A chef's musings on Taiwan's traditional markets
By Stefan Martin Translated by Ann Lee
Photos by Jimmy Kang
From the grumpy-looking old man fulfilling the role of security guard and head parking attendant, to the smiling faces of the fishmongers, there is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned here.
Moreover, there is a connection to food here that is thousands of years old. A connection we've somewhat lost in the West. Looking your food in the face before bringing it home is not an attractive notion to some. However, the vacuum-packed, boneless, skinless processed hunks of meat available in large chain supermarkets seems to me the true perversion.
For example, in the traditional markets, all of the produce you see is farmed or caught locally--it comes from southern Taiwan; greater Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties. Not only is this produce commonly found in the region, but it is also commonly found in the diets of the local people.
Much can be learned about a people and their history by examining their diet. The traditional diets of the Han Chinese mixed with that of the local Aboriginal tribes, and were heavily influenced by the occupying Japanese. This birthed a new food culture--one that is unique and local.
The Taiwanese are more connected to their food than most Westerners. They are not so far removed from the process of farming and livestock. In fact, many people you meet still have relatives that continue subsistence farming. I myself was born on a farm. I had the opportunity to learn the process from "on the farm" to "on the table". I know what it's like to slaughter and butcher, to hoe and pick. I believe it gave me a greater appreciation for where food comes from. If all of us were to experience this as children, them maybe giant, corporate, industrial farms wouldn't be polluting and destroying the way they are now.
When the vast movement of Chinese immigrants followed Chiang Kai-shek to this bountiful little island, there was a move toward equality and democracy. This extended to food as well. Suddenly, personal chefs to the ruling elite of the mainland were free individuals who found themselves in a free market, capitalist society. They began opening restaurants that were accessible to everyone. The food culture grew. It grew with the people and it grew with the seasons.
Walking through the markets, one also notices the sheer amount of greens available. Historically, the Chinese people have had a lower cholesterol count, as well as fewer incidents of cancer than their European counterparts. Some dietitians accredit this to the relatively high intake of green, fibrous vegetables eaten in their diet. This boosts immune systems with an influx of vitamins C and B, as well as plenty of anti-oxidants and phyto-nutrients.
Furthermore, the cooking techniques of Chinese cuisine champion things like quickly stir frying vegetables as well as steaming them. These processes allow for the minimum amount of nutrient loss during cooking. In addition, fish is a common source of protein, helping to rid the body of damaging cholesterol build-up in the bloodstream.
The Taiwanese rely heavily on the seasons to partially dictate their diets. As of last month, the availability of vegetables was scarce due to typhoons, so more people were choosing tougher veggies that weathered the storm and were therefore cheaper.
My point is simple; visit the markets, look your food in the face, choose fresh, seasonal ingredients, and eat well. Furthermore, meet the vendors, ask them what they eat, and get involved.
Here's a list of some of Kaohsiung's traditional markets:
- SinSing Number 1 Market: 40-4, NanHua Rd, (07) 271-3306
- ShihCuan Market: 196, LiaoNing 2nd St, (07) 323-2189
- MinZu Market: 11, Lane 128, HuaiAn St, 2F-3, (07) 384-3347
- YenCheng Number 1 Market: 141-7, LaiNan St, (07) 551-4385
- LingYa Market: 135, LingYa 2nd Rd, (07) 334-9782
For more info (chinese only) check out