Blog / Culture

Dragon’s Whiskers, Empty Hearts and Goose Leaves: Taiwan’s Scrumptious Greens

Official statistics don’t reflect the scale and variety of vegetable cultivation in Taiwan. Many farmers who focus on rice or fruit also grow seasonal greens which they share with relatives rather than sell. City-dwellers cultivate scallions or cilantro in balcony boxes. Few Taiwanese buy frozen or canned vegetables, preferring to shop in the traditional morning markets which are found in every neighbourhood.

By weight, Taiwan’s two most popular domestically-grown vegetables are cabbages and bamboo shoots. Taiwanese cabbages [middle photo] aren’t the same as those usually eaten in the West; they’re sweeter and heavier, and typically stir-fried with a tiny amount of oil, some garlic, a little soy sauce and a pinch of salt. Sliced bamboo shoots are added to pork-rib soup or served in cold salads. 

In recent years, local production of leafy greens like celery, chayote, edible amaranth, lettuce and spinach has been surging, likely because people are trying to eat more healthily. Radishes, carrots, and burdock roots are harvested in the spring, while water spinach (in Chinese kongxin cai, ‘empty heart vegetable’) is grown from March to December. Chayote, which was introduced to Taiwan during the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule, is abundant between April and October; its shoots and leaves have the memorable Chinese name of longxu cai (‘dragon’s whiskers’).

Two other delicious vegetables are in fact ferns. One of them is listed in the Taiwan section of the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste under its Mandarin name (guomao) but is often listed on bilingual menus as vegetable fern or bracken-fern buds [photo below article]. After boiling the buds, a raw egg yolk is sometimes added to give the dish a smoother, moister texture. Compared to guomao, stir-fried bird’s-nest fern [top right photo] is far chewier and crunchier.

Known to Mandarin-speakers as shui lian (‘water lotus’), the vegetable called crested floating-heart or white water snowflake is cultivated in small ponds; Meinong in Greater Kaohsiung is especially famous for this crop. The spaghetti-thin stems can be sautéed with garlic, ginger and mushrooms. 

What you may call Indian lettuce or sword-leaf lettuce is known as A-cai, the Roman capital A appearing before the Chinese character for vegetable. The A derives from the vegetable’s name in Taiwanese (a language quiet distinct from Mandarin but very close to the Hokkien spoken in China’s Fujian province). Another name for it is er-cai (‘goose leaves’). Before Taiwan became an urban society, many households kept a few geese to guard their property and keep snakes away, as well as for their meat – and these birds were often fed lettuce.

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