Two Generations Ago...

The wonderful food at Grandma’s.

More Binge Fest. Marbled Pork. Waterlily stems. Dragon Whiskers. Chinese-Taiwanese broccoli. Guava. Taiwanese Jujubes. Wax Apple (蓮霧, lián wù).

Right after getting off the plane, I was immediately encountered with food fare native only to Taiwan. This happened during a random hour of the night, where the colors and tastes of Taiwan were neatly tucked in my Grandmother’s kitchen, with my all too familiar mother standing at the edge of the gas-stove, working a wok, all the while trying to fend off my grandmother, who wanted in with part of the cooking action. I didn’t even dare to try and offer my help. No point in an on-the-spot audition for “Masterchef: The Taiwanese family edition.” With my ten hours of fun-plane vertigo, I probably would have been better use doing the cleanup. So, under the spell of some inescapable hospitality, I pulled my camera and just started snapping passport photos of all the edibles.

First dish that came out of the closet kitchen was the American equivalent of “marbled pork.” I guess it was somewhat analogous to “kobe pork.” This was obtained by the butcher in the open air market just a block and a half away from my grandmother’s residence, simply salted and peppered, and quick fried in the wok. I wish I had gotten a picture of the butcher stand; every morning there would be a smiling Asian woman with an oversized cleaver dismembering fresh pork and organizing the parts on wooden cutting boards with creepy efficiency. No refrigeration, sell-by-dates…nothing. Fresh as possible. It’s a wonder the food sensibilities here are so exciting.

Kobe pork.

Subsequent dishes that came flying out were vegetable dishes; waterlilly stems, dragon whiskers, and the Taiwanese version of Chinese broccoli (Taiwanese broccoli, technically). It’s fairly easy to match the names with the visual representations. Not the usual fare you’d grab at a Chinese supermarket in the United States, but certainly some equally delicious cousins and relatives.

Dragon's Whiskers. Time for a shave.
Culinary climbing rope.

The fruit variety in Taiwan is infinitely more interesting and colorful than in America. Although, I may be speaking too soon, since a fruit experience in another country is simply, another experience- not necessary associated with positive or negative connotations. Whereas I’m used to lemons, limes, oranges, Anjou pears, and 20 different varieties of apple, a different longitude and latitude confers modified staples that obviously don’t match the “normal” milieu. Plus nowadays, we have the powers of importing and exporting, so perhaps the whole point is moot. There are, however, fruits that can’t be exported, simply because they’re too delicate (wax apple apparently being one of them). Nothing wrong with that, we just have to stuff ourselves so full of our favorite Taiwanese fruits until customs won’t let us through (“bag check on lane 2…this man is stuck in the detector.”).

The analogous "oranges n' apples.

The Taiwanese jujube, or translated from (棗子, zăo zi), is basically (or not so much) a hydrated date from the United states. Plump it up with some water so it’s turgid, smooth out the wrinkles, and “photoshop” the skin green, and you’ve got yourself a Taiwanese jujube (if only “growing” exotic fruit were that easy). The flavor is akin to something like the Asian pear: lightly sweet, full of moisture, almost like watered down gala apple. The texture was crunchy, less granular than apples and pears, and the fruit is protected by a thin chewy skin comparable to Korean pears. Oh yes; add a big ass pit in the middle (which I almost lost my tooth on). Bite size, super fun, and provides slingshot ammunition.

Eat BEFORE getting your slingshot on.

The highlight fruit in Taiwan; a must try/binge would be the wax apple. At first glance, it certainly does have the color of a standard apple, ranging from ruby red to a dark maroon. The texture is nearly indescribable in words (although I will now try to do so). The fruit is shaped like a miniature ice cream cone, as pictured below. You’ll see in the second picture that there are actually two layers- the middle fibrous core, and the plump, crunchy outside. The refreshing part is the outer ring, the texture resembling that of a watermelon with larger granules, just filed with just as much moisture. The fibrous area in the middle is soft and almost tasteless, and when combined with the crunchy exterior, invokes a rather unique experience. There is a small core at the top of the fruit, but it’s not a tooth destroyer like the Taiwanese jujube. A must-eat for sure.

Wax apple dissection.

I looked into fruit composition and growth of wax apple trees in Taiwan; there was a published study on the effect of flooding on wax apple trees.

The paper stated that flooded wax apple plants resulted in significant changes in leaf sugar and starch content as compared to the control (no flooding at all). The brief conclusion was that flooding was correlated to higher concentrations of starch and soluble sugar stores in the leaves of the plant (read: leaves, not fruit). The suggested explanation was that there was reduced plant metabolic activity, which reduced the demand, and thus, the reserve of carbohydrates necessary for the plant. Stores of “starch and soluble sugars” usually confers itself in the form of storage organs known as…fruit.

On a very basic level, though, the associations make sense. Flooding causes decreased plant metabolic activity, which means the plants burn less fuel; which is perhaps why there is accumulation of sugar and starch content in the plant’s leaves. At the same time, carbohydrate reserves are in less demand, so storage organ use goes down (smaller fruit? bitter fruit?). Whether or not this actually has the effect of altering taste, relative sweetness, and fruit textures would be an interesting future study to conduct. As of now, one can surmise that flooding your wax apple plant probably won’t yield optimal fruit. People in the states need not worry about such nonsense; your wax apple plant wouldn’t live in these temperatures anyway.

Apologies for off-centered picture captions. Will fix that…