For the lunar new year in Taiwan, many families prepare a traditional dish: a paddy made with rice, a large white radish and the addition of either dried shrimp or meat. The radish cake was traditionally made with Tsailai rice – a long-grain variety that works perfectly in the recipe; the grains remaining separate when cooked and not becoming overly sticky. It was also a staple on Taiwanese tables.
Though the recipe survives in morphed versions, today the production and consumption of Tsailai rice has declined dramatically. “In 1946, 54,000 tonnes were harvested, in 2011 this was down to just 15,000,” said Victor Lin, Slow Food Taipei Convivium co-leader, who brought 11 kg of radish cake to AsiO Gusto – taking place this week in South Korea – to introduce visitors to the authentic recipe and the endangered rice variety.
“In the 1940s and 50s, people were eating Tsailai rice as a staple. Now farmers have stopped planting it, and people are eating other types of rice, such as Penglai. Their tastes have changed. They now prefer stickier rice and have started making the radish cake with cheaper replacements which change the taste and texture. We want to bring this to the attention of consumers and experts, and say: ‘Let’s not forget about Tsailai rice!’”
Tsailai rice hasn’t been the only victim of rapidly changing national food system it seems. Lin spoke about the foods of his childhood that are now just a memory, like the soft, pink, fragrant Taiwanese guava that now has been replaced with large green and white modified varieties. “These are big chunks of fruit but taste very different from those that are disappearing.” The convivium will nominate the Tsailai rice for the Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s catalogue of endangered foods.
The Taiwan delegation has brought a small sample of this gastronomic diversity for AsiO Gusto visitors to discover and taste this week – such as green bamboo shoots that are boiled or stir fried, pineapple cake and oolong tea, all from local small-scale producers. “Food in Taiwan is so fascinating. We have an incredible variety of cuisine in such a small space. Sixty years ago when the Chinese came to Taiwan, they brought all their gastronomic traditions which mingled with the local cuisine. Today an enormous range of local delicacies is available.”
Slow Food Taipei joins delegates from 40 other nations from across Asia and Oceania this week at AsiO Gusto, Asia’s first international Slow Food event. The event, which continues until Monday, is a moment of exchange between small-scale producers of good, clean and fair food, the consumers that support them, experts, academics and hundreds of thousands of visitors.