Saturday, July 18, 2015

Taiwan’s Mountain Paradise for the Nature-minded (Taiwan Business Topics)

Fushan Botanical Garden (福山植物園) is located in New Taipei City’s Wulai District, 10km as the crow flies from the Atayal village of Fushan. There is no road – and no legal access for hikers – from Greater Taipei, so visitors must come through Yilan County’s Yuanshan Township. But inconvenience is not the only reason why far fewer people visit Fushan than Taipei’s lovely but invariably crowded botanical garden. Permission to enter must be sought well in advance, and no more than 500 people are allowed in each day (600 on weekends and holidays).

Because educating the public about ecology is central to the garden’s mission, admission is free. Multimedia presentations are made every half hour inside the garden’s Nature Center, which is on the right about 1km before the main parking lot.

Covering 410 hectares, Fushan Botanical Garden accounts for approximately a third of Fushan Experimental Forest, which straddles the boundary between New Taipei and Yilan at elevations of 600 to 1,400 meters. The annual average temperature is 18.5 degrees Celsius, compared to 22 degrees Celsius in downtown Taipei. Annual average rainfall is 4,125 millimeters, about 40% more than in the capital. At 94.1%, Fushan’s annual average relative humidity is also considerably higher than Taipei’s.

The garden is not a reserve in the sense of aiming to absolutely minimize humanity’s impact on natural ecosystems. That is the goal of another part of Fushan Experimental Forest, the 333-hectare Hapen Nature Reserve to the immediate south of the garden. The northernmost segment of the forest is the 356-hectare Water Source Reserve, most of which is broad-leaf forest. Both reserves are strictly off-limits to the public.

Before the 1895-1945 Japanese colonization period, this area was inhabited by members of the Atayal indigenous tribe. Hapen Creek, a stream which flows through all three parts of the experimental forest, takes its name from a long-abandoned aboriginal settlement called Hbun. These days, the nearest permanent human residents are a handful of Hakka farming households at Shuanglianpi (雙連埤), more than five kilometers away. In good weather, the 17.2-hectare body of water after which the settlement is named is strikingly beautiful.

That is a big if, however. Fushan itself gets rain around 270 days per year, and fog is extremely common. Visitors should bring umbrellas or rainproof jackets, even if Taipei and Yilan City are bone dry.

The actual garden is divided into four zones, and it makes sense to explore them in the following order: Natural Classroom, Tree Exhibition, Forest Discovery, and Plants and Human Life.

The route outlined in the English-language section of the garden’s website is 3.01km long. Good footwear is essential as the pathways are mostly gravel, and the boardwalk beside the Aquatic Plants Pond can get slippery.

The pond is artificial but filled with life. Egrets and grey herons prey upon finger-length Candidia barbatus, an endemic minnow species. There are also turtles and frogs. One of the latter, Babina adenopleura, is found only in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. During its March-to-August breeding season, the “ji-ji-ji” calls of male Babina adenopleura are especially audible, although the frogs themselves are hard to spot.

In total, 515 plant species belonging to 329 genera and 124 families thrive in the garden. There are some useful information boards around the garden; all are reproduced on the garden’s website. However, the labels in front of individual trees and plants provide the scientific and Chinese names only. Unless you carry a field guide, you may well find yourself googling names on your smartphone to find out more. Cellphone reception is serviceable in most of the garden.

Visitors familiar with Taiwan’s low-elevation mountain areas may well recognize one plant before they see any labels. What Taiwanese call “biting people cat” (咬人貓, Urtica thunbergiana) is a nettle whose sting is rightly feared. Not many city-dwellers know it can be cooked and eaten in soups.

The garden has few notably tall trees, because those that grow above the canopy are often blown over during typhoons. Unlike some other managed woodlands in Taiwan, fallen trees at Fushan are moved only if they block a pathway. The damp climate means the risk of forest fire is minimal, and rotting lumber plays an important role in arboreal ecosystems. Various creatures hide from predators or shelter from the sun inside dead trees. Beetles, spiders, and worms move and feed within the decaying wood. Most of the logs on the ground at Fushan host fungi.

Several of the species here have medicinal functions, including Mahonia japonica, sometimes called Japanese Holly-Grape. Scientific and common names notwithstanding, this perennial woody evergreen is native to Taiwan rather than Japan. It bears fruit that are no more than one centimeter in length and full of seeds, but quite edible raw or cooked. The seeds can be used to decoct a febrifuge – a substance that reduces fevers – while the roots and stems are said to have anti-rheumatic, detoxifying, and expectorant powers.

Standing out like a sore thumb – or in this case a sick tree – is a mature specimen of Prunus zippeliana. Most of its bark has come off, leaving the trunk and main branches a patchwork of ochre and clay brown, which is likely why this evergreen’s Chinese name is 黃土樹, “yellow-soil tree.” This sloughing is in fact proof of good health, an entirely normal mechanism to shed borers and parasites...

This is one of three articles I have in this year's Taiwan Business Topics Travel and Culture special issue. To see the entire article, click here. I took both of the photos during my visit to the garden earlier this year.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Taipei - Rich, Fresh Diversity (Le Pan)

Among Greater China metropolises, Taipei has a unique history, and this has created a culinary scene of exceptional richness. Early migrants from Fujian adapted their cooking traditions to the wild game and seafood they found in abundance. Indigenous Austronesians and Hakka clans still live on the fringes of this city of 2.7 million, and present their ethnic cuisines in scores of restaurants.

Japanese dishes began appearing in homes and restaurants soon after Tokyo seized control of Taiwan in 1895. Japanese rule ended in 1945 - but you might not think so, given the ubiquity of sushi and miso soup, plus an enduring love for sashimi.

A second influx occurred just after World War II. Following his defeat at the hands of Mao Zedong’s communists, Chiang Kai-shek set up a Nationalist government in-exile in Taipei. His followers included foodies from every part of the Chinese mainland, and within a decade the city boasted excellent Shanghainese, Hunanese and Szechuan eateries.

By the 1970s, Taipei was a key player in the global economy. But rather than business visitors, the key demographic nowadays for international restaurants are Taiwanese whose tastes have been shaped by travel or study overseas. For quite some time, Taipei folk have not lived by rice alone.

Even now, many Taipei housewives still shop at traditional markets four or five mornings per week, and the expectation that all ingredients are ultra-fresh influences how restaurants present their offerings. Glass tanks filled with fish and crustaceans are a feature of seafood establishments throughout the region, but in Taiwan similar thinking is also found in many places where beef is served. Look carefully, and you will likely see a notice stating the number of hours from slaughter to table.

Considering at least a tenth of Taiwan’s population eschews bovine meat for semi-religious reasons, the popularity of one dish in particular is striking. Among Taipei residents, few issues are more contentious than the question of which eatery serves the finest beef noodles, and the city government organizes an annual festival. Few people blog so frequently and passionately about food as the citizens of Taipei, and online appraisals of beef-noodle restaurants judge dishes not only by the quality of the meat and the taste of the soup, but also by the freshness of the scallions and mung-bean sprouts, and the presence or absence of garlic, tomatoes, hot bean paste (doubanjiang, 豆瓣醬) and star anise. Brisket is the usual cut, but there are some who favor tendon or shank.

Hot pot is another type of meal with a massive and devoted following. Herbal-medicine and mala (numbingly spicy, 麻辣) broths are perennial favorites, but restaurants here offer at least a dozen variations on the theme, including pots which incorporate milk, yoghurt, Korean kimchi, or lemongrass and other Thai ingredients.

The arrival post-1945 of people with roots in northern China manifests itself in the range of wheat-flour foods available on every thoroughfare...

Le Pan (The Art of Fine Wine Living) is a new online and print publication focusing on gourmet food and top-notch wine in East Asia. My article is part of Le Pan's 'Culinary Capitals' series, which to date has also covered Tokyo, Singapore, Barcelona, Rome and other international cities. I took both photos in Addiction Aquatic Development, where Japanese cuisine is served in a seafood-market setting.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

A trip to Poland

Just before the summer I spent a week in Poland on assignment for a media company which promotes the country as a tourist and investment destination. It wasn't a junket in the traditional sense; I wasn't part of a group led from place to place while being kept well fed and watered. Instead, several months back I was asked to devise an itinerary which interested me. The company checked and amended it, so it didn't overlap with the plans of other writers they've invited to Poland. (To date, more than two dozen have taken part in this programme, from as far afield as Brazil and Japan). Once the plan was hammered out, I flew in and travelled around by myself, spending one night in Warsaw, three in Krakow and two in Zakopane.

Within hours of my arrival I was impressed by Poland as a vacation destination. Everything seems well organised and most people under the age of 40 speak English well. Prices are far more reasonable than those in the UK. Accommodation is significantly cheaper than in Taiwan (I'd say 30 to 60% less pricey, depending on the place). Public transport is a little more expensive, yet still excellent value compared to the UK. Eating out wasn't ruinous. And as you might expect in Eastern Europe, alcohol was pretty cheap.

In Warsaw (which I wasn't writing about) I stayed less than 100m from where I took the photo, top left. The shorter, older skyscraper is the Stalin-funded 1950s Palace of Culture. I explored Warsaw's old city, which was rebuilt from scratch after World War II, and spent a morning in the engrossing yet sobering Warsaw Uprising Museum. 

Then it was off to Krakow, which is to Poland what Tainan is to Taiwan – a former capital (between the 11th and 16th centuries) and still a centre of arts, scholarship and culture. Like Tainan it has an abundance of antique buildings, but quite unlike Tainan – where architectural treasures are somewhat scattered – these are clustered in a distinct 'old town' in the heart of the urban area. The Historic Centre of Krakow is deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site which rewards patient, random exploration. While in the city I made two excursions beyond the old heart of Krakow: One to the old Jewish quarter, and another to Benedictine Abbey of Tyniec (pictured above). The latter involved taking trams to the edge of the city, then hiking upstream along the Vistula River for around two hours. But the exertion was certainly worth it: The views along the river and from the abbey once you're there are lovely.

Zakopane (final image) struck me as a Polish version of Alishan: A mountain resort that in itself is a bit tacky and suffering from piecemeal over-development, but which is surrounded by impressive mountains. Like many Taiwanese tourist towns, it even has an 'old street' which isn't especially old, but which is a good place to watch people and find something to eat. For me, the highlight was undoubtedly the opportunity to do some short hikes, through temperate forests and up on to nearby ridges from where I could enjoy the scenery. I'd love to go back to Poland!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

More photos on Life of Taiwan

In addition to a slight redesign to improve user experience, we've added almost two dozen new images to the Life of Taiwan website. 

More than half of them are mine, including the one posted here which shows a delicately carved window-grill in the Queen of Heaven Temple (Tianhou Temple) in Magong City, Penghu County. Additional new pictures show, among other tourist destinations, Yangmingshan National Park, Mingde Reservoir in Miaoli County, and Qinbi Village in the Matsu Islands. 

Long-time collaborator Rich J. Matheson contributed two photos this time around, while Richard Saunders (author of several guides to various parts of Taiwan, including this one to Penghu and its outlying islands) graciously gave permission to use one of his photos. 


Monday, June 22, 2015

Mixed Messages (Indulge)

If you prefer classy to brassy as you savor your favorite cocktail, take a shot of Taipei's urbane but selective bar scene. There are few better cities in which to enjoy a drink than Taipei. If you're heading that way, here are some stylish spots that raise the bar.


For top-notch drinks and views of Taipei 101, W Taipei's Yen Bar is perhaps unbeatable. Senior bartender Jay Liao, however, seldom has time to gaze at the skyscraper through the bar's floor-to-ceiling windows, or lounge on one of the signature purple sofas. He spends more than half his working hours preparing cocktail ingredients.

For his Oolong Martini, he steeps oolong tea leaves in cold gin rather than use an oolong beverage which would dilute the spirit. His Ti Kuan Yin Mojito is flavoured with Iron Kuanyin oolong leaves and Jay uses vodka rather than rum, preferring brown cane sugar for its additional flavour and crunch.

When asked to suggest a whiskey, Jay often introduces Kavalan Oloroso Sherry Cask, an exceptionally dark single malt which he describes as "reminiscent of a cognac." It is made less than 50km from Yen Bar by the people behind Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique, which was recently named the best single malt whisky on Earth at Whisky Magazine's World Whiskies Awards. "Nine out of ten guests trying Kavalan for the first time think it's excellent," he says.


"The name Ounce is a homage to bartending culture in New York, which is where the bar's founders hail from," explains co-owner Yee Soong. Just like the Prohibition-era speakeasies which inspired the bar's dark wood, candlelit interior, Ounce is accessed through a secret door at the back of a coffee shop. The surroundings are conducive to conversation, or simply sitting back in the shadows while savoring your drink.

Taipei's cocktail culture is very much influenced by Japan, Yee says, and one of Ounce's goals is to educate its guests about the way cocktails are made and enjoyed in 21st-century North America.

"We're into sharing and having fun," he says. "We do what we do because we love it. We do twists on old favourites and spur-of-the-moment innovations. As well as several Japanese whiskies, we use Kavalan whisky and even kaoliang (a clear local liquor made from sorghum) in our cocktails."

This article, which featured five bars in total (the others being Marsalis Home, Trio and Alchemy), appears in the third 2015 issue of the quarterly Chinese-English magazine Indulge, which is published by the Hong Kong office of Bauer Media Group and distributed on ferries linking Hong Kong with Macao, as well as Star Cruises vessels. The photo above, courtesy Sean Marc Lee, shows one of Ounce's bartenders crafting a cocktail. Those who like a tipple may find this website useful.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The World Vegetable Center in Tainan (Taiwan Business Topics)

A short distance from the Southern Taiwan Science Park and its cluster of optoelectronics and green-energy companies, an institute quietly does vital work in an entirely different direction. What is now known as “AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center” aims to alleviate both malnutrition and poverty by increasing the production and consumption of nutritious vegetables.“The world depends on 15 to 20 staple crops, but there are thousands of vegetables which can be eaten,” says Dyno Keatinge, the center’s director general.

Citing the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables per day, excluding starchy foods like potatoes and cassava, he says: “The nutrient value of most vegetables has fallen over the past 50 years because they’ve been bred for shelf-life and appearance. If people are to eat a more balanced diet, we need to have much more investment in vegetables. The lack of research is a major problem.”

Keatinge point out that “biofortified” crops - those selectively bred so as to be especially rich in nutrients - are an alternative to vitamin supplements. He gives an example: “The golden tomatoes developed here are rich in vitamin A. However, because their color is different to normal tomatoes, winning over consumers took some effort.”

Since 1978, the center has released 184 tomato varieties (also called “lines”) in 44 countries, including 22 in Taiwan and 17 in India. As well as improve diet, some of these have reduced “food miles.” Until recently, Tanzania’s biggest tomato processor and producer of ketchup had to import most of the tomato pulp it uses from China. However, since the World Vegetable Center introduced a new cultivar with thicker skins (making for easier shipping, and lasting much longer after picking without refrigeration), the company has undertaken to source tomatoes from 3,800 local smallholders and hopes to increase this number in the future.

The center’s efforts go far beyond improving vegetable varieties and helping farmers maximize yields. Researchers also identify inexpensive and convenient food-preparation methods which retain vegetables’ nutritional value, and devise ways in which vegetables can be profitably processed and marketed by farming households and small-scale entrepreneurs.

In Keatinge’s opinion, improving humanity’s diet requires cooperation between the public and private sectors. “Pre-breeding, hybridization work is very expensive. No private-sector body can afford it,” he says. “The private sector has the distribution networks which enable us to share new lines with farmers in a timely manner.”

“Our work is very multidisciplinary, and goes all the way from the farm to the table,” says Maureen Mecozzi, AVRDC’s head of communications and information. In the Philippines, which currently has the lowest rate of vegetable consumption in Asia, the center works with celebrities to encourage people to eat more vegetables. Seed kits are given to families in South Asia, where small home gardens have been found to dramatically increase vegetable consumption while cutting grocery bills. The center’s scientists search for biocontrol agents, such as flies and wasps which prey on Maruca vitrata, a moth whose larvae can decimate legume crops...

To see the article in full, click here. The photo shows African scarlet eggplants growing in the center's demonstration garden.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bunun Hunters Restaurant: Indigenous Specialties in Kaohsiung (Travel in Taiwan)

All the focus is on the food at Kaohsiung’s Bunun Hunters Restaurant (布農族獵人餐廳), where adventurous diners try specialties of the Bunun and Paiwan tribes, including some very exotic dishes.

Tourists who come hoping for the kind of cultural-visual experience some indigenous establishments offer may leave disappointed. The multiethnic staff don’t wear tribal costumes. There’s no stage on which aboriginal entertainers sing or dance for the customers. In terms of decor - apart from the a handful of wild boar and barking-deer skulls, plus some nice woodcarvings - the interior looks much like a thousand other Taiwanese eateries.

Entertainment is provided by a TV. Most of the 40-odd seats are arranged around circular banquet-style tables. If it’s a sunny day - and in Kaohsiung it usually is - consider having your lunch at one of the slate-topped tables on the shaded deck. But if the temperature is above your comfort zone, you’ll find the air-conditioned interior very welcoming.

Visitors who come expecting good food, however, will leave more than satisfied. In the five years he’s been running the restaurant, owner Yibi (一比) has built up a loyal following in this affluent neighborhood near Chengqing Lake (澄清湖), about 7km northeast of downtown Kaohsiung. Yibi is a member of the Bunun tribe, the fourth-largest of the 16 Austronesian ethnic groups recognized by Taiwan’s government. Just over one tenth of the island’s 541,000 indigenous inhabitants are Bunun. Most live in mountainous parts of Kaohsiung City, Hualien County, Nantou County and Taitung County. 

Yibi has a great deal of experience in the restaurant industry. Until mid-2009, he ran two eateries along the South Cross-Island Highway, a road linking Tainan and Kaohsiung in Taiwan’s southwest with Taitung in the southeast. One of his operations was in the hot springs resort of Baolai (寶來). The other was very near where he grew up, in what’s now Kaohsiung City’s Taoyuan District (桃源區, not to be confused with Taoyuan in north Taiwan).

That summer, the region suffered dozens of landslides and serious floods in the wake of Typhoon Morakot. Ever since the disaster, the highest and most scenic stretch of the South Cross-Island Highway has been closed. Visitor numbers dwindled as a result, so Yibi was forced shutter his restaurants. Like many other indigenous residents, he decided to relocate to the lowlands where making a living is easier.

Yibi doesn’t claim to offer absolutely traditional aboriginal fare, emphasizing that when using a gas stove, it’s very difficult to recreate the exact taste of dishes normally cooked on a wood fire. But there’s no doubting his skill and knowledge. He’s much in demand as a teacher of indigenous cuisine in local elementary schools and evening classes...

To read the complete article, go here and click on the cover of the May-June 2015 issue of Travel in Taiwan. The images accompanying the article were taken by Rich J. Matheson; he also took the one above, which doesn't appear in the magazine.