Urban Farming

Yesterday I found myself trying to explain a “food desert” to a Taiwanese friend. It turned out difficult to convey, but not due to the language barrier. Instead, it emphasized some very strong differences related to the supply of food in between these two countries.

My friends and I got to the point of introducing the vocabulary “food desert” to a conversation via a long discussion that started from reading this New York Times article about American junk food. At times I have been into eating as healthily as possible but I am not strictly against junk food consumption; when I lived in the States it just didn’t fit into my budget to buy snacks that don’t serve as part of what I consider real nutrition. If you offer me a free Oreo I am definitely going to eat it, I just won’t go buy the box myself. My roommate, another American, expressed a similar sentiment and then her boyfriend, who is Taiwanese, also agreed heartily but then seemed moderately confused. After all, it’s obvious that you can’t buy junk food if you’re on a budget because it’s expensive. And that’s where things got a little strange.

The current food system in the United States is so backwards that explaining the situation is difficult and actually embarrassing. To someone who hasn’t grown up in the US, it is absurd. My roommate and I did our best. No, we explained, junk food – highly processed, low nutritional value per calorie food – is actually much cheaper than simple fresh fruits and vegetables. Americans actually consider good, fresh produce a bit of a luxury. Especially for those who are under a tight budget, the fact of the matter is that they may not have the resources to buy healthy foods. Eating junk food may not be a choice. There are also some places in the US, where it is simply hard to get fresh produce. There are no grocery stores, no convenient stores selling produce, there are no small fruit stands, no street peddlers. The convenience stores only stock junk food because it is cheap and has a long shelf life.

Anyone with a surplus of produce can go sell it on the street. I have seen people selling on street corners occasionally hustled along by the police, but overall it seems to be acceptable sell produce in most places. I think, especially in Taipei, this may be more of a self-sustaining hobby for some of the older generation instead of a real successful entrepreneurial enterprise, but I think that it is mostly a good thing.
Anyone with a surplus of produce can go sell it on the street. I have seen people selling on street corners occasionally hustled along by the police, but overall it seems to be acceptable sell produce in most places. I think, especially in Taipei, this may be more of a self-sustaining hobby for some of the older generation instead of a real successful entrepreneurial enterprise, but I think that it is mostly a good thing: keeping them active and creating low-cost food.

The concept that there simply isn’t access to fresh food seemed impossible to my Taiwanese friend. We are talking about the most powerful country in the world – yet it is also where plenty of people can’t buy vegetables. How is that possible? Finally, he asked, “why don’t people grow their own food?” Again, the answer we gave didn’t quite seem satisfactory: these people don’t have land, they don’t have time. Most importantly, I think many people in this situation don’t know how nor has it even occurred to them. My friend seemed to be confused, “How could people not know how to do some simple farming?”

This, of course, is all completely turned on its head in Taiwan. I have mentioned that Taiwan increasingly has its share of health problems related to poor eating habits, but these are reserved for the rich who can choose to eat too much expensive fast food. The poor are still eating non-processed plain foods, often that they have grown themselves. People are unabashed about farming on every spot that they can in this country. Granted, Taiwan is a fairly fertile tropical island and most places that you think to drop some seeds and fertilizer will do just fine. But also, the idea of urban gardening, mountain gardening, and plain-anywhere-you-feel-like-gardening is simply part of the culture.

I have seen so many small farm plots up on hill slopes / mountains that I have stopped taking pictures of them. This one is from when I first arrived and still found it interesting.
I have seen so many small farm plots up on hill slopes / mountains that I have stopped taking pictures of them. This one is from when I first arrived and still found it interesting.
A prime spot for lots of urban gardens is right next to the rivers that run through Taipei.  They are basically interspersed between public parks. Although it's a little hard to tell from this photograph, on the other side of this river is a plot of farmland.
A prime spot for lots of urban gardens is right next to the rivers that run through Taipei. They are basically interspersed between public parks. Although it’s a little hard to tell from this photograph, on the other side of this river is a plot of farmland.
No land? No problem! You can still grow your vegetables in planter boxes. On a nice day, I found that someone had brought their kitchen garden out to the street to get more sunshine.
No land? No problem! You can still grow your vegetables in planter boxes. On a nice day, I found that someone had brought their kitchen garden out to the street to get more sunshine.
Some time shortly after first getting here, i was walking through Taipei checking out the beautiful, modern city infrastructure and I stumbled across Taiwan's most expensive vegetable garden.  (台灣最貴菜園 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ-7KyXDOLA) According to this newsclip from last year, each 坪 of this vegetable garden land is worth at least 600 萬 (~ 4sq yards equals 6 million NT). It's been around for some 20+ years, but with the recent development of the Xinyi district, including Taipei 101 right on its doorstep, this patch of land has skyrocketed in value. The farmer that they interview in the clip says something like, "there probably isn't any other way but to sell...but it would make us happy if we could just use this land to grow vegetables." I would describe this juxtaposition as very Taiwanese.
Some time shortly after first getting here, i was walking through Taipei checking out the beautiful, modern city infrastructure and I stumbled across Taiwan’s most expensive vegetable garden.
(台灣最貴菜園 )
According to this newsclip from last year, each 坪 of this vegetable garden land is worth at least 600 萬 (~ 4sq yards equals 6 million NT). It’s been around for some 20+ years, but with the recent development of the Xinyi district, including Taipei 101 right on its doorstep, this patch of land has skyrocketed in value. The farmer that they interview in the clip says something like, “there probably isn’t any other way but to sell…but it would make us happy if we could just use this land to grow vegetables.” I would describe this juxtaposition as very Taiwanese.

In the end, the conversation turned out to be a bigger point of cultural misunderstanding than all of us bargained for. I, for one, walked away feeling like I hadn’t fully communicated the situation that I had always taken for granted: the norm in the US is that the cheapest food is often highly processed, and people don’t go grow their own food because that’s just not how it’s done. Yet I also felt like I had been slapped in the face yet again with how strange that situation truly is.

An addendum: Technology vs. Skill in tea production

Last time, I wrote about how skill can play a huge part in the role of tea making. I actually have some more thoughts to add to the matter. I have continued to think about the topic, talk to people and read things related to it, so allow me this addendum to the topic of skill and tea production.

Also as requested: a few more macro-shots of tea leaves. Tea is beautiful, isn't it?
Also as requested: a few more macro-shots of tea leaves. Tea is beautiful, isn’t it?

First, in case any of my dear readers became alarmed about the status of the world’s tea (“All good tea will disappear because no one is around to make it?!”)—you can relax. My topic of discussion is a relatively small corner of the world’s tea production. I am primarily talking about oolong tea. As I mentioned, oolong tea requires extra complicated procedures due to the partial oxidation and it is just this part that requires truly artful touches. However, of the world’s tea production, oolongs represent approximately 2% (the rest being 78% black and 20% green). And for these other teas, there is no reason to worry about a decrease in production quality. In fact, the future may bring continuous increases in quality. Allow me to elaborate:

Tea research is actually no small business – the major tea-producing countries (China, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka…) all have government departments tasked with research and experimentation related to tea. While their activities may actually include the broader tea industry (TRES in Taiwan handles everything from how to pack and sell tea to research on pesticides to running classes for tea farmers), one obvious goal is to raise tea quality.

Tea making factory in Nantou that I stopped by with some scientists about a month ago.
Tea making factory in Nantou that I stopped by with some scientists about a month ago.

Step one for changing anything (especially if you work for the government in a highly bureaucratic country), is to measure the variable you aim to change. If we understand these flavor producing chemicals of tea, then we can analytically and quantifiably determine the difference between “good” and “bad”.  Thus, research on the chemistry of tea, its relationship to tea flavor, potential health benefits, et cetera, fills a search for “camellia sinensis” in an academic database with plenty of hits. Doubt not: the general chemical breakdowns of teas are well established.

Similarly, how to produce a tea that lands in the defined category of “good quality” via chemical breakdown is also well-known. Especially for black teas and green teas, production of consistently high quality tea can be attained through a refined process. There are fewer chemical reactions that dependent on variable conditions, so the ideal chemical profile can be obtained through a standard operating procedure (SOP). A well-tested SOP, efficient machinery, and good quality tea leaves should produce good tea, no question about it. Actually, this applies to oolongs as well. With enough trial runs, an SOP that creates tea that lands within the desired chemical profile every time is possible, although likely with a larger margin of variability than greens and blacks.

Freshly selected Oriental beauty buds.
Freshly selected Oriental beauty buds.

However, my friend at the TRES phrased it something like this: “A good SOP can get you within the chemical flavor profile, which is about 80% of the way.” What? Landing within the flavor profile of “good tea” only gets a B-? The truth is, great tea is “great” due to the complexity of flavors. There are hundreds of compounds in tea, some of which only need to be present in extremely small amounts for a human to detect them. The presence, quantity and variety of these trace flavors distinguishes really good tea (95%) from good tea (90%). Furthermore, perception of the flavors may depend on delicate ratios and balances of the chemicals. So when it comes to controlling these trace flavors in production, there are two important things to consider:

First, human sensors are still a better fit for the job of distinguishing these flavor profiles than most technology. While extraction and gas chromatography can put numbers on these chemical components in a beverage, handing the same cup of tea to a human tester is likely faster, cheaper and will give immediately meaningful output such as “This tastes too bitter”. The chemical analysis won’t tell you how the beverage actually tastes. Which leads to the second point about chemical analysis of tea and its limitations: tea is meant for humans to drink. It doesn’t matter what the exact quantities of the flavor components are as long as humans think that it tastes good.

So in the end, it’s only the final tier of quality that is difficult to scale up industrially, which is not really all that different from any other gourmet food item. Consistently good products can be created…but the difference between oolong tea that is tasty and stuff that knocks your socks off depends on whether a tea master made the tea. Just a few whiffs of those mid-fermentation leaves can tell a skilled human what to do to create flavors that other humans will enjoy, which is testing analysis and decision-making on a scale that no machinery will ever be able capable of.

Ultimate delight: tea and dessert. Nomnomnom.
Ultimate delight: tea and dessert. Nomnomnom.

Making Tea – Skill can also be a limited resource

A little while ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique experience, the kind that is so unexpected and amazingly interesting it might be best labeled as a “Special Fulbright Experience”. With that hook, let me tell you about making tea.

Wait what – don’t I make tea every day? Well, yes that’s true. But I am going to talk about the time that I helped make tea (the fermented, dried leaves that can be brewed) from fresh tea leaves (straight from the tree).

More complicated than my daily cup of tea! How does one make tea from a tea plant anyway?
More complicated than my daily cup of tea! How does one make tea from a tea plant anyway?

These past couple months, I have spent time working with researchers from the Taiwanese government research branch that is specifically dedicated to researching tea, the Tea Research Extension Station (TRES).  TRES has been around in various forms for the past 100 years, and are the obvious people to be in contact with when it comes to researching anything related Taiwanese tea, so getting connected with them is probably what is going to allow me to answer the questions that I originally wrote about in my proposal for this Fulbright. I have mostly been communicating with the TRES station in Taoyuan, which is in the north eastern part of Taiwan. The researchers there have been friendly, knowledgeable and excited about collaborating with me, which has been incredible by itself.

One day, after a long discussion of science, research directions and potential project logistics, I was getting a ride back to the train station to return to Taipei. The researcher who was driving me said something along the lines of, “Oh, by the way: on Monday we’ll be having a competition/exercise to make tea.  If you’re interested, you can come.” Making tea? Really? Of course I was wanted to see how tea was made! Although I knew some things about the process, it was hard to understand what something like “the leaves are half fermented” truly means. Plenty of tourists pay money to go to try their hand at tea making.  Here was a free invitation, from people who talk about tea as their job, to join them to make tea. I was definitely going!

I showed up on Monday not quite sure what to expect but excited nonetheless. We gathered around 10 am in a large building equipped for tea making on the grounds of the research station. Some older men, (whom I later realized are tea masters of a sort and were invited to judge the results) gave short speeches about the day’s activities, including advice on what they sought for the winning tea and how it could be made (more on this later). The various departments around the research station had split up into teams and each team was going to make a batch of the same kind of tea. Then they would be judged and the winners would receive a cash prize, but more importantly, bragging rights for the year. There were 20 teams, which seemed to have from 2 to around 6 members. And while there was an air of friendly competition throughout, it was primarily a training exercise so there was plenty of cooperation as well.

The opening remarks of the exercise. You can get an idea of the tea-making space. It was basically a large, open warehouse. So far it's the largest tea-making facility I have seen.
We gathered for the opening remarks of the exercise. You can get an idea of the tea making space. It was basically a large, open warehouse. So far it’s the largest tea-making facility I have seen, although I doubt that TRES uses the space as much as a tea making company would. Overall, the TRES facilities appear to be well supported and well kept. While it is not the largest agricultural sector in Taiwan, the government does not seem to neglect the tea industry.

Everyone started with the same material: freshly harvested tea leaves. The tea leaves had been collected that morning by machine clippers from the tea fields that the researchers at the station maintain. Each team grabbed a large bag of leaves and got to work. Our assignment was to make Baochong (包種), which is a Taiwanese specialty: a lightly fermented, very fragrant oolong made in the lower elevation regions in northern Taiwan.

We began by spreading out the freshly harvest leaves onto reed trays to dry. I was amazed by how picturesque this was - it looked exactly like what I had seen before when reading about tea-making.
We first spread out the freshly harvest leaves onto bamboo trays. I was amazed by how picturesque this was – it looked exactly like what I had seen before when reading about tea making.

We started by spreading the leaves out to wilt in the sun and start picking leaves. Actually, at every step of the process we picked through the tea, separating out lesser-quality components: stems, bug-bitten leaves, dead leaves, leaves that were too bruised, old leaves… At some point I remember saying that I was sure that I would be dreaming of picking through tea leaves in my sleep and everyone around me agreed heartily.

Machine harvested and hand harvest teas are easily distinguished. Teas harvested by had have fewer undesirable plant parts sneaking in as each leaf is literally pinched off the plant by hand, most of the selection occurs before any other step is taken. However the manual labor required is obviously much higher and therefore more expensive (in Taiwan, at least. In other countries where lots of tea is produced such as China and Vietnam, cost of human labor is much cheaper allowing for these tea production techniques to continue.)
Machine harvested and hand harvest teas are easily distinguished. Teas harvested by hand have fewer undesirable parts sneaking in: each leaf is literally pinched off the plant by hand, so most of the selection occurs before any other step is taken. However the manual labor required is obviously much higher and therefore more expensive (in Taiwan, at least. In other countries where lots of tea is produced, such as China and Vietnam, cost of human labor is much cheaper allowing for manual harvesting to continue without issue.)

During this stage some of the folks on my team decided to have some “fun”, so we started separating out some of the youngest, freshest leaves (嫩芽) to make a different type of tea. I learned later that this special batch would become Oriental Beauty (東方美人), which is another specialty tea from Taiwan. We adopted even stricter standards for selecting these leaves – they had to be the tiniest sprouts that were still covered with silvery hair (which gives rise to another one of the names for this tea: silver hair oolong 白毫烏龍).

The beginnings of the batch of Oriental Beauty tea. This tea is usually quite expensive because it is made with only the tiny, fresh shoots. Thus, production rates are much lower. Additionally, the best Oriental Beauty tea has added fragrance due to a defense compound produced in the plant leaves. In order for this to occur, the plants must be partially eaten by a particular insect before harvest.
The beginnings of the batch of Oriental Beauty tea. This tea is usually quite expensive because it is made with only the tiny, fresh shoots. Thus, production rates are much lower. Additionally, the best Oriental Beauty tea has added fragrance due to a defense compound produced in the plant leaves. In order for this to occur, the plants must be partially eaten by a particular insect before harvest.

After letting the leaves wilt for a while (probably around an hour) we brought them inside to begin fermenting. For these steps, timing was key. Because each stage represents a chemical process occurring in the leaves, the rate that it occurs is dependent on variables that are going differ every time one might try to make tea: temperature, moisture content in the leaves, air humidity, sunlight intensity, etc. These differences in temperature and humidity during tea making conditions can give rise to differences between winter and summer tea (as well as different growth conditions for the leaves, which also influences chemical composition and therefore flavor).  Thus, each time one makes tea it is important to be in tune with how fast the processes are occurring to know when to move from one step to the next.

More of the tiny buds for the Oriental Beauty tea were sifted out of this bundle of reject leaves. Later we also tried some of the tea made from these rejects. It was weak on flavor, but still not all that bad. Probably better than most oolong teas sold in teabags in the US.
More of the tiny buds for the Oriental Beauty tea were sifted out of this bundle of reject leaves. Later we also tried some of the tea made from these reject leaves. It was weak on flavor, but still not all that bad. Probably better than most oolong teas sold in teabags in the US.

Once inside, the leaves were left to ferment, or oxidize. (Personally, I prefer referring to this stage as oxidizing because unlike other “fermenting” processes, there really aren’t any bacteria involved. Look forward to a blog post all about the chemistry of tea – because I’ve been reading about it and will probably want to write a synthesis of major ideas…) As I have mentioned, the differentiation of many tea types depends on the extent to which they are oxidized. For Baochong, a partially oxidized tea, this process is therefore quite complicated.

The trays of tea were brought inside the factory to oxidize slowly. Sometimes if the weather is rainy and cold, this process may be sped up by turning on fans or heated fans.
The trays of tea were brought inside the factory to oxidize slowly. If the weather is rainy and cold, this process may be sped up by turning on fans or heated fans.

During the oxidation process, the leaves are periodically fluffed. Leaf fluffing turned out to require a particularly artful technique. If the leaves are bruised and the cells cracked open, oxidation happens very quickly and leads to development of chemicals that are characteristic of black teas. Yet it’s also important to fully turn over all the leaves and mix them up to expose all of them to the air equally. (Okay, actually I haven’t ever seen or heard an explanation for this now that I think of it, but that’s what I’m pretty sure the point of this step is.)

The proper technique involved lightly scooping from out to in. I tried it a few times, of course.
The proper technique involved lightly scooping from out to in. I tried it a few times – it didn’t seem too complicated, but I don’t know if my team mates were too polite to criticize me when I was giving it a go.

As I said before, timing is key. During our intro pep talk, the head judge/tea master stressed to us that there were several aromas that the tea would go through in cycles: grassy, flowery, grassy. We were supposed to turn the tea leaves at specific times during the cycles in order to imbue the tea with these flavors. [Well that’s my understanding of what he said, but maybe you don’t want to follow this the next time you make tea without first consulting an expert. Please do not try any techniques based on this blogpost at home.] Most teams adhered to 3 rounds of this, waiting for around an hour and a half between each repetition, although we made adjustments based on how far along the cycles the tea leaves were. Judging where in the cycle the leaves were involved walking over and given the tray a good sniff to try to gauge grassy vs. flowery smells.

For the final tossing of the leaves, we switched to a mechanical roller. I don’t remember the exact reasoning for this but I think it was because for the last cycle, more tossing was better. It was much easier to set the machine for 10-20 minutes than have someone do that by hand. (Although there also seemed to be confusion about whether the timer on this machine was working, so I think some groups got treated to some extra time before anyone noticed…)

The mechanical rolling machine was probably the lease interesting of the tools we used. It basically turned the leaves around slowly. Boring.
The mechanical rolling machine was probably the lease interesting of the tools we used. It basically turned the leaves around slowly.

Finally time for a different process: the leaves were then baked for a short time. Properly judging time and temperature while in the ovens was also emphasized. When each group was ready, they turned on the cylindrical oven. When the oven reached a specific temperature, the the tea master dumped the tea in, and then removed before it reached another specific temperature (I think it was 200C and then 600C). Again, the type of oven, the length and the heat of the firing can all give different characteristics and therefore lead to different types of tea. One of the members of my team later reflected that our tea may have lost some of its fragrance during this stage. He recounted remorsefully how strong the smell was until and through the roasting process, but then how it diminished afterwards.

The ovens were probably the most exciting of the machines - loud, hot, fast. A little scary, in fact.
The ovens were probably the most exciting of the machines – loud, hot, fast. A little scary, in fact.

Then the leaves were shaped. Again we used a machine (although this process can be done by hand). Baochong is partly rolled, each leaf is twisted into a strip but not fully twisted into a ball. The rolling was quite quick, requiring what seemed like relatively few passes by the large pestle-like appendage of this machine.

I wish I had gotten a better picture of this machine, but it operated like an automated mortar and pestle, except with the intention of rolling as opposed to total crushing.
I wish I had gotten a better picture of this machine, but it operated like an automated mortar and pestle, except with the intention of rolling as opposed to total crushing.

The rolled leaves were then dried. These machines were much lower temperature than the roasting oven, and employed various methods to equally expose the tea leaves to hot air. This one pictured has a series of racks that can be successively dumped lower (towards more hot air). Another one also included a conveyor belt that cycled the tea leaves through the region of hot air.

This is what the partially rolled tea spread out to dry looked like up close.
This is what the partially rolled tea spread out to dry looked like up close.
Hot air fed by this gas fire is blown through the leaves to dry them faster. For this machine, the tea was spread on trays that could be dumped lower, closer to the flame.
Hot air fed by this gas fire blows through the leaves to dry them faster. For this machine, the tea was spread on trays that could be dumped lower, closer to the flame.

The last step was a final cleaning process, during which more undesirables, which now included leaves that hadn’t fermented, rolled, or dried, as well as all of the previous undesirable leaves, were removed. Everyone helped with the final picking for all the teams. I left early – that is 10:30pm – but I heard that people stayed until 2 am picking.

When in doubt, we just spent more time cleaning the tea leaves.
When in doubt, we just spent more time cleaning the tea leaves.
Finished product!
Finished product!

What I failed to document in pictures were some of the other activities that occurred during this long process. While waiting between each step, we returned to the office to drink tea and chat or milled around and smelled other teams’ work-in-progress and compared it to our own. Food was also served while people rested between steps – bento boxes for lunch and dinner and a late night giant vat of soup. The atmosphere was a little manic, yet also playful in between stretches of somewhat frantic work.

Consultations with the tea master / judge were allowed and encouraged throughout the process. This group was probably asking for advice about whether it was time for the next step.
Consultations with the tea master / judge were allowed and encouraged at all times. This group was probably asking for advice about whether it was time for the next step.

Throughout this process, several side-project teas were also being made, including the Oriental Beauty and a black tea. Each of these, although they started with the same materials, went through variations on the process which changed the outcome. The Oriental Beauty tea was oxidized very slowly and for a very long time. By contrast the black tea leaves were bruised early in the process (fairly intense mashing seemed to be occurring from what I saw) before being left to oxidize.

The Oriental Beauty tea, many hours later. It had only been fluffed once and was still oxidizing when I left for the night.
The Oriental Beauty tea, many hours later. It had only been fluffed once and was still oxidizing when I left for the night. It had just been finished up by the time of the judging, around 24 hours after we had started separating out the leaves for it.

I returned the next day for the judging of the teas. As in any tea competition, the teas were all brewed in a uniform fashion: using a regulated tea cup, amount of tea, and brew time. The judging was blind – team that made each tea was unknown during judging – but this does not mean that the tea was not looked at; it was displayed next to the brewed tea as to be judged. The color of the tea liquid and quantity of “dust” in the brew (fragments of tea leaves in the bottom of the cup) is also considered during judging. In all, there were 6 third place prices, 3 second place, and 1 first prize. Considering the 20 total contestants, it was a generous awarding of prizes. Unfortunately, my team failed to place. But at the end of the day, I got to take home samples of several of the different entries – including tea that I helped make! – and the whole experience to remember, which was plenty exciting in itself.

Everyone gathered the morning after for closing remarks and judges' comments.
Everyone gathered the morning after for closing remarks and judges’ comments.
The teas lined up to be judged in regulated, competition style. The three closest to the camera were the side projects (Oriental Beauty and two black teas), which is why they are so different in color.
The teas lined up to be judged in regulated, competition style. The three closest to the camera were the side projects (Oriental Beauty and two black teas), which is why they are so different in color. The Baochong brews up as a nice, medium yellow-green color.

Furthermore, everyone got to try the teas and then contribute to a popular vote, which was recognized along with the judge favorites. Tasting the teas was incredible. While many were not so easily distinguished (not too bad, not too good), others were entirely flavorless, while few popped with fragrance, bitterness, grassiness or all of the above. It was impressive variation, given that we had all started with the same material and gone through essentially similar steps. Somewhere in the process, however, good tea, better tea and some truly awful teas were created.

Everyone tasting the teas. Along with tasting the brewed liquid, we were encouraged to pick up the capped mugs and sniff the leaves inside.
Everyone tasting the teas. Along with tasting the brewed liquid, we were encouraged to pick up the capped mugs and sniff the leaves inside.

Anyone who has ever bought loose leaf tea has realized that it can get expensive. Plenty of teas are more valuable than gold by weight. Now I really have an appreciation for some of the components that lead to that price. For starters, good tea requires good ingredients, which requires specific farming conditions and practices. Furthermore, making tea requires skill. What separates the margin of “good” from “great” tea lies largely in the finesse of the tea making process – this is where the true skill of a tea master is required.

Teas are also judged by their appearance. Evenness throughout is important, as well as minimal presence of undesirables (bruised leaves, stems).
Teas are also judged by their appearance. Evenness throughout is important, as well as minimal presence of undesirables (bruised leaves, stems).

I asked my friends at the TRES as well as other folks in the tea industry what they worry about most for the future of Taiwanese teas. Several people have expressed concern about the loss of skill in making tea. A tea maker does not have easy work – when it is the season to make tea, they must work long hours, possibly not sleeping at night for several days. While they can make a decent salary by Taiwanese standards, it is not an appealing profession for many Taiwanese. Not only does the profession promise arduous labor, it lacks respect in society. As the younger generation strives to move upwards with their hearts set on white-collar jobs, recent years have had few young people entering the tea making industry because it is considered manual labor. I’m not sure the extent to which lack of interest in career tea makers will impact the industry. But I can see how lack of skill is a valid concern, given that the Taiwanese tea industry drives profit from quality over quantity. My research project, (should it ever get results) will be starting to address whether the natural environment can sustain the tea industry in Taiwan. Yet, I realize now this is not the only condition required for the longevity of this industry. Availability of skilled human resources presents another important factor to consider in the outlook of Taiwanese tea.

Health

I have spent no small amount of time contemplating the habits of what might be considered an “average” Taiwanese person and trying to compare them to that of an “average” American. (Of course, this immediately comes with the problem of generalizing many people to one average, which is unfair. Please allow me the following reflections in the realm of generalization).

 

Along with eating and working, I find that how people maintain their health especially interesting. Taiwan, like the US, is a first-world, highly-developed society where many people have to make choices about lifestyle which will impact whether they have good health or bad. Good nutrition and bad nutrition is not out of the average person’s control (relatively few people suffer malnutrition due to inability to afford food) so much as choices that they make: Do they eat fried chicken for dinner or at a vegetarian buffet? Do they cook for themselves? Also like the US, many people work jobs where they are not doing manual labor, so instead it is a question of choice to avoid the problems that may arise due to a sedentary lifestyle (as opposed to suffering due to an overload of physical labor). Do many people regularly seek exercise to maintain their health? What kind?

 

This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!
This was a park near Wulai full of interesting little obstacles. Look at that young person getting exercise!

In my mental catalog of observations, I have vaguely phrased all of these questions as the overall comparison of “healthiness”, (which is a grand leap of generalization, so again, please forgive my best attempt at an accurate representation). What follows are some things that I have filed away in this category.

 

Many things are actually quite similar between the two countries. Taiwanese, like Americans, are all aware of their health as a topic of concern. They know that they generally need to guard against eating too much, and being too lazy. Again, this doesn’t seem to have much of a different feel than in the States, where awareness of the so-called obesity epidemic does not mean action against it – the habits of Taiwanese people are highly variable in how healthy they seem overall.

 

Multiple times, Taiwanese people have complained to me that Taiwanese food is unhealthy but I will quickly and outright disagree with them. When it comes to home-cooked food, I am confident that the average Taiwanese meal is actually fairly healthy, including a reasonable spread of vegetables along with the rice and meats. What I think these people may have been getting at is the shift away from home-cooked meals in the younger generation, which has been a recent enough trend that I think there is still much concern about it: many younger Taiwanese don’t know how to cook, and if they live away from home than this means that they are going to be treading unhealthier options that are widely available and well-presented. The average restaurant-served meal in both countries is probably contains too much of things that humans find delicious (fats and carbs), so lack of conscious consumption is likely leading to a rise of unhealthy eating.

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Taiwanese bakeries are really popular, and a personal favorite of mine. Of course, if I ate only amazing baked goods all the time, I would be unhealthy. As much as I want to, I don’t do this, nor does any Taiwanese person that I know.

When it comes down to it, I find that the differences between the two countries are more telling than the similarities. One of the differences I have already touched upon when I talked about how I am quite overtly athletic compared to the average Taiwanese girl. Both cultures embrace healthiness as an aspect of beauty and a balanced lifestyle. But mainstream American culture emphasizes apparent athletic ability. Got muscles? Show ‘em, please. Thinness without muscle tone is hardly desirable. And what is the point of exercise if you can’t compete with it – hence the prevalence of social media to track and share fitness activities. By contrast, Taiwanese ideal of healthy and beautiful doesn’t emphasize overt athletic ability. Skinny without bulging muscles is ok. Many of the most popular exercise activities, such as hiking and biking, are relatively devoid of competitive atmospheres. My theory behind this difference is the long-held reverence for the scholar in Chinese culture. Thus, even now, when it comes to ideal beauty, bulging muscles and overt athletic prowess aren’t necessary.

 

Another major difference is the activities of the elderly. To begin with, the elderly seem like a much larger presence when I am in Taiwan. I don’t have a concrete evidence for this feeling, but it just seems like there are more old people around. They are hanging out in parks; they are in the alleyway hairstyling salons; they are in the marketplace; they are in the subway. I think this is because there is no place “that old people go”: there is no Florida, there is no Arizona, there are no nursing homes. So instead of disappearing to some haven with other elderly, old folks simply live out their golden years mixed in with the rest of Taiwanese society. And part of those golden years include regular exercise.

 

Indeed, old folks seem quite active in Taiwan. They are out jogging in parks, playing tennis, climbing mountains, doing taichi, attending exercise classes at community centers, riding bikes, etc. In fact, for most of these activities (that I have just thought of randomly), the bell curve of age seems to be centered around a comfortable 55-ish with far fewer young and old people. Why? The younger generation is “too busy” for exercise. Until one is secure in a position, likely sometime in the late 30’s or 40’s, working culture in generally seems to include 70-80 hours at work per week*, usually as unpaid overtime. This extensive time at work which also contributes to a decreased likelihood that this younger generation is going to go home and cook a meal, further enforcing the challenges that they face for healthy living. This group of younger adults is also possibly caught up in raising kids, which are always a large drain on time and money resources to spend on things like health-related activities. And kids? Forget it. They’re all stuck in cram schools for much of their lives. Based on what I’ve seen college students seem to find time to play sports like basketball and tennis and go for the occasional bike ride. But aside from a few families that I’ve observed out hiking during the New Year’s holiday, I can think of very few times that I’ve seen kids between the age of 10 and 18 out and about for some fun and exercise. Although there was the time when my sister and I stumbled across all the highschool dance troupes that apparently practice at the SYS memorial after dark…

 

Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don't see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that's not surprising.)
Taiwan is also covered with public parks and places for exercise of all kinds. This is a public park that includes a fairly awesome bouldering set up. (What you don’t see in this picture though, are the hordes of small children that were also running around on the mats at the time that we went. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon during the last day of a vacation week, so I suppose that’s not surprising.)

 

Overall, it is a pretty different picture from the US, in which young kids up through high schoolers run around on fields aplenty, and then young working adults often zealously go through workout plans, get gym memberships and try strange diets. Whether Americans continue to be active through their 40s and 50s seems to be variable by person, and my general impression is that Americans over 60 don’t engage in anything other than walks across parking lots to the mall or the movie theater (okay, actually I don’t really know because of the aforementioned disappearance of elderly from the rest of American society so I feel ill-equipped to really assess how active older generations of Americans are). Oh the contrast, where exercise is a luxury of the elderly in Taiwan (Taiwanese people have also commented on this to me).

 

During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn't mind that I sat there for a little while.
During a hike last week, I stopped at a very nice little personal garden that someone had clearly put a lot of time into maintaining. I am pretty sure that someone must have been a retiree with a fondness for being outside. I hoped that they didn’t mind that I sat there for a little while.

Which society is “healthier” is not really a conclusion I can make. Sure, statistics of obesity and other diseases related to lifestyle choices could be dragged out, but these kinds of numbers include several decades of history, and fail to incorporate factors like differences in gene pools. Thus, I find it unfair to claim them as truly speaking to answer this question. But for now, let’s say that I find myself as often out with people 2-3 times my age when I am running in the park in Taipei.

 

*although, to be honest, watching my Taiwanese friends’ Facebook updates, I’m not convinced that this time spent at work has any particularly strong relationship with how much work gets done.

Chinese New Year begins!

It started with a bang and ended with silence. Or something like that.

Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) is upon us! Chinese New Year really is the biggest holiday of the year here – and now I can agree that equating it to feeling of Christmas / New Year in the States is appropriate. For the past month, the excitement has crept up on everyone and gradually escalated to this point. Kids are out of school (but that doesn’t mean that they are out of cram school, tutoring, extra sessions, or working temp jobs);  everyone has the following week as vacation; bosses have been treating their workers to a meal, a tradition called 尾牙 — just to name a few of the year-end signals.

About a week ago my friend said to me in response to overhearing someone else saying “Happy New Year”, “Really, already? Every day now you get wished a Happy New Year…”

The feeling of New Year’s is seeking hustle, bustle and excitement – just like many folks enjoy the madness rushing to shop for Christmas presents. For example, new markets spring up devoted to New Year’s crowds as everyone shops for food (snacks of all kinds!) to bring to gatherings and gifts (年貨大街). Somehow, these incarnations of street markets have even more bustle than any regular market – everything escalates to a higher level. There are more stalls, more types of snacks, more samples to eat, more noise, and definitely more people.

Crowds of eager New Year's revelers pushing their way through crowds to sample snacks, buy things, or maybe just enjoy the business.
Crowds of eager New Year’s revelers pushing their way through crowds to sample snacks, buy things, or maybe just enjoy the business.

Even regular markets have extra buzz. Excitement seemed tangible at my favorite nearby vegetable market yesterday. Well, maybe more tangible than excitement were the extra people, escalating the usually busy to place to one that required pushing to move through. Everyone was stocking up on regular supplies, but also some seasonal specialties, such as New Year’s cake (年糕).

Yum! 3 different flavors: the large block is traditional brown sugar. The other kinds are matcha and redbean, which seem to be the main variants available.
Yum! 3 different flavors: the large block is traditional brown sugar. The other colors are pieces of matcha and redbean flavored cakes, which seem to be the main variants available.

 

And then… silence.

The hustling, the bustling – it all seems to have vanished within the past day. Now that the day is finally here – finally it’s New Year’s eve – Taipei has emptied out as many residents return to their parents’ or their grandparents’ homes outside the city*. Although the grow of the Taipei city area probably still pales by comparison to much of recent growth in mainland China, many of its residents only moved from other parts of Taiwan within the past century. And so, suddenly it seems like Taipei is ¾ of the way to a ghost town now that everyone has gone home to be with their families. The public transportation is eerily empty. When the light turns green on the main road that I live next to, there is no pile up of mopeds and cars that roar forward.

The quiet in this hectic city is nice. To me it feels like a late December snowfall, bringing a magical and much-needed rest that can only be granted during a certain season.

 

Sorry about the lack of entries recently, but you can look forward to a series of updates soon – both on how the holiday week progresses and what’s been going on recently. One of my goals in the next week is to catch up on my backlog of started blog posts / ideas.

 

* I did some googling to see if I could find a good chart of population growth in Taipei City, but search results of about 10-15 minutes seemed to fall into two main categories: graphs of total Taiwanese population growth (English searches) – possibly coming from the “China-Taipei” moniker; and pictures of food (Chinese searches) – because I guess that just what people are writing in Chinese about Taipei anyway…