Every Day an Adventure: the vegetable market

I have started to love going to the nearby vegetable market. I don’t need to go every day because I’m only cooking for one person so I don’t need to get fresh ingredients every day. As a recreational activity, I would definitely go every morning, but then I fear I would spend too much money, so I don’t allow myself to do that either. You might be wondering why a vegetable market would be so appealing – okay, well maybe you aren’t if you know how much I love a good farmer’s market in the States – even though I’m not buying anything. But the catch is that there is actually much, much more in the vegetable market than vegetables.

Here are some pictures to tell the story. I got a little shy about taking pictures, so these hardly represent the hustling, bustling variety of things that are sold:

Not only that, it changes every day. I honestly never know quite what I am going to find when I go to the market. After comparing notes with some other people who frequent such markets, it seems as though most of the shop keepers must be on a rotation between different markets in the city. Of course, the period of rotation is the mystery, and most likely varies. Consider this conversation that I had with a man selling tea (based on how I remember it):

Me: Hey, I’ve never seen you before.

Tea-seller: I am regularly here. I don’t recognize YOU as a regular.

Me: Well, I have come to this market regularly and you have never been here.

Tea-seller: Ah. I have been coming to this market for 20 years.

Me: Oh. I have been coming for the past few months and you’re definitely not always here.

Tea-seller: Of course not, I’ll be at a different market tomorrow. I go to different ones throughout the city.

I suppose we just hadn’t crossed paths before because his rotation through each market might be a while – months, maybe? Also, as I said, I don’t go every day, so it’s possible that I missed him before.

 

Yesterday, it felt as though the vegetable market was really understanding and catering to my needs. I have been craving the natural peanut butter that I used to survive for the past 4 years. The only thing that I’ve found that has been close has also been outrageously expensive (more than $10 for a jar about half the size of a jar that would cost $3 in the US). I had just been contemplating the idea of making my own – after all, it is the non-complexity of natural peanut butter which is what makes it amazing and delicious: just peanuts (and a pinch of salt and possibly sugar)! It seems as though a good food processor can do the trick if you add a little bit of oil, and fancier folks use mills, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary. I had just started thinking “maybe buying a food processor would be worth it if I could have my own, delicious natural peanut butter.”

 

I was ambling through the market in order to obtain some fruits and it just so happened that there was a man selling miniature hand-food processors for 100NT (~$3.50 USD). After the shopkeeper’s confident assurances that the little razor blades could handle peanuts, I figured it was worth the plunge. I also bought a bag of peanuts (because of course the market has those around) and was on my way to a DIY peanut butter adventure. The steps were simple: toast peanuts, process them, profit. Here’s what happened, as told through pictures:

Summary: I think this is full of win! Both a moderate forearm exercise (all that twisting) and also the road to natural peanut butter! The mix with the sesame for smoothness is an acceptable compromise, but with some experimentation, straight PB is still a goal. I may also experiment with fresher peanuts, as someone on the interwebs recommended as a way to avoid the dry chunks.

 

Also, I think it is a notable step in my connection to Taiwan that the vegetable market understands my needs and sends someone selling food processors just when I am thinking about buying one. More win.

Taiwan’s Tea is Alive and Well

When I wrote my application to come to Taiwan, I said that I was coming to study tea. My proposal was primarily to conduct scientific study of environmental impacts of tea farming. However, the logistics of conducting a meaningful study of anything related to environmental science appear to be quickly withering away my time in Taiwan – a mere 10 month period. A project to do fieldwork in a place that you’ve never been before simply requires lots of logistics. Questions of what is where and where to go, followed by unfamiliar regulations, such as where you are allowed to do things and when… Some of these can be navigated by simply having a local walk you through the basics, or arrange things for you. But that, too, presents more complications: building the social network to do the work there. Who are the right people to talk to and are there people whom you should avoid? Who works on similar things and might have insight? I’ve been gradually stepping through all of these things as I’ve been here and learning from the process.

Freshly picked oolong tea leaves (I don't know the specific cultivar). Here is where the magic starts!
Freshly picked oolong tea leaves (I don’t know the specific cultivar). Here is where the magic starts!

I’m now going to look at sites to sample for doing a comparative study of nutrient cycling in organic and non-organic tea farms. Finding farms that are comparable is an important and difficult step. Many things will affect the soil qualities in a region (here’s where I could insert the introduction of my undergraduate thesis) so it is important to try to minimize these other factors so that I can focus on how the alternate farming practices may be responsible for differences. Once good sites have been found, I will take samples and analyze them, (there is still ongoing discussion about which samples exactly we will take because this will depend somewhat on the final locations that we choose).

 

But that wasn’t the only part of tea research that I intended to conduct while in Taiwan. I first became interested in tea because of how much I enjoyed drinking it. Yet, enjoying tea is not all about how delicious, complex, elegant and clarifying it can be to drink it (I ranted about this in more detail in an earlier entry…) It is also a large part about being able to share the appreciation with others – an appreciation that has hundreds of years of history. Tea is steeped in culture and tradition, literally and figuratively. The plants that are grown today are cultivars that have been meticulously cultivated for generations for specific tastes. The methods of making and brewing tea have also been carefully honed, practiced and passed on.

Afternoon tea and a set of traditional Chinese desserts that I enjoyed with a friend one afternoon.
Afternoon tea and a set of traditional Chinese desserts that I enjoyed with a friend one afternoon.

Understanding the modern presentation of tea in Taiwan was also one of my goals in coming here. So far, I haven’t adopted any particular methods for this. Instead, I’ve simply been keeping my eyes and ears open, asking questions, talking to as many people as possible, taking pictures and learning what I can.

 

To begin with, the forms of tea are varied. This is, itself a phenomenon worth mentioning. I’ve experienced tea in all sorts of forms:

  • street bubble tea
  • tea oil used to flavor cooking
  • careful “microbrews” of high-quality teas
  • fried tea leaves
  • tea bottled drinks of all kinds
  • tea donuts & cakes
  • … etc…

 

Tea is clearly a part of a common person’s culinary existence in this part of the world. While it is possible that some people avoid it altogether, such people would likely have to be actively working to maintain this state.

The mentality of "what can't we deep fry" has led to many things, including this dish of deep fried tea leaves. It was delicious.
The mentality “what can’t we deep fry” has led to many things, including this dish of deep-fried tea leaves. It was delicious.

Why bring this up? Obviously there is a lot of tea drinking – tea is supposedly the most-widely consumed liquid in the world excluding water (though I am somewhat skeptical as to how such a statistic is obtained). Yet, I have found myself wondering about a disappearance of tea from Taiwanese and Chinese culture. I should look for more resources to help me understand this, but I am confident that this is occurring.

This was the dessert of a set meal (套餐) that I got at Sun Moon Lake. Of course it included a cup of the black tea that is grown in the region!
This was the dessert of a set meal (套餐) that I got at Sun Moon Lake. Of course it included a cup of the black tea that is grown in the region!

Considering that Taiwan is generally even more Westernized than China, I was not sure how large of a hold tea would still have in the daily lives of people here. And sometimes when I observe my Taiwanese friends, it is apparent that tea really isn’t any more important to them than it is to many of my American friends who don’t drink any tea.

 

However, the multitudinous forms of tea keep it omnipresent. There hasn’t been a disappearance of tea here at all; instead there has been an expansion of the realms that it can occupy.  It’s not exactly the same as it used to be, but despite whatever changing identities and economic pressures it may be facing, tea has not been edged out of Taiwanese society. The traditional forms also continue along quietly alongside the new interpretations that strive keep up with the interests of modern consumers. Tea is alive and well in Taiwan.

Sometimes people might just offer you a cup to enjoy while you're out hiking on a mountain in the early morning. Actually, this happened to my dad - not me. I have some doubts that anyone who looks younger than 40 would get offered a cup of tea on a hiking trail. But maybe next time, I'll take my thermos up and be the one with the tea cups...
Sometimes strangers might just offer you a cup to enjoy while you’re out hiking on a mountain in the early morning. Actually, this happened to my dad – not me. I have some doubts that anyone who looks younger than 40 would get offered a cup of tea on a hiking trail. But maybe next time, I’ll take my thermos up and be the one offering cups of tea…