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May 22 2006

Zongzi (Rice Dumplings in Bamboo Leaves) 粽子
A traditional Taiwanese dish

Zongzi: Rice dumplings in bamboo leaves

Wednesday May 31 (2006), is Dragon Boat Festival. In China and in Chinese communities worldwide, that means boat races for some, but delicious zongzi for all. At this time of year, the unmistakable smell of bamboo leaves is in the air, and there are few things more tantalising to the nostrils than steaming zongzi. Zongzi are eaten all year round but during the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar year) and for the following month or so, millions are consumed. Normally eaten as a snack; a hefty snack – one Taiwanese zongzi eaten in the afternoon will keep you going until dinnertime. Two zongzi and, well … forget dinner.

The main ingredient of zongzi is glutinous rice. Other ingredients and flavourings vary from region to region. They come in different sizes and shapes, and some are wrapped in leaves other than bamboo. Most are savoury, some are sweet, some are boiled, some are steamed. Professional zongzi makers are getting more creative every year, but I have never eaten anything better than the product made from the recipe below for typical pyramid shaped steamed Taiwanese zongzi.

Zongzi wrappers

Quite a lot of ingredients are involved, and a trip to the Chinese grocery will be necessary if only to buy the bamboo leaves. But I reckon the key to a great taste is the fatty pork. The fat turns to oil when it is cooked and its flavour diffuses through the zongzi. Don't be swayed by the anti-fat Nazis into buying the leanest meat you can find – skimp on fat and you lose flavour. Besides, the small piece of pork in each zongzi is just one of many ingredients.

I won't kid you by telling you that making zongzi is easy. It is time consuming, and you will want to allocate the best part of a day for shopping, preparation, and cooking. It can be tricky putting zongzi together and wrapping them into nice pyramids – organizing a little work gang to help is a good idea. So, if you are going to do it, scale up. My recipe makes 20 pieces but for a little extra labour, you could double the quantities and make 40.

Recipe for Zongzi



Apr 3 2006

Ku Klux Loquat
Eriobotrya japonica

Tree fruit in Taiwan is normally grown on steep land where paddy rice is impossible to cultivate. Around the hills outside Taichung, where I often ride my bicycle, there are countless orchards, and over the course of a year I see many kinds of fruit come and go with the seasons. March and April is the time of the loquat.

Loquat trees stand about two metres high. Lately they are all dotted with puffed-up paper bags. The bags are tied to branches and enclose ripening bunches of orange-coloured loquats. They keep birds off, discourage insects, and by keeping the direct sun off, make for a sexier fruit at the market. Farmers prune loquat trees severely, forcing the fruit to push skyward rather than hang down. The effect of the bagged bunches can be a little disconcerting on first encounter – a little like stumbling on a covert Ku Klux Klan meeting with the shrunken, hooded heads of hundreds of Klansmen protruding from the foliage (see Loquat Grove photo).

Loquat Grove

The large-leaved loquat tree is indigenous to south eastern China, and that region is still the most important area of Chinese cultivation. Today though, a thousand years after the loquat was introduced from China, Japan is the world's leading producer. The species name japonica, reflects an incorrect belief that the fruit is native to Japan.

The fruit, skin, seeds, and leaves of the tree all have medicinal uses. The loquat, according to Chinese traditional medicine doctor Henry C. Lu, is useful in treating cough, thirst, constipation, asthma, nosebleeds, and pharyngolaryngitis. Other sources say rosacea can be treated with loquat leaves.

Taiwanese prefer to eat many fruits unripe (plums and peaches for example), but the loquat is not one of them and it is allowed to mature fully on the tree. Loquats have a thin peel which is easy to remove with fingers or a knife. You can eat around the kernels or cut the fruit in two and pluck them out. Loquats bruise quite easily and do not keep well out of the fridge.

There always seems to be a disparity between the loquat's appearance which cries out, tropical tanginess, and the actual taste, which is mild, even weak. Loquats are nice enough, but hardly what I would call an exciting fruit.



Mar. 14 2006

Kumquat: The Dwarf Orange of China

On the day of Chinese New Year's Eve, just as I was leaving our local produce market, a car swerved towards the curb. I noticed the car because it pulled up with a jerk just a couple of feet from a family trying to cross the road. The driver bolted from the car to a stall in front of the market. The back seat of her car was already packed with groceries. Clearly, it seemed, the banquet that evening for her large extended family, was her responsibility. She had stopped at the market for a last minute purchase. When I say, 'a car swerved towards the curb', towards is all I mean, as there remained between the curb and the side of her car, enough space for a skilled driver to manoeuvre another very compact car, such as a Mini. A couple of minutes later she rushed back carrying a potted kumquat bush bearing dozens of tiny orange fruit. She placed it on the passenger seat beside her and drove off, ether oblivious or unconcerned at the line of cars she had been blocking on the narrow street behind. I was glad I didn't feel as harried as she looked, but I was only cooking for three while she might be cooking for thirteen, including a domineering mother-in-law.

Kumquat Bush

Just before Chinese New Year fruiting kumquat bushes can be seen for sale all over Taiwan. Because the ripe kumquat (cumquat) symbolizes prosperity, Chinese like to give the plants to relatives and friends. My own potted tree never seems to bear fruit at this time. This year, as we saw in the Year of the Dog (February), it was blossoming, and so we will have to wait until late April for fruit. Fortunately the prosperity faculty of kumquats applies all year round, not only to the New Year period. Supposedly. A couple of years ago, when I pointed out our tree, heavy with ripening fruit to my wife, she was nearly gleeful. We were going to have a fantastic year she announced; a year in which everything goes well, a year of great health and happiness, a year when the heavens rain great bounties down on our humble heads! That sounded ridiculous, but not so ridiculous as to prevent me making a mental note to start buying weekly lottery tickets. In the final rinse, that year did turn out relatively calamity-free, but the only real bounty I recall was an abundance of kumquats, which, ironically, my wife finds too sour to eat. Who knows, perhaps things might have been different if mental note to self regarding lottery had not been forgotten as soon as it was filed.

The kumquat plant was originally assumed to be a citrus but was later revealed to have a somewhat simpler structure than citrus and was alloted its own genus, Fortunella, after well-known Scots botanist Robert Fortune, who first bought the kumquat from its native south east China to Europe in 1846.

There is something oddly amusing about the name kumquat, which derives from Cantonese, gam gwat, Just the thought of the fruit brings out the worst of puns in me: kumquat may (come what may). Unlike oranges, lemons and grapefruits, the kumquat has never really achieved mainstream market acceptance. It has remained on the fringe – a cutesy-wutesy, doll's house fruit.

Round Kumquats

The small size of the thorny evergreen kumquat plant makes it ideal for urban gardeners with limited space – which describes about 99 percent of Taiwanese urban green thumbs. The wonderful thing about the kumquat bush is that it will bear fruit more than once a year if the weather is warm enough. The fruit grows to about 3 cm (1 inch) round. With thin, finely textured peel, and tiny seeds, kumquats are normally eaten whole, peel, seeds and all. The taste runs quite tart – the peel is sweeter than the fruit itself. As far as I can tell there are two basic varieties in Taiwan: round (Marumi F. japonica Swing), and oblong (Nagami F. margarita Swing). Except at New Year when the fruit is left on the bush to ripen fully, the round type is usually sold green or semi-ripe, and is used to make kumquat tea. The oblong fruits are sweeter and are eaten ripe.

Oblong Kumquats

According to traditional Chinese medicine, kumquat helps eliminate phlegm and is a good remedy for a sore throat or a nagging cough.

Health-wise, kumquats house a good measure of vitamin C, plus potassium, and beta-carotene. And because the fruit is usually eaten whole, there is an extra nutritional boost from the peel and seeds. According to traditional Chinese medicine, kumquat helps eliminate phlegm and is a good remedy for a sore throat or a nagging cough. Last week I happened to be down with a cold myself, and the two or three pots of kumquat tea I drank did seem helpful. Chinese pharmacies sell a traditional throat lozenge made of dried kumquat peel. According to Henry C. Lu, the fruit, prepared in specific ways is also useful in treating indigestion, whooping cough, hernial pain, ad poor appetite.

In Taiwan kumquats are also sold dried, and used to make preserves. I was once given a bottle of kumquat sauce, though I was at a total loss as to how to use it, and still am. Kumquat assumes its major role at any of Taiwan's thousands of tea shops and tea stands in the form of kumquat tea.

How to make Kumquat Tea

Kumquat Blossom




Feb 12 2006

Chinese New Year's Eve Dinner

Chinese New Year Dinner

This is our modest New Year's Eve dinner for three people. From left, clockwise: Steamed Fish, Guangdong-style Preserved Sausages with Leeks, Ginseng Chicken, Boiled Dumplings, Stir Fried Mustard Cabbage. The New Year dishes are imbued with great meaning. Here is what I found out:

Whole Steamed Fish
Fish is a metaphor for abundance. Half the fish is eaten on New Year's Eve, the other half is eaten the next day – symbolizing that there is a surplus to carry through from the old year to the new year.

Guangdong-style Sausages with Leeks
In past times, the most commonly eaten meat was preserved. Eating preserved meat such as these sausages relates to self-sufficiency.

Ginseng Chicken Soup
A whole chicken including head and feet, symbolizes prosperity, particularly at work, and family unity.

Boiled Dumplings
Jiaozi supposedly reminds people of ancient coins. On New Year's Eve these dumplings must be eaten whole, in one bite, lest your future good fortune be left in tatters.

Stir Fried Mustard Cabbage
Mustard cabbage is one of the great vegetable staples in Taiwan. Another name for it is longevity vegetable.



Jan 28 2006

On the Eve of the Dog, a Fish

Chinese Steamed Fish

Whenever I am casually asked by Taiwanese what Christmas is all about, I have a stock answer ready. I don't dwell on the origins or the religious rituals, instead I just equate Christmas with the Chinese New Year. Both occasions involve a holiday, a family reunion, the eating of ritual foods, and gift giving, (for Chinese that means the gift of cash – brand new bills). Everyone is supposed to have a great time. Many people, in particular children, actually do.

If you live abroad, particularly in a non-Christian country, getting into the Christmas spirit can be challenging. For a long while I did not bother too much with Christmas, other than knocking back an excessive number of cold ales with other far flung foreigners. Since having a child though, I have made more of an effort to inject some of the old spirit back into Christmas. So every year we put up an authentic plastic Christmas tree (it is exactly the same as the one we had when I was a kid – what could be more authentic than that?), Santa calls, we exchange presents, and play that Bing Crosby song ad nauseam. We have, I think, managed to instill a little of the excitement of Christmas in our son. So in that sense, Christmas is a success. But for myself, it is hard to really get into Christmas without an actual holiday and lots of family and like-minded friends around.

Now here we are just five weeks after Christmas Day and Chinese New Year has arrived. While it always seems to come a little too soon – the Christmas tree only got packed away a couple of days ago – living in Taiwan, I find myself getting far more excited about Chinese New Year than Christmas. As a foreigner, everything, of course seems exotic. That's one reason. But it is also that there is a holiday, (six days, including weekends for most workers), and everybody is celebrating together. There is an atmosphere, a festive atmosphere.

The Chinese New Year is the most important of all the Chinese festivals. The full gamut of customs associated with the New Year are many, complex and can be onerous. For many families nowadays, it is New Year Lite. But the family reunion dinner on New year's Eve remains sacrosanct.

These days, hotels, big restaurants, convenience stores, and even supermarkets are willing to arrange delivery of all kinds of sumptuous dishes right to your dining table on New Year's Eve. But where's the tradition in that? And while the caterers might cart away the dirty dishes, there will still be some cleaning up to do.

At most New Year dinners, the food is not particularly exotic. A typical spread looks like an abundance of home-style dishes. Yet nearly every dish is meshed in some sort of symbolism. Customs vary, but come Saturday evening, one of the dishes you will find on Chinese dining tables worldwide, is fish.

At any time of the year, Chinese prefer their fish whole – head, tail, skin, and often fins, all intact.

At any time of the year, Chinese prefer their fish whole – head, tail, skin, and often fins, all intact. Being used to fillets of fish, this took me quite a long time to get used to when I first came to Taiwan. The small bones in some fish annoyed the hell out of me, and often at a banquet I would just avoid the fish. Gradually, with the aid of the perfect tool for picking fish meat away from bones – chopsticks – I came to appreciate the flavour and juiciness of a whole fish, cooked in its own natural package, so to speak – its body.

At New Year, the symbolic value of a fish far outweighs its nutritional and taste value. This is because the word for fish (yu) has exactly the same pronunciation in Mandarin as the word for surplus, and so on the last night of the old year, the fish is left half eaten. The remainder, including the intact head and tail, symbolizes abundance, a surplus to carry through to the new year. The other half of the fish will be consumed the following day. Right now fish is the only thing I am certain to prepare for our New Year's Eve dinner. This is how I am going to do it: Steamed Fish Recipe. It is a really simple dish that requires only the most basic arsenal of Chinese ingredients. Happy Chinese New Year.



Jan 27 2006

Year of the Dog (Chinese New Year)

Year of the Dog

According to the Chinese calendar, Sunday January 29 is the first day of year number 4,704 – the Year of the Dog.



Sept 19 2007

Tea Bush
(Camellia sinensis)

"Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one."
– Chinese proverb

Tea Bush

What tea looks like before it is picked, processed and packed – though the leaves shown here are too mature to be used for high quality tea.

Learn more about Tea



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