Sunday, November 24, 2013

How to Read Nutritional Labels in Chinese

One of the biggest road blocks in my adventure to figure out what I've been eating here in Taiwan is nutrition labels. The labels offer similar nutritional information as the USA but not identically, and not in the same order, in Traditional Chinese, and serving sizes are metric. There are a few conversations on the age-old Formosa boards that offer some non-helpful tips, and some tips that are totally wrong. No, 7-11 does not list nutritional information in English, *sigh. I also ran across this very detailed but also confusing pamphlet from Hong Kong.

The nutrition labels usually offer the following facts, and typically in this order:

熱量 (Re4 Liang4) Energy (units = 大卡 / da1 ka3 / Kcal) 
蛋白質 (Dan4 Bai2 Zhi4) Protein (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
脂肪 (Zhi1 Fang2) Total Fat (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
  飽和脂肪 (Bao3 He2 Zhi1 Fang2) Saturated Fat (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
  反式脂肪 (Fan3 Shi4 Zhi1 Fang2) Trans Fat (still legal?) (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
碳水化合物 (Tan4 Shui3 Hua4 He2 Wu4) Carbohydrates (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)
鈉 (Na4) Sodium (unit =  毫克/ hao2ke4 / milligram)
糖 (Tang2) Sugar Not always listed (unit =  公克 / gong1ke4 / gram)

A less than complete list compared to the USA standard. I am not sure why sugar is broken out of the carbohydrate category. I guess you could figure out which fats are unsaturated by subtracting the two listed fats (saturated and trans) from total fat. Noticeably the vitamins and minerals are usually absent. I find foods marketing themselves as nutritious list that out. 

Above you can see the nutrition label for lemon tea, a very common drink in Taiwan. It does not list sugar as a nutritional item, which is a little dodgy in my opinion. Instead it lists total carbohydrates. Knowing that 1 gram of sugar contributes 4 calories we can guess that most of the calories are coming from sugars. Most sweet teas do not contain fiber! 

What is very different if you are coming from the states in serving size. Most often in Taiwan a serving is 100 milliliters (毫升/ hao2sheng1 /.42 cups) or 100 grams (公克 / gong1ke4 /3.5 oz) whether you should actually be consuming that quantity in a sitting or not. For example you would probably not be interested in eating 100 grams of the gooey thick bitter black sesame paste I am using as example here. Alternatively, you would be likely to chug a whole over sized tea carton on a hot day, and may be shocked to realize you drank 6.5 servings. You will probably need to do some additional math as to how much a "you-sized" serving or portion will be. 

Serving size and servings per container are usually not listed above the nutritional facts. Often they are found next door along with ingredients, country of origin, and other details I can't read. Above you can see that the container has 250 公克 (grams) of sesame paste. If you aren't confident in recognizing your Traditional Chinese characters go ahead and assume the biggest number is the total grams or milliliter. A container's total weight or volume is also not always listed on the front of the package. Looking to this area pretty much tells you everything  else you need to know. 

A final scenario exists, on occasion food nutrition IS offered in a suggested portion. Here is a can of good ole Quaker oats. It lists 37.5 grams of oats as a portion which would make about 1 cup cooked. You can read up top in Chinese: 每一份量 (mei3 yi2 fen4 liang / every serving) and 本包裝含 (ben3 bao1 zhuang1 han2 / servings per container). 

Anyone other special knowledge out there on Taiwanese food labeling? Please share any comments or criticisms. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Taipei Aquaponics: Rooftop Urban Agriculture

Chillaxia Aquaponic bones 

Taipei is a pretty green place. Figuratively, literally the mid-century ugly style Japanese buildings are softened by lush greenery sprouting in and around every crevice and surface. Its common to see patches of dirt cultivated into vegetable gardens. Until recently there was small farm across the street from Taipei 101 the world's second largest building in the smack center of Taipei's commercial area.

Recently I've been seeking the stories behind these gardens. I don't have a space to garden, but I thought I'd draw some inspiration from what is happening and share it for everyone to see. Facebook has been a remarkable resource in Taipei for locating groups. A post in Green Taiwan led me to learn about a woman named Tammy Turner with permaculture garden in Xindian, a large Aquaponic garden called Avata, and a gentleman named John building his own aquaponic system on his rooftop dubbed Chillaxia. I immediately requested a tour, and he happily agreed.

An into a world of puppets! These are some of the pieces you might see at the Dream Parade. 

Dream community is just as its name suggests. 

A friend, Reider, and I set out to an area just east of DongHu MRT. We ended up getting more than just a garden. Chillaxia is on top of one of the Dream Community development's rooftops. This is no ordinary place. A development that grew out of a virtuoso pig farmer's vision of community supporting a puppet workshop, theater, specialty travel restaurant, samaba drum classes, sculpture studio, glass blowing facility and more all set within a set of several modern and comfortable residential buildings. The Dream Community may be most well know for its Dream parade once a year, where it brings Carnival style floats, costumes, and fun to unsuspecting people of Taipei. And of course now its own citizens are introducing an aquaponic garden.

These circumstances are pretty special, and they answered my first question, "What kind of approval did you need to set up a rooftop garden?" If you are an urban gardener you are dealing with limited real estate, borrowed spaces, city ordinances, and the general transient nature of people living in cities. The Dream Community is a easy-going place that encourages creativity. John told me that in fact a goat used to live on this specific spot. Once the goat had died he was free to set up as he pleased using the old goat shed as materials to hold his garden.

My next question was. "Where do you find materials to build an aquaponic or hydroponic garden?" The answer (my favorite answer to any problem really) is to re-use old materials. His split blue bins are reclaimed from commercial sources. The wood platforms used to be a goat shed. Split bamboo from a neighboring garden was bent to structure his hoop houses. Tools? Well he does live over a puppet and art workshop. Kuddos to John for making the most of his space and resources. Other materials such as tubing can be pretty easily attained at a home store. There was some plastic sheeting to cover the hoop house that was made specifically for that purpose. Clay balls used to anchor the plants and their roots was ordered from New Zealand. John told me that he had used contacts made from the Avata garden to source these specialized materials.

Let's take a look at his system. Its still being built (I'll visit again to post an update when he has things growing) so use your imagination to see the lush greens and herbs, fat squashes and pumpkins growing along side the happy tilapia that will live in his aquaponic system. This is a 3-part system 1) growing beds which are the blue split barrels. These will be filled with water from the 1000 liter tilapia tank. The grey pipe running horizontally along the right side of the system carries this water. The grey vertical tubes in the back of the blue barrels  the blue barrels are autosiphons. They automatically drain and fill the growbeds. As the growbeds are drained, oxygen can get to the roots. And then as the growbed fills again, the roots get exposed to the nitrate-rich water. The plants which will be held in place by clay balls that not only prevent roots from drowning but are a place for good bacteria to breed. 

Clay balls to anchor plant beds and cultivate bacteria

The black tub on the left below is the tilapia tank. The Tilapias' diet will be leftover vegetable scraps, commercial fish food, and black soldier fly larvae from a larvae farm that is also going to be built on this rooftop. Their waste (ammonia) is converted to nitrite by one kind of bacteria, and then converted to nitrate by another kind of bacteria. The nitrate is fertilizer for the plants, and the fish can reuse the water after the plants have removed the nitrate from it. Its a closed symbiotic system! Variables can cause things to go wrong but ultimately its extremely sustainable way to feed a family or small community. The Chillaxia system is only beginning. To succeed John will have to tend to all three living parts (plants, bacteria, and fish) but after its running successfully he told me that he can tripple his grow beds. If everything goes well he will not need to contribute any extra nutrients to his system. In some cases, iron chelate is added to the system as an aquaponic system can become iron deficient. I look forward to seeing and hopefully tasting his results. 

Black 1000 L tub will house tilapia.

Cardiovascular organ of the system, a pump.

Above you can see the heart of the system a pump. Some systems use solar panels for energy. The convience to urban gardening is that are likely to have an easily accessable power sources. Chillaxia has outlets only feet away!

What luck an outlet on the roof. 

Not ready to start your own full system, or just not sure where you'll be for the next 3 years? The Avata garden sells a DIY starter kit using a regular storage bin it can easily live on any balcony. In Taipei we all have balconies on every floor, often on multiple sides of our buildings. The utility end of our apartment lives, where residents dry clothes, store cleaning materials, keep your shoes, and rain coats, and whatever else you don't bring inside. Here you can see John's successful system which is growing an enormous mint plant.

 Ryder ponders Donghu next to home-sized aquaponic system. Not mint plant is close to 3 feet tall and being supported. 

Pump and tank for John's DIY home sized system. 

You can only sort of see one of his koi fish. He had 3 of different colors. With slightly different materials this system could make very attractive decoration for your home. 

I'm very motivated to visit more of Taiwan's gardening projects. Little and big gardens are happening everywhere here. Its currently November so I may take a break from this pursuit hoping Spring will have more to offer. 

-- updated on 2013/11/13: thanks to John for edits. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Healthy Eating Taiwan, Pt. 1 Healthy at Home

Eat healthy on $200 NTD a day 

Finding healthy food in Taiwan isn't much different than in America. Just like in America the healthiest food isn't the one jumping off the shelf in a bright colored box or advertised on the side of a bus. You have to seek it. Moving to an Asian country, especially Taiwan, creates a large language barrier. It take some time and I'm here to give a little guidance and inspiration.

What am I calling healthy? We could bounce ideas around for ages on that very subject. I am going to say a mostly "clean" diet of vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates is healthy. The foods here are mostly gluten-free, in case you are so disabled. I'm pointing out vegan and vegetarian options. Taiwan loves its pork and seafood, but due to a high buddhist population there are tons of options for vegetarians and vegans. Without even trying most of these foods are found locally. Living on a small island encourages that!

Food is remarkably accessible in Taiwan. Every block in Central Taipei has a strip of restaurants. Noodles, dumplings, stir fry, rice based food, bento box, western style pasta, western brunch, tea, Taiwanese breakfast, sushi, and vegetarian are very common.  For $50 NTD ($1.50 USD) you can get  a slab of delicious fried chicken, two vegetable sides, rice and maybe some soup. Its a deal! It's also greasy, and you aren't going to want to eat that all day or everyday.

Grocery stores are easy to find in Taipei. There's two main ones: Red (Welcome) and Blue (United) with a sprinkling of other stores local and fancy import. If you are craving something from home head to a neighborhood where locals live. I found Bisquick, pickles, and ranch dressing at the Welcome on Heping on Roosevelt roads near Guting MRT Station. Otherwise expect what Taiwanese people like to eat. Traditional markets and fruit stands are a great way to shop for produce. Prices are usually the same or cheaper than chain stores depending on what's in abundance or in season. I will show you my favorite markets soon.

Welcome to my kitchen. This is it, plus a plastic cutting board. 

Remarkably its more expensive to buy fresh ingredients and cook at home, unless you shop wisely. What's more is you probably don't have an oven. In fact I don't even have a stove! I don't have a kitchen or fridge either. This is totally normal for a person who wants to live in their own space. To give you some perspective my food bill is 20% bigger than my rent/utility bill combine. The eating out culture extends so far that you are unlikely to get your own kitchen space.  Home cooks here are working with a lot of obstacles. I encourage you to carry on! Cooking at home ensures you are getting what you want and is oh so satisfying. I have been pondering, calculating and experimenting with these circumstances for the last 3 months. Here is my weekly list of food designed to keep you healthy and satisfied and with cash in your pocket:

Oatmeal -- 麥片 (Mai4 Pian4)
$114 NTD for 21 servings. That's $5 a serving and will keep you full all morning long. Don't have a hot plate? Its really not so bad raw, mixed into yogurt, or with some milk on top.

Bananas -- 香蕉(Xiang1 Jiao1)
$8-$13 a piece. Local, so local! Yay for living in the sub-tropics where bananas are local. Put these in your oatmeal or have as a snack.

Eggs -- 雞蛋 (Ji1 Dan4)
$54 for 8  @ $6.75 a piece eggs are my favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner. E-eggs are the standard organic egg in Taiwan. I don't know how cruelty-free or if they are at all. I often poach eggs and put them on top vegetables or salad for lunch. An egg plus lentil soup is a hearty side of the pyramid. I don't suggest keeping eggs for more than 5 days unrefrigerated. I had a very memorable bad egg experience, which taught me this lesson.

Lentils -- 扁豆 (Bian3 Dou4)
$150 a kilo, about 10 servings @$15 each. Bad news folks, green and brown lentils are considered seeds by the Taiwanese government and must be fumigated. Red lentils are in, because they're split I guess.  You can find other dried beans at the grocery store (black soy, green, red, and recently saw black-eyed peas) and my favorite Trinity Indian food store. Lentils have consistently been on my plate for years because they are fast cooking and versatile. Lentil soup can be dressed up with all kinds of veggies: eggplant, spinach, broccoli, yams, turnips, pumpkin, tomato, carrots. You name it, its good with lentils.

Canned Tuna -- 鮪魚 (Wei3 Yu2)
$147 for 3 cans @ $49 a can.  I eat 2 cans of tuna a week though for some good proteins. Its more than I probably should eat. Mercury levels are high in tuna and tuna fishing isn't the most sustainable. Since I've moved to Taiwan I've learned to deal with doing things I would never have done before, because there are just less options on a our small island. So far other canned fish is not winning in Taiwan. I miss you herring snacks. Canned tuna doesn't need a refrigerator. Its great in a salad or sometimes I mix it in with some ramen, hooha. I've found it pays to buy the most expensive tuna you can. I like the one packed in oil.

Tofu -- 豆腐 (Dou4 Fu)
$17 Huge slab (a pound-ish) for about 4 servings @$4.25 a serving. You live in Asia and you're a vegetarian you say? You can help yourself to enormous fresh bricks of tofu that cost less than potatoes per pound. Most of your problems are solved right there. I don't normally buy a large block, because I can't eat it all in one sitting. Tofu should be refrigerated. Got an oven? Make Tofu Jerky. Possibilities are endless with tofu.

Dried Seaweed -- 紫菜 (Zi3 Cai4)
$88 for 30 little packs @ $3 a pack. An easy snack, and also useful condiment. I like to crush it up and on top of veggies, salads, and eggs for variety. It has a little iron, calcium, and some other minerals, but mostly this one just shakes things up

Rice Crackers -- 餅乾 (Bing3 Gan1)
$44 for a bag of about 2 servings. Several thousand kinds of crackers exist in Taiwan from wheat-based to, shrimp, squid and right back to rice crackers, even a few corn chips. I really like this the rice seaweed crackers above. Bonus it comes in a fairly sturdy bag that can be used as a ziplock later for other things. This isn't the cheapest snack out there, but its tastiness makes up for it.

Dried Peas -- 青豆 (Qing1 Dou4)
$45 for 10 little bags @$4.5 each. Its hum mid here so a ton of things get individually wrapped. Little bags of green peas aren't too nutritious but aren't nearly as bad a bag of chips. I keep them in my bag for an on the go kind of hunger emergency. These are made in Taiwan too.

Edamame -- 毛豆 (Mao2 Dou4)
$29 for 2 servings @ $15 a serving. Slightly less portable, but much more healthy. A good one to munch on while you relax in the evening. Its covered in Taiwanese spices!

Almonds -- 杏仁 (Xing4 Ren2)
$101 for 10 little bags @$10 a serving. Fiber and all that good stuff. Eat them as snacks, chopped on veggies. Good on the go protein stuff.

Miso Paste -- 味噌 (Wei2 Ceng1)
$110 for a million servings. Realistically, let's say $4 a serving. No really, I've been eating my tub for at least 6 months with no end in site. Miso is salty so please eat in moderation. Miso doubles as a snack and an ingredient.  Make some soup, or use it to poach chicken or veggies in. I should add that without refrigeration the miso will grow mold where exposed to air. Don't fear a little mold. I scrape the mold off and just keep going. I am still alive. If you are a person of a compromised immune system you may not want to be eating food kept in this condition.

Yams -- 地瓜(Di4 Gua1)
$38 for 6 medium and small yams, which is good for 4-5 large servings @ $9.  Do I need to tell you why you should be filling up on yams? Fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, and potassium. I boil them and sprinkle with seaweed. Sometimes I make a miso yam soup, good times.

Broccoli -- 青花菜 (Qing1 Hua1 Cai4)
$34 for a pound, $17 for 2 big servings. There are tons of veggies you buy locally in Taiwan, but broccoli will last for a whole 3 days outside of the fridge!

Red Cabbage -- 紅高菜 (Hong2 Gao3 Cai4)
$20 for a good hunk, or about 3 servings @ $7 each. Cabbage will last for about a week without a refrigerator. Its loaded with vitamin C and fiber. I find it keeps me feeling really full too. Chop it up for salads containing any combination of the foods above.

Sprouts  -- 豆芽 (Dou4 Ya2)
$25 for a bag as big as your head. I will guess and say a bag would make 5 good salads @$5 a serving. Sprouts galore! Adorable green baby plants to decorate your plate. Taiwan has a number of varieties, and I'm not sure where they all have sprouted from. Sprouts are more of a 1-2 day thing without a fridge.

Instant Noodles -- 方便面 (Fang1 Bian4 mian4)
Like the tuna, instant noodles are not the healthiest. I think I can safely say there is very little to redeem this artificially flavored, high sodium, highly processed wheat product. My exception is that a big bowl of hot noodles is good for your soul. Asia's chicken noodle. Ramen is so much better here than in America!! Still feeling iffy? Dress those noodles up with broccoli and miso, to let your conscious relax.

Other things I keep around: salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, olive oil, vinegar, green tea, hot chocolate powder, sriracha, honey, and garlic cloves. The spices of life that you may acquire as you go.

There you have it. You can feed yourself at home and stay on budget, no kitchen necessary, without giving yourself coronary problems. Next edition will approach eating out in Taiwan for the health conscious.