Taiwan's fruity delights

Taiwan-produced peaches and pears on sale at a supermarket in Taipei. -- ST PHOTO: LEE SEOK HWAI
Taiwan-produced peaches and pears on sale at a supermarket in Taipei. -- ST PHOTO: LEE SEOK HWAI

I WENT on a hike last weekend in Hsinchu county, about two hours’ drive south-west of Taipei, but peaches turned out to be the main attraction.

It’s not that the giant cypress trees and the scenic 4km trail leading to them were boring. They were just not as sweet.

We had stopped at an aboriginal village at an altitude of about 1,000m enroute to the trail. The villagers were busy packing peaches they had just harvested into boxes. There was the normal pale-fleshed fruit as well as a golden-fleshed variety that I’d never seen before. Our group of 11 was offered a crate of free peaches, which were deemed not good enough for sale but still very delicious and the perfect antidote for the summer heat.

Of course, we ended up grabbing some 15 boxes of the fruit at NT$500-NT$600 (S$21.13-S$25.35) per box of six or eight, depending on the grade. Although the fruit was going fast what with the many buyers present, I managed to snap up one box of golden peaches after some jostling that would have made my mother proud. We left our fruit at the village, picking it up on our way back from our hike.

One of the biggest pleasures of living in Taiwan is to be able to feast on a wide variety of fruit. A range of terrains and altitudes on this mountainous island means it produces delectable harvests at different times of the year of oranges, strawberries, longans, wax apples, lemons, mangoes, pineapples, guavas, peaches, watermelons, grapes, papaya and custard apple, the last of which I never knew existed before coming here.

They are cheap too. You can get a bag of 10 oranges for just NT$25 at night markets, or pay NT$100 for three mangoes of the famous Aiwen variety. Once, I carted home a crate of strawberries for just NT$130 from a roadside vendor eager to pack up for the day. It was more strawberries than all that I’d ever eaten, even after I’d given away half of it to friends.

With such an abundance of fruit, it is no surprise that it features in several sectors of Taiwan’s economy and even in some cultural quirks.

The best pickings are exported to Japan and China where they fetch better prices, or sold in fancy packaging to mainland tourists, the most zealous shoppers for Taiwanese souvenirs. Taiwanese visit fruit farms scattered around the island to pick strawberries and grapes. Aiwen mangoes and mango ice dessert have become a food icon used in tourism campaigns and a staple at night markets.

And instead of Generation X or Y, the Taiwanese tap fruit as cultural shorthand.

Generation Guava describes those born before 1970 and who are more hardy and sturdy - like the fruit. Generation Peach refers to those born later and who are not as resistant to stress while Generation Strawberry describes the still younger Taiwanese, born after 1990, and wither easily.

So, when my Taiwanese friends lament about how small and resource-poor their island is, I have only to remind them about the fruits. Don’t get me started on the vegetables.