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Pineapples and politics in Taiwan

China banned the import of pineapples from Taiwan this month, motivating Taiwanese chefs to get creative with the fruit and support local farmers

Taiwanese President kicked off a social media challenge after China banned pineapple imports citing pests. (Masahiro Naruse, Unsplash)
Taiwanese President kicked off a social media challenge after China banned pineapple imports citing pests. (Masahiro Naruse, Unsplash)

Taiwan's classic beef noodle soup has taken on a sweet and sour twist.

Taipei chef Hung Ching Lung created a pineapple beef noodle soup at his eponymous restaurant Chef Hung, in what he says is a modest attempt to support Taiwanese pineapple farmers.

The spiky fruit became a politically charged symbol after China banned the import of Taiwan's pineapples on March 1, citing pests. In response, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen kicked off a social media challenge called “Eat Taiwan's pineapples until you burst," calling on people to support the island's farmers.

The campaign has kicked off a pineapple media frenzy, as Taiwanese politicians sought to demonstrate their support for farmers as well as Taiwanese agriculture. Politicians from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Nationalist Party flocked to farms to post pictures with pineapples.

Restauranteurs like Hung rushed to make pineapple-infused dishes. Pineapple shrimp balls, a betel nut pineapple salad and classics like fried rice with pineapple are just some of the dishes being pushed out by restaurants and hotels on the island.

Hung said he and his team spent three days testing ways to incorporate pineapple into beef noodles. It took about 10 attempts.

“The first time we tested it when we cooked it in the soup, it was very sweet, it was inedible and tasted completely of pineapple," he said. The successful attempt was based on separating the juice from the fruit during cooking, which removed the sweetness that would otherwise overpower the beef flavor.

China denies its move to ban Taiwanese pineapples was politically motivated, with a spokesperson for Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office saying that the decision was a “normal biosafety measure, and entirely reasonable and necessary." Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the move one that “flies in the face of rules-based, free and fair trade.”

China has most recently leveraged its immense market in a trade war with Australia. It stopped or reduced imports of beef, coal, barley, seafood, sugar and timber from Australia after that country supported calls for a probe into the origin of the coronavirus pandemic, which is believed to have begun in China in late 2019.

Despite the hubbub, the pineapple ban may not drastically impact Taiwanese farmers.

A day after the ban was enacted, Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang told local media that the amount purchased by domestic businesses and citizens exceeded the amount that would have been sold to China. The government also promised subsidies worth 1 billion New Taiwan dollars ($35 million) to help out farmers.

The government said it has also received orders from Japan, Australia, Singapore, Vietnam and Middle Eastern countries.

Annually, Taiwan produces about 420,000 metric tons of pineapples, 90% of which are sold on the island itself, according to the Council of Agriculture. Some 10% of that annual production is sold abroad, and China makes up the vast majority of those purchases.

It is unclear whether the recent surge in domestic orders and orders from foreign countries will make up for China's ban in the long run.

But in the short term, it has drawn patriotic feelings out of some local residents.

“We are all trying to find a way to help the farmers,” said Alice Tsai, who stopped in Hung's restaurant on Wednesday to try noodles that she said were surprisingly tasty.

“The other day I went to the supermarket and found that all the pineapples were sold out, and I felt very touched," she said. "Everyone has this feeling of solidarity.”

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