Taiwan ta Bai
How housewives and country bumpkins are the hottest ticket in Taiwan tourism
Forget the skyscrapers.
Taiwan’s other elevations are now the center of an ever-evolving tourism trend where a new generation of travelers crave the local, and demand a level of grounded authenticity that is, ironically, fueled by the virtual world of social media.
Take the Miaoli mountains in western Taiwan, and a mist-covered roadside restaurant and B&B appropriately named the Mile High Café.
It’s a scene straight out of a Hitchcock movie with the fog building and almost a complete silence, broken only by the sounds coming from the frenetic kitchen. Run by third generation farmers, Tu Qiao Hsuan leaves her son to the care of her father as she fetches the plate of ginger chicken cooked by her husband, a Malaysian Chinese who now calls her country home.
The dish joins nine others on our full table, groaning with the weight of a feast of two soups (a hotpot with enoki mushrooms, greens, fishballs and a chicken broth), a salad of fern fronds, braised pork with mushrooms, stewed vegetables, and a unique Hakka dish of fried fish and battered pumpkin (the indigenous Hakka people call this area their home).
We are given cups of ginger tea to wash it all down, a familiar taste to the Filipino palate, as ginger is also made into tea here to soothe sore throats. Salabat, anyone?
“This is a Tian Ma Ma restaurant,” explains our guide Calem Ngan, who works for the industry association Taiwan Leisure Farm Association, counting the Mile High Café among 300 or so leisure farms across the country.
Tian Ma Ma, roughly translated as “Countryside Moms,” is a seal brandished proudly by choice establishments that
assure tourists of a certain standard that they adhere to, especially in their cooking.
An initiative by the Council of Agriculture, it empowers housewives through training and the setting up of a supply chain, eventually arming them with the tools to run efficiently a restaurant or lodgings featuring prominently their main product.
In the case of Mile High Café, their ginger.
Not half an hour away, we arrive at our home for our last night in a five-day sojourn across the entire island.
Zhuo Ye Cottage is hauntingly beautiful on a rainy night.
Built like a traditional Taiwanese village, we are housed in converted granaries outfitted in tones of Taiwan’s Japanese aesthetic, a welcome residue of being a dependency of the Empire of Japan from 1895-1945.
In fact, the farm’s main draw is also of Japanese origin, the art of Shibori, a manual resist pleat-and-bind dyeing technique using indigo dyes extracted from the malan plant.
The signature DIY (do-it-yourself) activity, a requirement at every Leisure Farm, was among my favorite of the 30 farms I have had the honor of visiting.
And certainly the most evocative.
One begins with a clean sheet, spotless.
Folding it carefully, and adding wooden sticks bound tightly by rubber bands in a predetermined arrangement to produce a desired pattern (in my case, I wanted three concentric stars, my favorite shape), one dips the cloth into a vat of foul-smelling indigo, carefully massaging to ensure the color seeps into the inner folds.
After three minutes, you rinse the color off, and then repeat the entire process of dip and rinse another five times.
After a round in the dryer, you eagerly unfold, all the while questioning if you had massaged enough, rinsed properly, bound it tight enough to keep the dye at bay on the parts you wanted to keep white.
When it is done, you sigh a relief.
Three concentric stars, in a distinct shibori style, and rendered in the most beautiful blue. Only then
do you learn, up in the mountains of Miaoli county, to trust the mprocess.
(Only 2.5 hours from Cebu, fly to Taiwan from Mactan International Airport via Cebu Pacific Air using my personal portal, type this into your browsers: bit.ly/JudeXCEB. To experience Taiwan’s leisure farms, visit their official website for a listing: www.taiwanfarm.org.tw)
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