Food lovers worldwide order up platters of fresh oysters, freshly shucked and presented on a fresh bed of crushed ice with lemon wedges and, just maybe, a scattering of seaweed to evoke the fresh scent of the sea. While nobody’s debating the freshness of those oysters — if a restaurant is serving them raw, they’d better be fresh — few consider the journey they’ve made and even fewer have enjoyed oysters so fresh they only left the water seconds before being popped open and slurped down. A visit to Taijian, Taiwan will set you straight as to what you’re missing in the hours and days those oysters are on the road to your platter, omelet or barbecue.
The region’s lush, green wetlands are known for their incredible biodiversity. The first boat three North American chefs and I boarded that day in Taijian National Park glided through the “Green Tunnel,” a narrow coastal river whose banks are lined with giant mangrove trees that are home to the most fiddler crabs you’ve ever seen…just watch your head, because the branches hang low. The resulting “tunnel” effect, however, is stunning to behold. Thanks to the hot, humid climate, plant and animal life thrives here. The second boat was helmed by an oyster farmer for the hourlong ride out from the shore to the shoals. Floating on rubber mats and balancing on planks, the farmer and chefs all pulled up long strings of mature oysters, submerged underwater for one to two years.
Armed with long, blunt knives and a bottle of soy sauce, we enjoyed one of the freshest bivalve experience of our lives. As if the visual of harvesting and consuming an oyster right out of the water doesn’t evoke freshness as-is, I had to remove and repatriate a tiny baby crab from my second oyster. Or was it my third? The texture is creamier, the flavor brinier, sweeter and cleaner and the overall experience significantly improved when the oyster only has to travel a few feet to your mouth.
The oyster omelet is a signature dish of the Taijian region in particular, though the silky, savory dish is enjoyed all over the country thanks to the rich exports of Qigu salt field wetlands on the Southwestern coast of Taiwan, the largest oyster farming region in the country and the site of our boat ride. The streets of Qigu village are lined with baskets piled high with oyster shells the farmers use to grow baby oysters underwater. Stalls sell fried and fresh fish of all kinds, as well as tea-boiled goose eggs and fresh juices. You’ll see plenty of tents equipped with simple barbecues — coals over a metal grate no bigger than a dinner plate. Groups of friends and family circle around with a bucket of oysters freshly harvested from the waters so close you could toss a shell in.
The hot fire causes the oysters to pop open in a minute flat and infuses the succulent meat with wood smoke. The treat inside the shell is one to be savored…if you can work your way around the piping-hot shell! If you’d rather have your oysters already cooked for you, hit any restaurant packed with locals and eat freshly shucked and flash-boiled oysters with ginger and cocktail sauce. But when you watch a local 5-year-old grab one straight off the fire and consume it with glee, you should be inspired to burn your fingertips a little — it’s worth it.
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