Saturday, 26 May 2012

Down on the Farm

While my son's experience at public school here has been a bit of a bumpy ride for all of us, as to be expected, one thing I've always appreciated is the opportunity this has given us to participate in the extra-curricular activities associated with school life. One of our reasons for coming to Taiwan was to get to know Taiwanese people and the way of life here, and going along on trips with other children and parents has been invaluable in this.

Yesterday we took part in the annual farm trip. One of the sets of parents at my son's school own a family farm about one hour's drive from Taipei and every year they invite the other parents and children to spend a day there.

We stepped out of the coach into gloriously hot sunshine, the threatened rain having held off for one more day. If there is one thing that speaks 'Asia' to me it's the vibrant greenness of rice plants growing in paddy fields, so of course I had to record my first proper sighting since arriving here nine months ago. City living does have some disadvantages.

The first activity of the day was to do some traditional cooking. In other words, to build a fire and bake some local food. I'd always thought of Taiwanese cooking as in many ways very similar to Chinese cooking, that is, mainly based on cooking food quickly over a hot flame. I don't know how true it is, but I've read that the tradition of stir-frying foods evolved on the great plains of China where wood was a scarce commodity, so cooking fires were brief and food was cut small and quickly cooked.

You may know from earlier posts that kitchens here don't usually come equipped with ovens either, so I'd thought that baking foods for long periods of time was probably more a Western custom. However I wasn't considering the varied heritage of the Taiwanese culture, including a Polynesian influence from centuries ago. Maybe that's where the tradition of baking food in fire-heated earth comes from, or maybe it's from another influence. I don't know, but I do know that it's fun and the food is delicious.

First, though, you must build your oven. Everyone had to split into groups. My son and I were adopted by some friends of the family. My son had a great time getting himself dirty building the oven with lumps of sticky clay soil. To build an oven with a roof in this way is surprisingly tricky and I'm glad I was just hanging around taking photos.

The first step is to build a door facing the prevailing wind, to provide a draught for your oven.

Once that's complete, you can start building the walls of your oven. The weather has been dry lately, which had transformed the soil into handy 'bricks' for building.

After a few collapsing wall disasters (I strongly suspect these men spend their days in more refined pursuits than clay oven-building) our oven was ready for firing.

This lovely woman was the only female present who got her hands dirty by mucking in with the men. I'm not sure whether us women were being smart or just lazy.
Then came the most exciting part, building the fire.

I'm sorry to say there isn't much to see when the fire's on the inside. You can just see the smoke escaping on the right and a little lick of flame through the walls.

Meanwhile, the fishing had started. The farm has a manmade pond filled with fish to catch and this formed the second main activity of the day. The owners had kindly provided some rods and bait for those that wanted to try, which included nearly every child in the place. The fish were very gullible and took the bait with speed. My son caught three fish in the space of a few minutes.

Removing the hooks and getting the fish into bowls of water was the tricky part. While the fish weren't particularly bright, they did have the defence of very sharp spines along their backs with which they inflicted some revenge on the fishermen.

This fisherman is being especially careful removing the hook.

Those too young to fish had fun in other ways.

And so the day went on.
Sometimes things other than fish were caught.

The owners had provided a traditional rice noodle dish and soup for lunch and mochi for dessert. Andy loves mochi but I can't deal with its propensity to glue your teeth together. Luckily for me, our baked goods were soon ready to eat. I wonder why it is that food cooked in the open tastes so much nicer than that cooked over a stove?

When the fire had heated the walls of the oven red hot, the remains were scraped out and foil- or newspaper-wrapped food was placed inside. Then the whole thing was squashed down and earth piled on top to seal in the heat. One or two hours later the ovens were ready to be opened again. First out were some unusual shoots that I hadn't seen before. They resembled bamboo shoots but I was told they're actually a kind of fungus that grows on the bamboo.

Very sweet....

...and delicious!

The sweetcorn needed a little longer, but the sweet potatoes were done to a turn. Yum.

What a shame we can't cook like this on the 5th floor.


John L said...

What a great learning experience. I would have never thought Taiwan would be so similar.

Jenny J. said...

Similar to where, John?