Sat, Aug 24, 2019 - Page 13 News List

A milklover’s guide to Taiwanese milk

With roots in Japanese colonial rule, the local milk industry is now churning out a wide range of single-source, blended and regional varieties

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

The nine milk brands we tested: (back row, from left to right) Liu Jia Village, KenKen Bread, Lun Bei, Chu Lu Ranch; (front row, from left to right) Guang Quan, Rui Sui, Dr. Milker, Lin Feng Yin and Ru Xiang Shi Jia.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced that domestic dairy production hit a historic high of 6.6 million tonnes last year. Local demand continues to outstrip supply. That seems counterintuitive, considering that dairy is largely absent from traditional Chinese food and drink, and worldwide, lactose intolerance is most prevalent among people of East Asian descent.

Yet after moving here a year ago, it surprised me to discover that Taiwan resembled a Biblical land of fresh milk (and honey). Back home in Singapore, the island boasted a solitary cow farm (and one goat farm). Almost all the milk I drank growing up — along with more than 90 percent of food overall — was imported. There was usually little transparency around the sources of fresh milk, which always tasted a bit off to me.

Contrast that with Taiwan, populated with 132,995 heads of dairy cattle as of the end of last year. Supermarkets offer a tyranny of choice, so one trick I’ve learned is to look out for a black-and-white cow sticker on the carton, which displays information about the season of production and volume of milk in a compact manner. Introduced by the Council of Agriculture in 1986 to address food safety concerns, the sticker indicates that the milk has been inspected and certified to be fresh milk with no additives.

Aside from comparing a number of well-known milk brands against each other, I wanted to understand how Taiwan has come to produce milk of such quality, and how the beverage became a part of local diets. The answer to that constitutes one of the country’s most successful projects of economic modernization, but also reveals decades of colonial influence and cultural aspirations.

EARLY HISTORY OF MILK

The native water buffalo was only occasionally milked by locals. This yielded small quantities that were sometimes sold fresh to missionaries or used to make small, round soft cheeses, according to animal scientist Sung Yung-i (宋永義) writing in the Dairy Farming Newsletter (酪農天地).

Before the Japanese colonial era, the earliest cattle kept for dairy purposes were meant to service Western communities. In 1872, some cattle were even kept at Oluanpi Lighthouse (鵝鑾鼻燈塔) in Pingtung to produce milk for European officers stationed there, cultural historian Chen Yu-chen (陳玉箴) writes in the National Taiwan Library’s Newsletter on Taiwan Studies (臺灣學通訊).

It took a colonial endeavor for the first dairy farm of scale to open in Taiwan. With the Westernization of diets during the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese had developed a taste for milk and beef. Chung Dairy Ranch (柊牧場) opened in 1896 to provide milk for Japanese servicemen, particularly the wounded who needed extra nutrition.

The ranch only took off after a breakthrough in cross-breeding temperate and tropical breeds of dairy cattle, which could acclimatize to the local heat and humidity. This was such a source of pride for the Japanese colonizers that when the head of an important imperial family branch visited in 1908, the government made a point of presenting him with fresh “imperial-grade” milk (御乳) made in Taiwan.

Chen writes that the colonial period cemented the image of milk as a prestige product in the eyes of locals, despite (or perhaps because of) its consumption being limited to Western and Japanese communities. This connection made dairy farming a vital part of Taiwan’s post-war economic reconstruction.

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