Feasting on Flowers in Taiwan

Eating flowers is nothing special…if you are a cow. If you are a human diner, however, it might sound like a rather unusual concept, and you’ll probably raise the question “Is this edible?” when finding flowers on your plate. If you need proof that flowers can play a more important role in cuisine than just being the garnish, a visit to a flower-cuisine restaurant in central Taiwan’s Puli Township is highly recommended.

By Owain Mckimm

Spread out before us is a ten-course meal. There’s fish, shrimp, pork ribs, soup, and plenty of delicious-looking vegetables, all draped with flowers to give the dishes a garnish of springtime color, a dash of seasonal flare – except the flowers, in this case, are not simply decorations. They are, very much so, a part of the meal. Puli, in Nantou County, may be famous for its handmade paper and its high-quality Shaohsing wine, not to mention its passion fruit, sugarcane, mushrooms, honey, black tea, and rice vinegar, but it can be said that none of these benefits quite as much from the area’s exceptionally mineral-rich water as its flowers – quite a few species of which are edible.

Puli takes pride of place as the slap-bang geographical center of the island. It sits in a star-shaped flat basin framed by mountains, the highest of which reaches nearly 2,000 meters. Entering the Puli basin feels like entering an ecological compound, quiet and temperate, with a host of culinary surprises. Because of its location and terrain, Puli’s average yearly temperature is a pleasant 20 degrees Celsius. Rainfall is moderate, and the area’s water is of such high quality that it gets bottled and sold as mineral water. The typhoons that occasionally ravage the island’s crops between April and October are seldom a problem for Puli, its protective parapet of high mountains keeping the harsher winds at bay. As such, it is the ideal place for farmers to grow their crops, and is sometimes locally called the “LOHAS Basin” in recognition of its topographical good fortune. The term is also a reference to its four exemplary “Ws,” its famously attractive Water, Weather, Wine, and Women!

Flowers from Puli are exported all over Asia, and while flower cuisine is popular locally, most of these flowers are sold for aesthetic purposes rather than culinary ones. The place to go for a true taste of what flower cuisine can offer, though, is the Tai-Yi Red Maple Resort, which boasts over 13 hectares of gardens, parks, pavilions, and luxury accommodations, and its grandiose South Garden Banquet Hall. Able to seat up to a thousand people, the restaurant offers seasonal menus that take full advantage of Puli’s wide range of local-farm natural ingredients. The summer menu is focused on fruits, with passion fruit, tomato, grape, and exotic melon pear contributing heavily to the many courses, while the autumn menu features lemongrass, lavender, mint, and other aromatic herbs as its primary ingredients. Puli’s flowers play a supporting role in these menus, but it’s during spring that the local blossoms take center stage at the restaurant.

The first thing we try in the ten-course set menu (available for lunch and dinner) is a glass of flower vinegar made with sweet osmanthus. Served in a wine glass, it isn’t unlike a glass of mild, though sour, white wine. A hint of the blossom permeates each sip, and it is a marvelous palate cleanser. Even if the thought of quaffing vinegar makes you pull a funny face, this drink combines the kick of a mild vinegar with the fresh scent of osmanthus, and is uniquely refreshing.

“Even if the thought of quaffing vinegar makes you pull a funny face, this drink combines the kick of a mild vinegar with the fresh scent of osmanthus”

Zhan Yong-ji, who works as a tour guide at the resort, explains that the flowers used in the restaurant are mostly grown on site in the resort’s Ecological Leisure Farm. The Tai-Yi company has a total of seven plant nurseries (including the resort’s leisure farm) for growing and cultivating vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits for sale in Taiwan, Southeast Asia and China. The biggest of these nurseries, a 20-hectare plantation nearby, grows over a thousand different kinds of plant.

“This kind of osmanthus flowers once every three months,” says Zhan. “Before it’s been refined the flavor is quite astringent and bitter, but after it’s been washed and treated it can be made into vinegar, or even dried and made into tea. It can even be used as a natural shampoo.”

One of the menu’s highlights is the steamed St. Peter’s fish (tilapia) in flower sauce. The sauce is made with rose, begonia, red curry, and cream, and is spicy, with a complex dynamic occurring between the gentle sweetness of the rose and the sharp pinch of the begonia. Begonia also adorn many of the other dishes, but in this restaurant it functions as the star of a side salad, appearing in complete form, rather than as decoration.

“This larger type of begonia is called the dragon wing begonia,” Zhan explains. “We use this kind in our dishes because it’s bigger and more attractive than other varieties.” The nearby Tai-Yi Plantlet nursery cultivates a smaller variety of this flower called the wax begonia, though this variety is considered too small to give customers. “We cultivate our dragon wing begonias on the mountains in Qingjing, rather than down here in Puli,” says Zhan. “The dragon wing prefers temperatures between 15-28 degrees, and so the mountainous environment is more suitable for cultivating them during the summer.” During winter, however, the dragon wing begonias are brought down from the mountains and transferred to the resort. The begonias decorating the plates are a bright scarlet, with two rounded petals covering a yellow center like a gold coin hidden in a red lady’s purse. Popping one in your mouth and crunching the petals is like biting into a very sour sweet. It’s very difficult to stop grabbing them off the plate. “The red variety has a very high vitamin C content,” Zhan says. “The white and pink varieties don’t have as much vitamin C, and this actually causes a noticeable difference in their flavors.”

“Popping one in your mouth and crunching the petals is like biting into a very sour sweet. It’s very difficult to stop grabbing them off the plate”

Another of the menu’s distinctive dishes is the roselle with bamboo shoots. Not much to look at, the glossy tan-pink roselles (a member of the hibiscus family) are easily mistaken for rashers of bacon. But, fried with asparagus and bamboo shoots, they are sweet, juicy and a textural miracle. If meat were a flower, it would be a roselle.

Outside in the resort’s garden, Zhan shows us another popular edible plant, Indian cress, known in Chinese as the dry golden lotus. This bright orange flower with large circular leaves is not on the spring set menu, but makes an appearance on the summer menu. In fact, it is not the flower that’s used, but the leaves. “In summer the flavor of the leaves becomes much stronger,” Zhan explains. “We take a Taiwanese thousand-year egg, cut it in half, place it on one of these large leaves, and eat them together.” He breaks off a leaf for us to taste. It has a strong flavor of mustard and already packs a punch despite not quite being in season. According to Zhan, it can also be ground into a paste and used as a kind of wasabi.

Our full set of ten lunchtime dishes costs a mere NT$480, and is more than enough for two people. Booking in advance is required. For those who just want to visit the resort, however, without eating in the restaurant or staying in one of the resort’s luxury cabins, suites, bungalows, or lodges, site entry is just NT$150 for adults.

For those wanting a purely liquid lunch with a floral theme, the Puli Distillery produces award-winning rose wines, as well as rose vinegar, jam, and tea. Not to be confused with the Puli Wine Factory, which produces the area’s famous Shaohsing wine, the distillery was opened in 2000 by the local farmers’ association to promote the produce of local flower farmers. The distillery itself has a large rose plantation onsite, and holds DIY sessions showing how to make aromatic rose jam for groups of 20 or more. The wines, which come in two strengths, 7% and 16%, are made by first fermenting sugarcane and then distilling the alcohol into liquor. Rose petals are then soaked in the liquor for 6 months to infuse flavor. The wines are good – deserving, even, of the description “ambrosial.”

With Puli’s reputation for good food, good wine, and good weather, is it any wonder that everything keeps coming up roses?

Getting there
From Taipei West Bus Station, take a Kuo-Kuang Bus Co. bus directly to Puli. Buses leave at frequent intervals between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The journey takes approximately 4 hours.

From either Taichung Railway Station or HSR Taichung Station, take a Nantou Bus Co. bus to Puli. Buses leave at frequent intervals, and the journey takes about 1 hour.

For guests staying at the Tai-Yi Red Maple Resort, a free shuttle-bus service is available daily from Puli Bus Station at 9:15 a.m., 11:15 a.m., and 2:15 p.m.

If you drive yourself, take National Freeway No. 1 to the Changhua System Interchange, change onto National Freeway No. 3, continue to the Zhongheng System Interchange, change onto National Freeway No. 6 and drive to the very end of the highway. Then follow Provincial Highway No. 14 into Puli.

Getting around Puli is best done by renting your own transportation, or taking a taxi.

 

English & Chinese
dragon wing begonia 飛龍海棠花
dry golden lotus 旱金蓮
Indian cress 金蓮花
LOHAS Basin 樂活盆地
Puli 埔里
Qingjing 清境
roselle 洛神花
sweet osmanthus 桂花

(Source: Provided by Travel in Taiwan Bimonthly May June Issue, 2012)



Taiwan International Orchid Show
Date/ Location/ Tickets  More details

 

Detail Taiwan International Orchid Show
Event Date: 3 Mar 2012 - 12 Mar 2012
Venue: Taiwan Orchid Plantation
City: Tainan
Country: Taiwan (China)
Tel: +(886)-(2)-2725-5200
Fax: +(886)-(2)-2757-6245
Show Organizer(s): Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA)
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Taiwan International Orchid ShowTaiwan International Orchid Show
When:2012-03-03 ~ 2012-03-12
Where: Taiwan (China)
Industry: Agriculture