On Food & Farming, Drink & Decay

The Hakka people who built the tulous were farmers, and that occupation remains the focus of life for many people today. Terraced farms line the lower sections of many of the hillsides. Above these you’ll often find rows and rows of tea plants cut into the sides of the mountains (that’s tea just over my right shoulder).



I have no idea what planting zone we were in. The mix of plantings was fascinating – someone may plant a few banana trees right alongside a row of green cabbages, which to my mind is having the tropics planted right next to a winter crop.

You’ll find vegetable patches in all sorts of unexpected places – if there’s a flat area, chances are you may stumble on some jie cai (Chinese mustard) or onion shoots. The two-foot space between the road and the steep hillsides seem to be favorite places to appropriate for long, tiny veggie plots.

The people here dry cabbages, radishes, and other mysterious vegetables all over the place. Some are dried on large woven disks…




…while others are laid out on large rectangular mats or tarps:




And they drape jie cai (Chinese mustard) leaves everywhere: on poles, on bridge railings, on rooftops, on woodpiles.


You can see it in every stage of decay as you wander around:


Here’s what it looks like in its almost-finished form:


People are very creative in their drying locations:


Everyone in the Hakka villages seemed to have birds of some sort — chickens or ducks, at the very least — so you could find beautiful boxes of eggs in the markets:



And sugarcane (to gnaw on or to drink) was a popular roadside offering:


Most of the farming in the Hakka villages is done on steep hillsides, which means that it’s difficult to use modern machinery. It’s not uncommon to see oxen in the fields (or walking down the road). I did find one person using a weed whacker on some tea plants, but for the most part, the tools you see people using are tools they might have been using 500 years ago.



To get a sense of the farming life in Hakka villages, our boys learned how to farm with an ox (though they did two at a time what an ordinary farmer would do solo):



I joined in – wow, what a lot of mud!


img_0367The boys also learned to plant spring onions (though some of them did such a lousy job with spacing that the farmers went back and ripped out most of our work …).


Later on, we went to a small, one-family tea factory and learned how they’ve been processing tea leaves in the region for the last 100 years:




In general, the tea here is either green (but not like Japanese green tea) or red, which I’d never heard of. And tea drinking is a big deal – it’s not just for tourists. As far as I could see, when they’re not working, people in this region drink tea all day long out of tiny cups (you see groups of men doing this more often than women). It’s very social and highly ritualized (here, the kids are being served tea as they interview a resident of one of the tulous — and as they ask Gary for help with some Chinese translations).


All of our meals at the tulou and in restaurants were served typical Chinese style: no plates, a bowl just for rice or soup, and everyone reaching over everyone else to grab whatever they wanted from the many communal plates that ended up littering the table. Some things were easily identifiable (cabbage; boiled potatoes), while other things were not (random meat products; “green vegetable”). Here’s Jeremy at the very start of a meal (eventually, our hosts would completely cover the entire table with different dishes):



Breakfast at the tulou always came in a huge bowl. One morning we ate congee, a sort of watery rice porridge (it’s just as uninspiring as it sounds, even when you add peanuts and pickled turnips and unidentified pickled items). On other days we ate what must have been chicken soup with rice or noodles.  And there were always these somewhat spongey, somewhat tasteless but yummy little buns that the kids ate in about two bites:


Gary, our lead tour guide, offered up this saying: “the Chinese will eat anything that flies, except an airplane, and anything that has legs, except a table.” We definitely saw lots of strange (to me) foodstuffs. Chicken feet are everywhere — here’s Vincent, one of our guides, with a bag …


… and Jeremy, with a foot we found in a bowl of soup …


… as Gary demonstrates, you can also buy a bag of tongues …



… and we had a lot of fun with this chicken head that we found in our soup at lunch:



All in all, most of our kids were impressively adventuresome eaters. They ate squid and fish and tiny crunchy shrimp, egg with tomato, pork fat with preserved mustard greens, duck soup with tea tree mushrooms. They ate things they could name and things they could not.


We were all amused when we ate in a restaurant with a C rating (and I’m still not sure why there’s a smiley face on top when the C face is frowning at the bottom).



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