Friday, September 29, 2017

We earned our lunch! Making tofu at Luoshan

About half of the population in Hualien's Luoshan are Hakka, the other half being a diverse mix of Hoklo (Taiwanese of Fujianese descent), "mainlanders" (those who arrived in 1949 or thereabouts and their offspring) and "new immigrants" (mostly women from southeast Asia who've married Taiwanese men). There's no industry, so it's hardly surprising that several households have embraced tourism to supplement their incomes from agriculture.

Big Nature Experience Farm (大自然體驗農家) is one of these, and gave us a warm welcome on a torridly hot day. Big Nature Farm's address is 58 Luoshan Village. (In Chinese: 花蓮縣富里鄉羅山村12鄰58號; tel: (038) 821 352).
This "fake" mail box has nothing to do with making tofu, but it sums up Luoshan's quaint appeal.

Big Nature Farm's boss, Mr. Lin, began by explaining that most of Taiwan's soy is imported, and almost all of what is grown domestically comes from the southwest. A single plant yields between 150 and 200 beans. The raw beans are soaked for six to eight hours in spring water drawn from near the mud volcano; this is the "magic" ingredient that gives local tofu its special taste. If the beans are left in the water for much longer than that, they start to go bad, he explained.

In the old days, soybeans were ground into soy milk with this kind of milling device. We all had a go...
...and were quite relieved when Mr. Lin told us it would take too long to do all the beans by hand, so he uses a modern machine:
The resulting soy milk is then simmered for about a quarter of an hour. It has to be stirred constantly so it doesn't burn, as that would give it a less appealing taste. Solid matter is then removed by filtering it with a muslin cloth. This requires two people to hold the cloth and rock the lumpy mass back and forth. The "milk" smells delicious, but it is the solid stuff that becomes the tofu.
This DIY activity costs NTD250 per person, is available to groups of at least four people, and should be booked a day or more in advance.

The final pressing is done by hand; the key, we were told, is to use your body's weight rather than your muscles.
Turning the tofu over onto a large plate, unwrapping it from the muslin cloth, and slicing it into quarters, requires a steady pair of hands. But, of course, the boss of Big Nature Experience Farm has done this countless times before.

The finished product has a mild yet delicious aroma and taste. Many people (this writer included) like to add a dash of wasabi to liven things up.
The folks at Big Nature are clearly experienced at hosting the media. Without being asked, they prepared a photogenic array of raw soybean, tofu, condiments and related items.

One of the items above is one of Big Nature Experience Farm's signature products: Dòufu rǔ made with mud-volcano water (pictured more clearly below). Dòufu rǔ, occasionally (and misleadingly) called 'Chinese cheese', is a form of fermented tofu but shouldn't be confused with stinky tofu. Non-spicy versions are usually a yellowy shade of brown and intensely tart. It's used in small quantities to enliven rice gruel at breakfast time. Only a tiny smear is needed - one reason I think the comparison with cheese is way off. It also finds its way into the wok, reportedly going well with various meats, water spinach, and aubergine with perilla seeds.

This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mud, water and sweat: A cyclist's perspective on Luoshan

On a blistering hot morning at the beginning of what is technically autumn, we arrived in Luoshan (羅山), a corner of Hualien County's Fuli Township (富里鄉) famous for its waterfall, a mud volcano, and organically-grown rice. It's an exceptionally beautiful part of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area.
I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again in the future: Anyone planning to ride a bicycle in Taiwan should make themselves sun-proof, even if the sky looks cloudy. This day was one of the sunniest in a long time, and I could well believe the UV levels were dangerously high, as is sometimes the case in east Taiwan. A hat and long sleeves, as well as protection for your neck and hands, are essential. Bring a large bottle of water.
Much of the cycle route is flat, and motorized traffic is never heavy. Throughout Taiwan, road surfaces are almost always well maintained.
If you can make it up the hill to the car park nearest the waterfall, you'll enjoy some excellent views. The distance from the visitor centre is a little under 4km but the gradient is not to be underestimated. Unfortunately, both of the short hiking trails which approach the actual waterfall are currently out of commission; the authorities hope to rebuild them using eco-friendly materials rather than concrete. 
If the hill looks too daunting, do at least push on to what's called Luoshan Mud Volcano. 'Muddy spring' would be a more accurate name - there's no cone - but the pool here is very pretty. From it, you can look up to the waterfall.
Luoshan Mud Volcano lacks the visual impact of the mud-spewing domes at Wushanding in Kaohsiung. It's beguiling, nonetheless. At the time of our visit, three vents were visible, the oldest of which had been active for five years. Typhoons and earthquakes sometimes shut off a vent, leaving the gas and slurry to emerge somewhere else. Looking closely at the nearer of the two circular pits in the photo below, it was just about possible to make out bubbling caused by methane rising to the surface.
Because the mud volcano has altered local soil chemistry, some unusual plants thrive nearby. One is wild ginger lily:
Another is elephant ear, a poisonous relative of the humble taro:
Every township in Taiwan has a government-backed farmers' association which helps local agro-businesses by marketing their products, advising on how to add value, and investing in equipment (such as industrial fruit-drying machines) which are too expensive for individual farmers. Some associations are far more savvy than others, and Fuli's seems to be among the more enterprising and innovative. 

The association's showroom on Highway 9, about 500m north of the Luoshan turnoff, is an impressive size. Ice cream and hot coffee are sold here, as well as big bags of local ponlai rice. It's no wonder the showroom is a popular rest stop for cyclists on long-distance rides, such as this gentlemen. He told us he was part of a large group nearing the end of a seven-day west-to-east adventure. 
The fields next to the showroom are given over to flowers and public art. This Easter Island-like sculpture gained its colour from a coating of rice husks:
For some photos of this area in less summery conditions, see my 2014 blog post.

This visit and blog post were sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.

Monday, September 4, 2017

By bike through the rice fields of Chishang

Chishang in Taitung (臺東縣池上鄉) has been renowned for the quality of its rice since the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945). During the period of Japanese control, rice grown here was supplied to the Japanese royal family in Tokyo. It's also an area of exceptional beauty, in part because the power lines and utility poles that pepper much of rural Taiwan don't get between you and the landscape. Farmers believe the shadows cast by cables and pylons interfere with the rice's natural growing cycle, and have been successful in keeping them away from the paddy fields which create Chishang's most memorable scenes.
All things considered, Chishang has to be one of the best places in Taiwan for recreational cycling. There's hardly any traffic and the roads are well maintained.  
In English, the township's bicycle path has the straightforward name, Chishang Bicycle Trail, but it's worth spending a moment understanding its name in Chinese: 池上環圳自行車道 means 'the bikeway that goes around the irrigation ditches.' Even though east Taiwan has less extreme wet-season/dry-season differences than the western half of the island, irrigation is essential if local agriculture is to prosper.  
The bikeway is 17.4km in length, so it presents a bit more of a work-out than other bike trails in the region. As elsewhere, tandem bikes and four-seaters are also available for renting from the businesses near Mr. Brown Avenue, a spot made famous some years back by a TV commercial for Mr. Brown (a range of canned coffees made by the company that also produces Taiwan's world-beating Kavalan Whiskey). Some tourists opt for tandem bicycles or four-seater pedal-powered machines.
EVA Air is one of Taiwan's major airlines. What is its connection with Chishang? Since 2013, the company has been partnering with Chishang's farmers' association and promoting Chishang rice on its planes. If you flew into Taiwan on EVA, there's a very good chance you ate rice that was grown in Chishang.
Chishang isn't the only place in east Taiwan where the authorities have decided public art made from old bicycles enhanced the landscape. I'm not convinced, I have to admit.
Below: Not the aftermath of a road accident, but tourists trying to get some good photographs, and also enjoying the strange sensation of lying down on a public road (something highly inadvisable in other parts of Taiwan).
If you've plenty of time and energy, take a look at this blog for a detailed account of exploring the area by bike. Even if you've no intention of emulating the blogger, do check out his photos and video clips. Dapo Pond (大坡池, below) is certainly worth a detour. A nearby and very popular food business specializing in the production of tofu sheets takes its name from the pond.
Chishang Pastoral Farm Resort (池上牧野渡假村) is just over 3km southwest of Chishang Railway Station; if you’re driving or cycling, follow Highway 9 towards Taitung and follow the signposts. The resort belongs to Taiwan Sugar Company, one of the largest landowners in this region, even though sugar production in Taiwan has dwindled to almost nothing. During the 1980s, the 125 hectares of ex-plantation was converted first to beef production and then to tourism. 

One of the attractions here are the Mongolian-style yurts and banners. Mongolian dishes, such as fried lamb, are available, but younger visitors will probably be more interested in the animals which are kept here, including zebras, gazelles, llamas, camels, and pygmy hippopotamuses. The resort has a breeding program in cooperation with Taipei Zoo.   
As well as a camping area, the resort has 58 guestrooms for two, three or four people. Prices range from NT$2,000 to NT$6,200 depending on room type and whether you're booking for a weekday or a weekend/national holiday. Room rates include breakfast, admission to the resort, and parking fees, according to the resort's Chinese-only website.  
This blog post was sponsored by the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration. Once again, I would like to express thanks to Cheryl Robbins for sharing several photographs with me.