Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Fungus Among Us – The History of Mushrooms in Taiwan (Taiwan Business Topics)

We eat too much of what is bad for us, experts say, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. But one positive trend is visible in some parts of the world: People are eating more mushrooms than they did a generation or two ago. That is good news from a nutrition perspective because many types of mushroom contain vitamins (especially B1, B2, B3, and B6) as well as iron, selenium, and other minerals. They are rich in antioxidants that can survive cooking, and there is some evidence mushrooms have cancer-fighting properties.

Global mushroom cultivation grew tenfold between 1981 and 2002. Since the mid-1960s, annual per capita mushroom consumption in the United States has risen from 0.7 lbs to 3.7 lbs. In recent years, fresh mushrooms account for three quarters of this total. Precise data on mushroom consumption in Taiwan is hard to find, but anecdotal evidence points to a steady increase. Edible fungi find their way into hot pots, stir fries, and soups, as well as the “mock meats” eaten in vegetarian restaurants.


In Taiwan, the systematic cultivation of fungi dates back over a hundred years, with many of the original techniques introduced by the Japanese during the 1895-1945 colonial period. However, the industry did not properly take off until the late 1950s, after domestic shortages prompted the U.S.-ROC Joint Commission on Rural Reconstruction (JCRR) to expand local mushroom production.

Early trials were conducted in mountainous areas such as Xibao (915 meters above sea level, and now within Taroko National Park), but very soon farmers in the west-central region came to dominate production. According to a report prepared for the Federal Reserve’s Division of International Finance, the American economic aid program (USAID) provided US$82,574 to help develop sanitary harvesting and canning practices, as well as for the construction of processing facilities. The return on this investment was fantastic. “Taiwan first began to export canned and bottled mushrooms on a regular commercial basis in 1960,” states the report. “By 1963, Taiwan had become the world’s foremost exporter of mushrooms…supplying one-third of the total amount of mushrooms imported by all countries.”

About 80% of the canned mushrooms sold in the United States in 1963-64 were from Taiwan. Annual exports of canned mushrooms peaked in 1978 at US$120 million, before Chinese and South Korean growers ate into Taiwan’s share of the global market.

In 2013, the Council of Agriculture’s Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) estimated that the industry’s annual sales had reached US$295 million. In recent years, fungus farmers have been shipping around 140,000 metric tons of produce annually to domestic and overseas buyers. Relatively few farms now concentrate on the species that kick-started the boom – the humble Agaricus bisporus, also known variously as the common white mushroom, button mushroom, or champignon mushroom.

Frank Tai and his cousin Chu Rui-Jong are second-generation mushroom farmers in Taichung City’s Wufeng District. Both men grew up helping their parents cultivate button mushrooms, which Taiwanese often call “Western mushrooms” (yang gu, 洋菇).

“Wufeng has the right conditions for successful mushroom farming,” says Chu. “Northern Taiwan is too humid and the south is too warm, but the Taichung area is ideal.” Local weather patterns no longer matter much, however, as both men’s operations are now more like food factories than traditional farms. Growing the mushrooms indoors enables them to fully control temperature and other factors.

Their families, and hundreds of others, have benefited from the presence in Wufeng of TARI’s Edible and Medicinal Mushroom Laboratory. Among the laboratory’s many contributions are introducing the king oyster mushroom (xing bao gu, 杏鲍菇) – currently one of Chu’s principal crops – to Taiwan from France and devising ways in which this unusually sensitive fungus can be protected from micro-organisms.

Tai, who was born in 1970, graduated from Soochow University’s Department of Microbiology, choosing this major knowing he would eventually manage the Tai Mushroom Farm, currently Taiwan’s number-one producer of enoki mushrooms (jin zhen gu, 金针菇). He also grows shiitake (xiang gu, 香菇) and shimeji (liu song gu, 柳松菇) mushrooms. Until it was overtaken by growers in China, the Tai Mushroom Farm was regarded as Asia’s largest in terms of output...

This is the second of our articles in the Wine & Dine 2017 special issue. To read all of it, go here. To see the first (on guabao), follow this link. I took the photo at Wufeng Story House, near the Frank Tai and Chu Rui-Jong's mushroom farms.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Getting a Handle on the Taiwanese Hamburger (Taiwan Business Topics)

Compared to the cult-like veneration of beef noodles, hot pot, and stinky tofu in Taiwan, the guabao is an underappreciated snack. What English-speakers often call “the Taiwanese hamburger” is available in every town and city, but certainly not on every street, nor even in many night markets.

Because of their shape, these hearty delights often appear in weiya banquets, traditional end-of-the-year feasts at which Taiwanese bosses treat their employees. According to some, a generously proportioned guabao bears an auspicious resemblance to a purse overflowing with money. The way in which the bun envelops the pork has also inspired a nickname which some vendors have embraced: hu yao zhu (pronounced ho ka ti in Holo, “tiger bites pig”).

Some foodies steer clear of guabao because they think neither of the main ingredients – pork belly and steamed bread – is especially healthful. The meat, while exceptionally tender and juicy, is heavily marbled with fat. To people who believe whole-wheat bread is better for you than loaves made of bleached flour, the shiny whiteness of the wrap suggests it offers nothing but carbohydrates. Those who abstain may be right, yet over the past six or seven years the popularity of guabao in the Western world has leapfrogged that of other Taiwanese dishes.

And truly Taiwanese it seems to be, too. There is a theory, though not a widely held one, that a meat-filled, steamed cut bun called roujia mo (literally “meat pressed into a small loaf”) popular in the mainland Chinese province of Shaanxi made its way to Fujian and eventually to Taiwan. Fujianese cuisine does have something called khong bah pau (Holo pronunciation; kong rou bao in Mandarin), but nothing is added to the meat and bun but celtuce (also known as Chinese lettuce).

Taiwanese guabao, by contrast, almost always incorporate fresh cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and a dusting of crushed peanut. “These three components extend the dimensions and depth of the dish tremendously, making it so much more interesting,” gush Singaporean bloggers TravellingFoodies. “The regular [khong bah pau] taste rather plain and run-of-the-mill in comparison.”

Just as it is hard to image an American-style hamburger without lettuce, tomato, onion, and perhaps a pickle, many Taiwanese assert that if a guabao is to be considered authentic, peanut powder is an essential element.

Guabao is similar to the Mexican dish carnitas soft taco in that the protein in both is slow-cooked pork. However, whereas carnitas is pulled apart by hand or shredded, most guabao feature a single slab of deliciously soft meat about the size of a deck of playing cards. Taiwanese usually call this kong rou (khong bah in Holo). Beyond Taiwan and Fujian, common names for pork cooked this way include hongshao rou (“braised pork”) or dongpo rou (featured in many cookery books as “Dongpo pork”). A few vendors advertise their guabao with the Holo term for uncooked pork belly (sa chan bah; in Mandarin this cut is known as wuhua rou). Not just any chunk of pork belly will do. The meat should not be too lean, to ensure it does not become dry and fibrous after braising. The meat is cooked in a thick gravy that typically includes soy sauce, rice wine, and often sugar...

This is an extract from the first of what I expect to be several articles co-written with Katy Hui-wen Hung (who also provided the photo above), with whom I'm working on a major food related project. The entire article can be read online here.