4 and turn right), following signs to ‘South Pacific Food Street.’ This is the local government’s mistranslation of 南洋 (which Wikipedia describes as ‘a sinocentric Chinese term for the warmer and fertile geographical region south of China, otherwise known as the 'South Sea' or Southeast Asia...’). Just after the police station on the right-hand side of the road, I found Huaxin Street on the left. Most of the buildings hereabouts are old apartment blocks. Few have more than five floors and the prosperity so obvious in central Taipei is conspicuously absent.
It being well before lunchtime, I first explored the neighbourhood market which occupies the street’s Lane 30. It’s a pretty standard market, except for a handful of vendors who label their produce in Burmese script. The lady selling this was too busy dealing with customers to answer any questions. 

In a few of these eateries, the Burmese-language bill of fare is much more prominent than the Chinese-language menu, and a lot of the Mandarin you’ll hear spoken in this neighborhood is strongly accented. Two or three early-opening places attract groups of men aged 50 and over who sit, chat, smoke and drink tea or coffee.
I’m sure that if you know where and what to order, and you’re with a group of friends, you can have an splendid feast here. Being by myself, and a first-timer, I chose at random one of the street’s halal eateries and ordered a bowl of Jinshan Noodles (金山麵), in part because I prefer broader, bantiao-style pasta. It was pretty good: A generous amount of mildly-curried chicken, hard-boiled egg and raw onion.
After that, there wasn’t time to do much except have a cup of sweet Indian milk tea in another halal restaurant...

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

JJ Farm in Hualien County

Various kinds of cattle, especially water buffalo, have long been a feature of Taiwan's countryside. Oxen were brought to the island in the 17th century by the Dutch, who controlled an area roughly equivalent to today's Greater Tainan. As recently as the 1970s, a good many Taiwanese farmers were still using ungulates to plough fields, turn millstones and pull carts. These animals also supplied manure, but few farming families drank milk, and because of a food taboo that still persists among some Taiwanese, even fewer ate beef.
Before the Japanese seized control of Taiwan in 1895, the only milk production was by the handful of Westerners living on the island. In 1870, British missionaries running a hospital in Tainan established a small dairy ranch so they and their patients could enjoy fresh milk. But the first large-scale operation was established in 1896 by the Japanese, who believed reliable supplies of milk were necessary to keep their soldiers healthy and to help the wounded recover their strength.
Since World War II, the Taiwanese diet has become more like North America's. People eat more bread and less rice, and milk is sold in every supermarket and convenience store. Most of the milk powder consumed in Taiwan is imported, but a lot of fresh milk comes from domestic producers, among them JJ Farm (吉蒸牧場), located very near the Xiuguluan River Rafting Service Centre in Hualien County's Ruisui Township (花蓮縣瑞穗鄉). 
JJ Farm, which produces over 5,000kg of milk each day, is open to the public seven days a week from 8 am to 5.30 pm. The farm has over 600 milk cattle, fed on local grass and manufactured feed imported from New Zealand. 
As you'd expect, JJ Farm pasteurizes the milk is sells directly to visitors and indirectly through supermarkets and department stores – but does it differently to most dairy companies. Rather than heat the milk at a high temperature for a very short time, it applies a lower temperature (65 degrees Celsius, which is why their milk products bear prominent '65C' logos) for a longer period. This, it's claimed, means more of the nutrients found in raw milk are retained. In my opinion, JJ Farm's milk has a delicious aroma and a fuller taste than most milks available in Taiwan.
The farm also sells milk cookies (unlike most brands of milk cookies, which are made with milk powder, they're made with fresh milk) and steamed milky buns. Anyone who loves dairy products will enjoy both. If you're hungrier, order a set meal (NTD150) or a milky hot pot (NTD280). There's also milk candy, ice cream and coffee; sit upstairs on the veranda for good views up and down the valley.
It's not possible to get very close to the dairy herd. The cattle spend most of their time under a shelter which protects them from both strong sunshine and rain; the building is equipped with huge fans for when the weather gets too warm for comfort. But if you've young kids in tow, be sure to take them to the farm's petting zoo, where there are ponies, goats, a peacock and evem a mountain boar. 
The easiest way to reach JJ Farm is to enter the grounds of the Xiuguluan River Rafting Service Centre, then turn right when you reach the riverbank. Keep going and you'll very soon see fibreglass cows and the two-floor restaurant/sales centre. Even if you're not much of a cyclist you'll have no problems getting here from central Ruisui on two wheels. 
If you simply want to enjoy a milky hot pot, there's no need to go to JJ Farm. Green Genie (綠精靈), which has various meal sets, all priced around NTD300, is less than 300m from Ruisui Railway Station at 52 Chenggong North Road. It's open 11 am to 9 pm daily, but takes a break from 2 pm to 5 pm on weekdays.
This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Eating sugarcane and buckleberries

Sitting down to a multi-course meal recently, this dish appeared in front of me. At first glance, I assumed the main ingredient was bamboo, but it turned out to be sugarcane. Harvested when still very short and soft, it was first boiled then added to a stir fry with slices of turnip, a few slivers of carrot, some chili and a generous amount of Chinese buckleberries (Cordia dichotoma). The buckleberries are the brown spheres about the size of peanuts. After cooking they're very soft, but contain a large pit (and thus little in the way of flesh). They're not at all sweet and tend to take on the flavours of the foods they're served with. 

Chinese buckleberries are hard to farm but often gathered from the wild. I've eaten them dozens of times over the past two decades, sometimes added to fried eggs or piled over a steamed fish. Most Taiwanese refer to them by their Taiwanese name, phoa-po-chi (破布子). Archaeological evidence indicates the Siraya indigenous people in what's now Greater Tainan were eating them regularly at least 600 years ago.