This woman is harvesting yelian, or 'wild' lotus. The vegetable is a product especially associated with Meinong, a township in southern Taiwan not far from Kaohsiung.
Yelian isn't technically 'wild', but cultivated in ponds that dot the township. Harvesting is a group effort. Men tend to do the deeper-water work, donning wetsuits and submerging themselves up to the neck to cut the stems of this aquatic plant from its underwater roots.
Once 'surfaced', the stems are shorn of their floating leaves, tied into bundles, and coiled.
The workers at this pond, locals all, were harvesting yelian that would be sent to Kaohsiung and Taichung (about an hour and a half away).
The vegetable is usually stir-fried with garlic and preserved soybeans. It's a textural cross between Chinese chives and the slimmest asparagus, sweet and green-tasting as the smallest spring peas.
We were in Meinong by happy accident, as the result of a last-minute decision made on the morning we were to leave Kaoshsiung. We'd planned to catch a train north to Taichung, but the weather was beautiful -- blue skies and sun after a day of spitting rain that pretty much washed out Kaohsiung's Dragon Boat Races -- and we were lured by the prospect of a day spent outside in the country.
So we called around for a guesthouse, headed to Kaohsiung's bus station,
and caught a ride on a teddy bear-blessed. Three hours later, bags stashed in a minshu (kind of a Taiwanese B&B) outside of town, we were on bicycles, looking for something to eat.
Meinong is Hakka territory, and formerly the tobacco production capital of Taiwan. Though the streets of its main (small) town are lined with their share of soulless concrete blocks, they still hide quite a few traditional U-shaped Hakka houses with interior courtyards and tiled roofs.
Coming from Taipei and Kaohsiung, the pace of life in Meinong seems almost glacial. The area isn't absolutely rural in the way that much of Southeast Asia still is, but it felt very 'Chinese countryside', in a not-much-happens-here-but-life kind of way. Meinong reminds us of rural areas outside of Shanghai that we used to escape to with our bikes when we lived there in the nineties (they're not rural anymore, we hear).
It's not hard to find local specialties; most of the town's eateries seem to serve pretty much the same thing.
Local (Taiwanese) tourists come to Meinong to eat thick rice noodles stir-fried with fatty pork, scallions, and bean sprouts,
or in soup; the aforementioned yelian; and a dish called donggua feng, stewed winter melon and cabbage.
What can we say about this dish? It doesn't photograph particularly well -- there's not much you can do to make a big hunk of pallid melon and its accompanying mound of equally colorless cabbage jump off the page.
But donggua feng is a wonderful thing, especially if it's eaten on a coolish evening under a sky thickening with threatening clouds. Drizzled with garlic oil, sprinkled with chopped scallion, and served in a pool of soy, sugar, and Chinese wine-flavored vegetable juices, it's pretty much the ultimate non-meat comfort food and embodies the humble heartiness of Hakka cuisine. Every table around us held two or three orders; the locals were just devouring it, and we did too.
Up early the next morning, we stuck to country lanes and biked past more Hakka houses,
several of which had jars of bean curd left out to ferment in the sun.
We ran into a couple of older Hakka women harvesting yutou (taro) and shallots, and stopped to chat.
This fiesty seventy-something year-old was a real kick, happy to take a bit of time from her work to tell us about the daily routine of Hakka women ('We've got to be up and out here early, working. Our men sure arent!'), the simple Hakka diet ('We don't eat anything too complicated. We take vegetables, we stir-fry them, we take meat, we stew it. That's it.'), and the virtues of hard work ('Look at me - I'm so healthy! It's because I work everyday. I don't want to sit at home and get old.'), and to help me with my Chinese.
Just as quickly as she dove into conversation with us she packed up her motorcycle and bid us farewell.
'OK, I'm going.My family is waiting for me to make breakfast.' It wasn't even 7:30am.
We hopped back on our bikes and headed away from town, past more wild lotus ponds and taro fields. Half an hour later we were in a one-street village where we followed our noses to a griddle packed with doughy pillows steaming away in a water bath.
As soon as were inside the shop, enveloped in a bear hug of wheaty, porky steam, we realized we were ravenous. The shuijian bao (similar to Shanghai's shengjian bao, but larger and doughier) still had 20 minutes to go, but we were sure the wait would be justified. And we were right.
Spilling scallions, Chinese chives, and chopped pork, they were crispy, chewy and -- yes -- a little greasy, but only in the best possible way.
As we were enjoying our bao the shop's proprietess fired up the griddle for another local specialty: migua jian,
rice flour and pumpkin 'pancakes'.
By the time we'd finished our bao we weren't hungry in the least, but we don't regret making room for these griddle cakes.
Eaten with a la jiao of dried chilies, black beans, and Worcestershire sauce-like black vinegar, they were an intriguing combination of sweet and savory, salty and hot and sour -- something like dessert and main course rolled into one.
These two treats were on our minds as, three hours later, we boarded a bus for Taichung, wishing we had another or day or three to spend in Meinong.
No street names, no details - but the noodles, wild lotus, and donggua feng can be had at the restaurant right across from the Meinong bus station.