Spring Onion Country Yilan's Sanxing Township Offers Ideal Conditions for Cultivating Scallions
By Owain Mckimm
We are eating Taiwanese-style spring-onion pancakes. Usually, in other parts of Taiwan, the spring onion is rolled in the dough which is then flattened, says Song Yi-xuan of the local farmers' association, but here, in the township of Sanxing in Yilan County, they take two pieces of dough and put the pancake together like a sandwich. Crisp and delicious! Trust the people of Sanxing when it comes to spring onions, because this town in northeast Taiwan is one the prime producers of this vegetable in Taiwan.
The terrain around the town of Sanxing, like the pancakes on our plates, is astonishingly flat. Passing field after field of blue-leaf spring onions (or scallions), rice, and willow bushes, the road stretches out as though searching through a maze without walls, the land disorientates because of the few landmarks and minimal variation, and a long crescent of hazy mountains occupies the skyline, with only a bare stretch of open space to the east, signifying the presence of the ocean, as an indicator of direction.
The reason for this flatness is that Sanxing lies on the far west side of the Lanyang Plain. A delta plain formed over millions of years as the Lanyang River carved its way between the Snow Mountain Range and Central Mountain Range, flowing down from a height of a thousand meters to the Pacific Ocean – with the help of some tectonic uplifting – this alluvial flatland stretches over an area of 300 square kilometers. The plain has a distinct triangular shape; Sanxing is located at the westernmost and highest point.
Sanxing is in a prime position for farming, as a free-flowing supply of fresh mountain water, protection from harsher sunshine by frequent cloudy weather, a cooling westerly wind, and a geological structure that naturally irrigates the soil give the produce grown here a distinctive flavor which has brought renown to Sanxing's "four treasures": garlic, silver willow, admiral pear and, most famous, spring onions.
What makes Sanxing's spring onions special, explains Lin Dong-hai, a former chef who took over the family farm from his father, which now specializes in organic cultivation, is a long white stem filled with a juicy and sugary glycogen, tender fibers that give a pleasing crunch, and a sweet and fragrant flavor that is not too spicy yet possesses a mild peppery quality. Lin says the ideal length of the white stem is between 18 and 21cm; any longer and the scallion will be too lank, while shorter stems fetch a lower price.
There are two main types of spring onion, the "fine onion" and the "rough onion." In Sanxing, 250 hectares of land are used to cultivate the "fine" variety, though, as Lin explains, the term is a little too general as there are over a hundred breeds of "fine" onion, due to farmers experimenting with cross-breeding.
What makes Sanxing's spring onions special is a long white stem filled with a juicy and sugary glycogen, tender fibers, and a sweet flavor Lin has a whole field dedicated to testing different fertilizers, natural pesticides, and nutritional supplements. However, he explains, the spring onion is an especially difficult plant to cultivate organically. "There are about 20 diseases that regularly attack spring onions," he says. "Most vegetables take less than a month to grow and harvest, but the spring onion takes about 3 months, so the risks are greater."
The simplest way to protect the spring onions is to coat the ridges of earth where the vegetable is planted with dried rice grass. "This keeps the soil cool in summer, and conserves heat in the winter. It also prevents many types of weed. We call it a ‘spring-onion duvet,'" Lin says.
The spring onion can be planted year round, and this makes it a stable source of income for most farmers; they sign yearly contracts with the local farmers' association, which promises to buy a set amount of the farmers' produce per season, guaranteeing sales where otherwise they might struggle at local markets or lose out to competitors.
Lin says that he can take in up to three harvests a year, one crop every three months with a month's interval in between to prepare the field for replanting. When the time comes to plant a new field, Sanxing's method differs from that of farms in the south, as farmers don't plant from seed but rather transfer a portion of young, already cultivated scallions to new soil. Lin first dips the roots of these shoots in a natural bacterial inoculant, then plants them in rows of six. After three months each shoot has branched out into a bunch of eight and is ready to be sent to the sales/delivery center run by the local farmers' association, from whence the spring onions will be sold to supermarkets and wholesalers or dried and ground into the powder used to flavor the mysterious local spring-onion ice cream.Visitors
?to Sanxing can probe the history and methodology of spring onion farming in the Spring Onion Culture Museum, housed in a facility used as a rice-storage building during the Japanese colonial era (the old rafters where the rice was stored give the place a pleasant nostalgic feel). The museum was opened in 2005 as a celebration of all things spring onion. It's a beautiful little facility, consisting of a small exhibition hall and a shop at the back selling the aforementioned "four treasures" in their various culinary incarnations.
Exhibitions range from the farming process to the various dishes in which the scallion is a major ingredient, and nestled among these are examples of local artwork in which the four treasures are used as building material or inspiration. Chinese-language tours can be arranged, and though there is no posted/printed English information at the moment, Song says there are plans to add English translations in the future.
For those who want a more hands-on experience, there are many guesthouses in the area which offer a DIY spring-onion pancake experience. Constellation Homestay and Cong Zai Liao Country Guesthouse form a guesthouse pair owned by two brothers. Located next to the family's spring-onion fields, and backed by the emerald-colored slopes of the Snow Mountain Range, these guesthouses offer day-tours of the fields during which guests can pick their own scallions and then use them in cooking pancakes under the tutelage of Li Jian-hong, the younger brother of the two, who performs his teaching duties as if he were taking part in one of Taiwan's TV variety shows.
Rooms are spacious, clean, and tastefully decorated, with gorgeous views, and prices range from NT$1,500 for a double room on a weekday to NT$4,500 for a 4-person family room on the weekend.
spring onion is a symbol for prosperity, good luck, and intelligence in local culture. The Taiwanese word for "spring onion" is pronounced cang, the same sound as that for "prosperity," while the Mandarin Chinese for "scallion," cong, is the same as that for "intelligence." Such linguistic curiosities have given rise to a host of expressions, such as "Steal onions at night, marry Mr. Right," and such customs as the offering of spring onions to the deities as a prayer for good results in exams.
Like the Lanyang River, which spreads out in rivulets and streams across this area, so the spring onion has quietly permeated Taiwanese cooking and tradition, appearing in hundreds of dishes and snacks and in myriad stories and sayings. However, it takes a visit to the peaceful plains of Sanxing to see the verdant scallion, perennial and abundant, in all its glory.
The spring onion is a symbol of prosperity, good luck,
Spring Onion Culture Museum (青蔥文化館)
Constellation Homestay and Cong Zai Liao Country Guesthouse
Getting There: From Taipei drive to Luodong town on National Freeway No. 5, and then on to Sanxing via Provincial Highway No. 7C, or take public transport to Luodong and transfer to a Kuo Kuang Motor Transport Co. bus near the railway station, which will take you into Sanxing proper. Scooters can be rented in Luodong for NT$350-500 per day, though some rental businesses seem reluctant to rent to foreigners, even if an International Driving Permit is presented.
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