I recently spent five days visiting friends in Taichung, Taiwan, in the west-central part of the island.
It was my first trip to Asia, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than some unusual sights, sounds and smells, not to mention tastes.
During the weeks leading up to my departure, my friend Kim would text me from Taiwan mentioning some new discovery she wanted to show me when I arrived.
“I can’t wait to show you the markets!” she said once. One great aspect of the fresh produce industry is it gives you something to investigate wherever you go, whether you’re in the Far East or the Black Hills of South Dakota.
But back to Taiwan.
My first Asian produce adventure occurred at a birthday party for my friends’ 2-year-old son, where a plate of fresh fruit included slices of something bright pink that turned out to guava.
Aside from not knowing whether I was supposed to eat the seeds or pull them out, my introduction to the fruit was a good one — nothing too alarming or unusual there, I thought.
Familiar tastes quickly went by the wayside as I tried everything from sea vegetable salad to seaweed sandwich wraps.
Amelia FreidlineVegetable stalls at a Taiwanese dusk market sold items such as turnips, carrots, corn, cauliflower, cabbage, two-foot-long green beans, Asian eggplant and a variety of Asian melons.Taiwanese tend to eat their vegetables cooked rather than fresh, my friends said, so, aside from some lettuce with my seaweed and cabbage salad with Japanese fried chicken, most of the vegetables I had — carrots, corn, baby bok choy — were steamed, sauteed or pickled.
I did, however, see a McDonald’s advertisement for a Mexican-inspired chicken sandwich featuring fresh jalapeños.
Talk about cross-cultural exchange.
Fruit, on the other hand, is eaten fresh in abundance and often as dessert instead of pastries or baked goods.
One afternoon we went to a “dusk market,” where people stop by on their way home from work to pick up produce, meat and whatever else they might need for dinner.
As we rubbed elbows with the other shoppers and dodged out of the path of countless motor scooters, I was amazed to see persimmons almost the size of grapefruit alongside apples, pomegranates, asian pears and grapes bigger than any I remembered seeing in American grocery stores.
Humorously enough, though, the pomegranates and grapes were from the U.S., and the kiwifruit also on display sported Zespri stickers.
Amelia FreidlineWax apples are neither apples nor made out of wax, but they’re widely grown in Taiwan and surrounding areas.At the market I sampled wax apple, which is neither an apple nor made out of wax.
The flesh was colored like an apple’s, but was far more porous — websites I looked at afterward compared it to watermelon — texturewise it was like eating crisp Styrofoam soaked in water (or what I imagine that would be like). Flavorwise it was delicately sweet.
In addition to the fruit were beautiful displays of familiar vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and corn, but also 2-foot-long green beans, long, skinny eggplant, Asian greens, gourds and melons, and gigantic turnips and carrots.
I thought some of the carrots that wound up in our crisper at home were big, but they were little twigs compared to these two-inch-thick beauties.
We held an exotic fruit tasting at breakfast the next morning, and I got to try passionfruit, pommelo, tangerines and dragonfruit.
All the pictures I’d seen of dragonfruit during my four years at The Packer showed white flesh dotted with tiny black seeds, so I was shocked when our dragonfruit turned out to be bright purple on the inside.
As colorful as it was, however, it didn’t have much flavor.
My visit drew to a close all too soon, but I had a fascinating time seeing various aspects of Taiwanese culture and noting differences and similarities between their customs and ours in the U.S.
When I stop by the neighborhood grocery to pick up dinner ingredients after work I don’t fight my way through an open-air market that also features cuttlefish, live eels and chickens with the feet and heads still on that are custom-chopped while you wait.
On the other hand, the Taiwanese supermarket I visited looked much like any in the U.S.
It’s nice to find similarities between your country and another, but it’s the differences that give us the most opportunity to learn.
Some of the produce-related things I most enjoyed seeing on my trip — like wax apples, purple dragonfruit and cans of asparagus juice — were things I never knew existed before I left home.
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