Pineapples in Taiwan

Pineapple. Source: Wikipedia

When speaking of pineapple in Taiwan, pineapple shortcake, a representative of Taiwan’s souvenirs, comes to mind. But pineapple is in fact not a fruit that originates from Taiwan. It’s ancestry can be traced back 300 hundred years or so, to the tropical South America, introduced to Europe after Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) discovered it in the village of Guadelope during his second voyage in 1496, finding its way into China in the mid-16th century; it was subsequently brought to Macau by the Portuguese in 1605, then to Fujian and Guangdong, later to Taiwan.

Pineapple is popular in Taiwan due to its name sounding similar to a phrase meaning “to come forth, prosperous and thriving”(Ong-Lai) in Taiwanese Hokkien, however its name actually comes from its fruit’s outward appearance. People in the old times thinking that the large stem of green leaves on top of the fruit similar to a phoenix’s tail, and the color of the pulp look like that of a pear, hence it’s Chinese name, “鳳梨” (Feng Li). It’s English name bears a similar resemblance in that it was named due to how it looked like a pine cone and was sweet to the taste, called the “pineapple”! The pine like shape is a coalescence of 200 berries compacted into one fruit (compound fruit is what it is called), and of its scientific binomial name Ananas comosus, ananas, the original name of the fruit, comes from the Tupi word nanas, which means “excellent fruit”.

Thanks to its sweetness, pineapples became all the rage after Columbus imported the fruit into Europe; unfortunately as a tropical fruit, it grew poorly in the temperate zone Europe. Dutch economist Pieter de la Court (1618–1685) was the first European to grow pineapple successfully in 1658, more than one hundred years after its discovery by Columbus. To provide pineapples for the elite, the gardeners of the 16th century invented a “pineapple stove”: planting a single pineapple plant on top of a wooden scaffolding atop a bed of horse dung, some even lighting the stove underneath to keep it warm, thus allowing the tropical plant to bloom and bear fruit; this was how the first greenhouse was born, and so began the frenzy of building greenhouses in Europe. During that time, it was considered to be an honor for the guests if the host exhibited pineapple on the banquet, therefore some people would rent pineapple just to show it. The crochet motif “pineapple” was also created around that time as a symbol of hospitable and affluence.

Not only did pineapples change Europe, when the Japanese had a taste of it after coming to Taiwan, they started developing the pineapple industry there. In 1903, Shotaro Okamura (岡村庄太郎) set up the Okamura pineapple factory in the Fongshan district, producing canned pineapples; it gradually grew into a pineapple production system mainly situated in Yuanlin and Fongshan. In 1938, pineapple factories’ female workers made up a third of the whole country’s working female population. After Japanese launch of the Pacific War, the Allies bombed the factory and made pineapple production difficult. After World War II, Taiwan’s pineapple industry was at one point second to none, earning the title “pineapple kingdom” in 1971. But the shifting from agricultural to industrial society caused wages to rise, making Taiwan pineapple canning industry lost competition to Philippines, Thailand, Ivory Coast and other countries, and so transformed from exporting canned fruit to mainly domestic selling freshly-cut fruit.

Over the years, Taiwan’s pineapple varieties do not always stay the same since the Qing dynasty. The earliest pineapples were called native species (在來種), originated from southern China, and later for the sake of conveniently producing canned pineapples during Japanese occupation, the Hawaiian variant Cayenne was imported; after the 1980s, when exported canned goods could no longer compete against other countries’, Taiwan’s pineapples were mainly sold on the domestic market as freshly-cut fruit, and in an attempt to salvage the pineapple industry, agricultural research and extension stations and the agricultural research institute selected and bred different varieties of pineapples fit for freshly eating. These new varieties include: the Tai Nong №4 (台農4號), that doesn’t require peeling and can be eaten with your bare hands, got a nickname as Sweetsop pineapple (釋迦鳳梨); the Tai Nong №13, honey winter (冬蜜鳳梨), most suitable for producing during autumn and winter; the Tai Nong №11, perfume pineapple (香水鳳梨), that has a special aroma; and the Tai Nong №20, milky pineapple, named after its white-ish pulp, etc. Lately the most cultivated species is Tai Nong №17, the renowned Golden-diamond (金鑽) pineapple. And it’s all thanks to Mr. Ching-Chyn Chang (張清勤) of the Chiayi Agricultural Experiment Branch, who dedicated four decades of his life to pineapples, so we can have such a wide variety of this excellent fruit! Although Golden-diamond is the most popular pineapple variety in Taiwan, smooth Cayenne is the most cultivated pineapple variety in the world.

Although pineapple shortcake is one of the most representative of Taiwan’s souvenirs, the earliest pineapple shortcake’s filling was actually made of winter melon (Benincasa pruriens), not pineapple! Using “native pineapples(土鳳梨)” as filling was developed in the last few years, but what is referred to as “native” is in fact Cayenne from Hawaii or earlier breed coming from southern China, so which can really be qualified as “native”?

Besides its pulp being delicious, bromelain (cysteine protease extract from the stems of pineapples) can be used to break down proteins, which is useful as a meat tenderizer and debriding wounds; pineapples’ leaves’ fibers can also be woven into nipis fabrics and leather. Pineapple is truly a gem from top to bottom!

Have you experienced sore tongue feeling after eating a large amount of pineapple? Some blame it on bromelain, others hold raphides, needle-shaped crystals of calcium oxalate, responsible; whatever the cause, as long as you don’t eat too much, it won’t happen.

Because Taiwan’s natural conditions will make 80% of the pineapples ripen in the summer, in order to avoid oversupply, farmers will treat pineapples to adjust the flowering time. Treatment is usually carried out six months before the scheduled production date. Using calcium carbide and water, 1-Naphthaleneacetic acid (NAA) or Ethrel can produce similar results. Among these three, NAA is a synthetic auxin. There is a rumor going around in Taiwan claiming eating pineapples treated with auxin will cause sexual precocity. However, this is a misunderstanding. Although the Chinese translation of auxin (生長素) is similar to somatotropin (生長激素), their structures are totally different so auxin cannot elicit similar effect as somatotropin do. Rumor also claimed that the pineapples with bigger stems are auxin-treated. However, the size of pineapple stem is only related to different varieties.

In the past when canned pineapples were the main exporting good, farmers would treat pineapples with auxin to get the size of fruit bigger so they can easily peeled by the machine. However, auxin treatment will cause the pineapple to be more sour; although it doesn’t matter for canned pineapples, it does make it unfavorable if eating fresh. Therefore, farmers now only use auxin to adjust pineapples’ flowering time. Since the treatment is done six month beforehand, any residual auxin will be gone by then so it shouldn’t be a concern.

Although pineapple is very popular in Taiwan because of its Taiwanese Hokkien pronunciation, people working in hospitals, emergency department and police stations do not welcome pineapple. Why don’t they welcome pineapples? Probably because usually when they are very busy, meaning something bad happened. In light of this, they avoid anything related to pineapples. Not only eating fresh pineapples, they also avoid eating pineapple shortcake, drinking pineapple juice and using pineapple to worship God. Despite research done by Darlin Tzu Chi Hospital in 2012 showing there’s no difference whether you eat pineapple or not, people would still rather believe it. Some people are even called “Walking pineapple” because they are always busy when they are on shift. Superstitious or not, it’s really hard to say, isn’t it?

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.

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