As the sole proprietor producing pickled mustard greens using a traditional method in wooden barrels in Taiwan, the Lin family know they must continue this time-honored craft.
It is currently the time of year to harvest the leafy mustard greens, and nowadays the big wooden barrels for preserving this Taiwanese vegetable dish can only be found in Greater Tainan’s Jiangjun Township (將軍).
Lin Kuo-yi (林國已) and his son, Lin Huang-ching (林煌津), have dedicated themselves to continuing the tradition of pickling mustard greens.
The sour and salty pickled mustard greens are used to enhance the flavors of many Taiwanese dishes, including beef noodle soup and minced pork rice.
Last week, the Lin family started harvesting this year’s crop. Laborers harvest the mustard greens by hand, bundling the vegetables together for transport to the warehouse, where skilled workers pickle the vegetables by stacking them, with liberal sprinklings of coarse salt, into large wooden barrels.
Made of fir wood, the wooden barrels measures 7 Taiwanese chih (台尺) (2.12m) in height, and the same in diameter. One such old-style barrel can pack up to 8,000 Taiwanese jin (台斤) (4,800kg) of the mustard greens.
The Lin family still owns 40 of the wooden barrels.
Only two barrels can be filled per working day, and so it takes 20 days to fill the 40 barrels, which can meet customer demand for one year, the family said.
Two other areas in the south are also renowned for the Taiwanese-style pickled mustard greens — Madou Township (麻豆), also in Tainan County, and Dabi Township (大埤) in Yunlin County. However, proprietors there use burrowed earth pits instead of wooden barrels for pickling.
These days, after 46 years in the business, only the Lin family pickles vegetables the traditional way.
To them, the barrels are not just the equipment for earning their income; they treat the old barrels like precious treasures.
Lin Kuo-yi started to work in the vegetable pickling trade when he was 30 years old.
He said in the beginning he bought five wooden barrels, which were 5 Taiwanese chih (1.51m) in height. When business picked up, he purchased the larger ones from a barrel maker in Pingtung County.
“Now these big wooden barrels have more than 30 years of history. When I bought them 30 years ago, they cost NT$5,000 each. Now the price for one is more than NT$10,000,” Lin Kuo-yi said.
His son will takeover the family business.
Lin Huang-ching said the barrels are made from fir wood, and some of them are gradually decaying, with five already in such bad condition they will soon to become unusable. However, they still have the 40 good ones.
“It is a shame that all the old master barrel makers have passed away. Nowadays nobody can make them or repair them. So we are fixing additional iron hoops around the barrels to protect and re-enforce them. This way we hope to prolong the life of the barrels,” Lin Huang-ching said.
Lin Kuo-yi’s field has an area of 1 fen (分) (970m2) can yield up to 8,000 Taiwanese jin of mustard greens, which can fill up one large wooden barrel.
Last week the farm’s eight laborers started at 3am, driving farm wagons around Madou and other townships to harvest mustard greens. The vegetables are collected and transported back to the Jiangjun Township warehouse for pickling.
The mustard greens are then stacked in layers, each topped by a sprinkling of coarse salt. The layering of mustard greens and salt is repeated until the barrel is full. The workers then put a large rock on top of the greens to weigh them down. The pile reaches 1m over the top of the wooden barrel.
It takes about two hours to fill one large barrel, using about 750kg of coarse salt.
“It is physically very demanding work. But this traditional way of pickling in wooden barrels is a cultural treasure. We should do everything possible to sustain this traditional trade,” said Kao Chun-chang (高春昌), a 72-year-old hired laborer.
“After the barrels are filled with mustard greens to start the pickling process, we have to climb up there to stamp down on the pile twice day, once in the morning and once at night,” Lin Kuo-yi said.
“After a half-month, the fermentation process is complete. After removing the bitter-tasting brine fluid, the greens are ready. The pickled mustard greens are best served with pork belly, stir-fried vegetables and steamed duck dishes,” he said.