Sunday, November 6, 2011

The multi-faceted splendor of Meinong (Unity)

Meinong is one of the loveliest corners of south Taiwan. Blessed with fertile, well-watered farmlands and a backdrop of steep hills, its population is dominated by the Hakka ethnic minority.

Forty kilometers northeast of downtown Kaohsiung, but easily accessible thanks to Freeway 10 and frequent buses, it draws several different kinds of visitor. Gourmands come for authentic Hakka cuisine; outdoors types enjoy the seven color-coded bicycle paths; shoppers look for souvenirs that hark back to an era before plastic; while eco-tourists seek out beautiful butterflies.

Hakka cooking isn’t to everyone’s liking. It’s saltier, greasier and more vinegary than mainstream Taiwanese cuisine. Meinong’s most famous comestible is bantiao. These broad white noodles are made from rice flour, whereas conventional Taiwanese noodles are made from wheat. Bantiao may be fried with slivers of pork and carrot, or boiled and then served either in soup or dry with a few small slices of pork on top.

Another common dish in Meinong is ke-jia-xiao-chao, a stir fry blending dried squid, dried tofu, strips of pork and green vegetables. Meinong is no exception to the rule that much of Taiwan’s best food is to be found in the island's least pretentious eateries. Near Minsheng and Zhongzheng roads there are at least half-dozen places where customers sit on plastic stools. The service may not be polished, but the prices seldom top NT$120 per person.

Among Meinong's 45,000 inhabitants are a few dozen who make a living crafting oil-paper umbrellas. Few tourist destinations in Taiwan are so closely associated with one particular product as Meinong is with its colorful parasols.

Traditionally these umbrellas were used in both sunny and rainy weather. They also had a symbolic role – because the Hakka word for paper zhi is very similar to that for children zi, they were often given as wedding presents.

Made of thin strips of bamboo and varnished paper, the umbrellas are painted by hand – often with typically Chinese motifs like dragons, birds, delicate flowers or wise sages – and then dried under the sun. You should expect to pay around NT$1500 for a 19-inch umbrella...

Over the past few years, I've written several articles about Meinong, including this longish one, and another about the town's Hakka cuisine. The photo on the left shows a government-issued license to grow and dry tobacco, pasted to the door of one of Meinong's redundant tobacco curing shed. The photo lower right shows one such shed.

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