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.