Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fruit of the Angels (Travel in Taiwan)

Papayas aren’t native to Taiwan. They originate from Central America, and it’s said that when Christopher Columbus tried one during his historic voyages of exploration, he described it as “the fruit of the angels.” Like many other crops, papayas grow superbly well in Taiwan thanks to an abundance of water and a foliage-friendly climate. Sometimes called the pawpaw, the hefty reddish-orange fruit is sold at markets up and down the island.

Carica papaya, to give the papaya tree its scientific name, is a relatively recent addition to Taiwan’s landscape, having been introduced to the island from the Chinese mainland around 1907. These spindly, fast-growing plants are now seen throughout the southern half of the island, individually in private gardens or cultivated by the hundred beneath nets.

In terms of quantity, Taiwan’s papaya hotspot is Pingtung County. Tainan also grows a good many. However, Chiayi County’s Zhongpu (嘉義縣中埔鄉; where I sampled this interesting dish) has won a reputation for producing consistently excellent papayas, so it was to this township, located between Chiayi City and the mountain resort of Alishan, that Travel in Taiwan drove in search of knowledge and yummy fruit. Thanks to Mr. Chen Yong-ming (陳永明) who is an official in Zhongpu Township Farmers’ Association as well as a papaya grower, we got both.  

According to Mr. Chen, who looks after approximately 8,000 papaya trees on 4.85 hectares of farmland, Zhongpu’s main advantage is its climate. Even though most of the township is less than 200m above sea level, nighttime temperatures are considerably lower than those in the daytime, and this facilitates the healthy development of the trees.  

Guessing Mr. Chen would be a typical Taiwanese farmer - in other words , modest to a fault - and wouldn’t be one to make scarcely plausible claims about the fruit he grows, I researched the health benefits of fresh papaya before our meeting. What I discovered impressed me. A normal-sized papaya is typically 20 to 30cm long, as wide as your fist, and weighs between 600g and 1kg; eating half gives you enough vitamin C for two whole days. Such a portion also contains a fifth of the fiber you should consume each day, and one-seventh of the recommended daily intakes for vitamin A, potassium, magnesium and copper. The pink flesh is butter-like in texture, but half a papaya is unlikely to have more than 120 calories.

Almost all the papayas grown in Taiwan, Mr. Chen informed us, are one of two variants: Risheng (日陞) and Tainong 2 (台農2號). The latter, a hybrid of the former and a Thai subspecies, is longer and less oval. Papayas grown in the Philippines, he added, are rounder and yellower than their Taiwanese equivalents.

Left alone, papaya trees grow dead straight, and bear fruit near the top. Because the trunks aren’t usually strong enough to support a ladder, harvesting is difficult as soon as the tree grows taller than a man. This is why many papaya farmers clear-cut their trees when they’re about three years old, and invest in younger, shorter saplings. Each time this is done, however, the farmer must wait ten months until the tree is mature enough to produce decent fruit...

The complete article, which describes some popular Taiwanese dishes made using papaya, is now online, as well as being in the July/August issue of Travel in Taiwan magazine. The photo here, which I found in Wikimedia Commons, is an illustration of a papaya tree from a 1656 book about China's flora compiled by Jesuit missionaries.

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