The Black King Kong of Yuanchang
The Black King Kong of Yuanchang
Visiting a Peanut Farm in Southern Taiwan
Text: Owain Mckimm
Photos: Aska Chi
Though rarely taking the leading role in Taiwanese culinary recipes, the humble peanut makes no end of cameos across the island’s gastronomic map. Peanuts act as a filling for the sticky-rice dumplings gobbled down during the Dragon Boat Festival, provide a nutritious addition to the pork-knuckle soup eaten by new mothers during postnatal recuperation, and are a magnet for seasonal gourmands at Chinese New Year in the form of peanut brittle – not to mention their role as a popular topping in Taiwanese desserts like taro balls, tofu pudding, and shaved ice.
Almost a third of all the island’s peanuts comes from one small township in southern Taiwan: Yuanchang, Yunlin County. The level, sandy flats of this township provide the perfect conditions for peanut cultivation, though this does not mean that the farmers of Yuanchang are immune to troubles. Typhoons and seasonal rains mean the constant threat of crop spoilage. Nonetheless, the town’s yield last year was still more than 10,000 tons. A large portion of this was a cultivar known locally as youdou, or oil bean, used for processing into peanut oil. Most of the remaining tonnage, however, was made up of Yuanchang’s signature peanut – a black-skinned variety known as hei jingang, “Black King Kong.”
The Black King Kong is distinctive for its deeply wrinkled pod, the color of its testa (the papery skin that covers the kernel), which ranges from a rich plum to a charcoal black, its low oil content, and its delicate taste and texture. On a recent trip to the township with a number of companions our guide, Zhong Bing-qi from the Yuanchang Township Farmers’ Association, tells us that this particular cultivar has been grown in Yuanchang for over a decade, with the first major yield occurring in 2000. For a more detailed account of its origins, Zhong takes us to visit Wu Zhi-cheng, one of the first farmers to grow the cultivar.
Mr. Wu welcomes us to his farm with a six-pack of Taiwan Beer and enough peanuts to sate an elephant. As we sip our beers and graze on the peanuts, Wu explains the different kinds of peanuts grown in Yuanchang. “This one,” he says, holding a small specimen with a largely unwrinkled pod that’s quite smooth to the touch, “is Tainan No. 9, one of the early peanut varieties we used to grow here.”
A quick note on names: Many of the cultivars have numerical code names, which can deceive one into thinking that the conversation has digressed onto the subject of perfumes or symphonies. This is due to the fact that many of the cultivars were originally supplied by the Tainan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, an organization charged with the modification and improvement of agricultural crops. Its job is to breed better varieties, peanuts among them, and then supply the farmers with the improved versions. Each new variety is given a number – hence Tainan No. 9. “Tainan No. 9 hasn’t been grown here in quantity for about ten years,” says Wu, who grows only a small amount for personal consumption. “And you can see that it has become small and the husk is more wrinkled, whereas it used to be very smooth.” This is a perpetual problem for peanut farmers – varieties mutate.
“There are over 2,000 hectares of land being used here for growing peanuts, all fairly close together, so mutations due to cross-pollination are inevitable,” explains Zhong. “After about five or six harvests you’ll start to notice differences in the variety you’re using, and that’s due to the fact that the farmer who owns the neighboring field might be growing a different cultivar.” This phenomenon is not always detrimental, however, as it’s precisely due to this kind of mutation that the area’s star peanut, the Black King Kong, came into existence.
“The Black King Kong variety is actually the descendent of the huaren (florid kernel) variety,” says Wu, picking up another, bigger pod and cracking it open to reveal three snow-white kernels streaked with maroon. “About ten or so years ago, huaren pods containing kernels that were all black started to show up. At the time we thought this was a novelty, and started specifically selecting black kernels for use as seeds.”
The same process of mutation that created them is now, unfortunately, making the Black King Kong troublesome to cultivate well: the leaves grow ragged and disheveled, the pods, which develop underground, bunch unevenly, making harvesting difficult, and the plant is increasingly sensitive to bad weather, yielding fewer and fewer peanuts each season.
An improved variety, code-named Tainan No. 16, has been brought in to replace it. Zhong takes us to a field where they are growing this up-and-comer. Orderly and well-groomed, the plants have the appearance of an assembly of English public schoolboys in comparison to the grizzled band of Black King Kong plants growing in another field nearby. Zhong explains that the peanuts produced by the plants we see here will not be sold for consumption, but will instead be used as a source of seeds to plant more. “Before we put this cultivar on the market, we need to create a yield great enough for sustained sales,” says Zhong. “This piece of land here is about one fen (a Taiwanese unit of measurement equivalent to roughly a tenth of a hectare), and we can use the yield from this piece of land to plant five or six fen next season.” A spate of typhoons and bad weather over the past two years has, however, caused much of the experimental No. 16 to spoil before harvest, meaning that the young pretender has to date been unable to outdo the old veteran it was brought in to replace.
Mr. Zhong takes us to a field to see a peanut harvest underway. Though you’ve probably heard this numerous times – likely from people with annoyingly adenoidal voices – the peanut is of course a legume, not a nut. After being pollinated, the plant’s tiny yellow flowers wither and the stalks turn downwards, elongating until they eventually pierce the soil at the base of the plant. There, below ground, the fertilized ovaries develop into a pod. It’s for this reason that Yuanchang’s soft, sandy soil is well suited for peanut cultivation, and why wet, humid weather is such a blight – water plus soil plus peanuts equals rot.
Peanuts are planted twice a year in Yuanchang, once in January-February and once in July-August, and are harvested between 100 and 120 days after planting. The peanuts are harvested mechanically – combines with snapping steel mandibles dig up the plants, separate the pods from the rest of the bush, and deposit them in an iron saddlebag on their flank. With two machines a hectare of land can be harvested in two hours, whereas it would take three or four days with ten people harvesting by hand. After being harvested, the peanuts are dried in the sun – a necessary process for preserving the raw product, which would otherwise spoil (or even sprout in moist weather), and to prepare it for roasting.
Driving through Yuanchang during peanut season, you’re likely to see many of the smaller roads either fully or partially cordoned off by the local farmers, who dry their peanuts on the asphalt. Zhong says that this is such a widespread and time-honored practice that the local police don’t give the famers any grief. “It’s a hard enough life as it is,” he shrugs. The reason for open-air and not mechanical drying is that the peanuts need a gentle, gradual drying-out over the course of about two weeks. Experiments with mechanical dryers have resulted in peanuts with a sour, rancid flavor.
At the farmers’ association facility, we get to see the roasting process up close. The dried peanuts are put onto a conveyor belt along with heaps and heaps of sand. They then go into the roaster – a revolving drum with an internal heat of up to 150 °C – where the sand grains help to evenly distribute the temperature. After 40 minutes of roasting the sand is removed, and the peanuts are subjected to a blow-dry to get rid of any adhering dust before being spread out on a rack and left to cool.
When still raw, the dried peanuts are quite tender, and even a little sweet. Roasting them, however, brings out that distinctive umami, peanutty flavor. I crack open one of the freshly roasted pods, extract a nut, and slip off the black testa to reveal a perfectly cooked toffee-brown kernel. It’s said that no man in the world has more courage than he who can stop after eating one peanut. I am not such a man.
English and Chinese
|Tainan District Agricultural Research and Extension Station||台南區農業改良場|
|Tainan No. 9||台南九號|
|Yuanchang Township Farmers’ Association||元長鄉農會|