When you think of Penghu, what do you think of? Maybe you think its sweeping beaches, the water sports you can enjoy, the delectable seafood, or its famous double-heart stone attraction. These, after all, are the things that typically draw tourists to Penghu.
What you may not know is that you can see a different side of Penghu by visiting a local community. I had no idea either until I was invited by the Council of Agriculture, Taiwan to go on a tour of Nanliao Community.
It gave me a first-hand insight into the traditional cooking and farming practices of the local community, allowed me to sample freshly made local cuisine, plough a field with an ox, and eat a gourmet course meal made by members of a neighboring community.
I experienced, saw and ate way too many things to fit into this one post, so I’ve decided to share my experience over a three-part series. In this first blog, you’ll learn about the custom of Masked Girls (and see me transform into one!), salivate at the sight of the delicious food made using the traditional Fu Ji Stove, and marvel at villager’s innovative use of Caizhai. (And be sure to read Part 2: Traditional architecture, ox ploughing and unique sights after you’re done!)
Where is Penghu, Taiwan? | 澎湖在哪裡？
Penghu is an archipelago of 64 islands and islets in the strait separating Taiwan from China. It covers a total area of 141 square km which together forms the second smallest county in Taiwan. It is a 45 minute to one hour flight from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei. Penghu can also be reached by ferry from various sea ports in Taiwan, such as from Kaohsiung, a journey which takes 4 hours.
Nanliao Community, Penghu | 南寮社區, 澎湖
Nanliao is a small community located in Penghu’s Huxi Township. What makes this community so fascinating is that many community members still use traditional farming practices and maintain many of the customs of generations past. Most of the architecture you see also remains untouched, allowing you to feel transported back to a bygone time.
Masked Girls | 蒙面女郎
When you begin the tour at Nanliao Community Center, you will be warmly greeted by a group of masked girls (蒙面女郎) offering you a cup of 風茹茶, a popular tea blend found in Penghu.
The practice of wearing masks is a traditional method used mainly by women of the community to combat the piercing heat and other harsh weather conditions while working outdoors. Penghu is a subtropical archipelago, so it experiences piercing sunshine in the summer and raging winds in the winter.
For women in the fishing and farming industries, facing such weather can be physically debilitating as it leaves their faces vulnerable to the elements, so putting a mask on provides some necessary protection.
The towel is roughly three feet squared, and is wrapped around the entire head and face of a woman, leaving only her eyes visible.
The girls in the blue and orange masks who greet you at the start of the tour are just modeling the tradition, but as you walk around you will likely run into some women wearing the mask for their genuine purpose.
We met a whole group of women, and my host really wanted me to experience wearing the mask for myself.
One of the women kindly agreed to lend me hers, despite her initial protest as she feared the towel would be too sweaty (who care about a bit of sweat when you have such an awesome opportunity offered to you?!).
She helped put the mask on me, and invited me to sit with her group. I think I blend in quite well, don’t you?
While the nickname “masked girls” is used as it is a tradition usually upheld by females, there are men who also wear the masks. Unfortunately, the tradition is seeing a decline due to the fact that the community’s youth are no longer engaged in agricultural and fishing production like their parents and ancestors before them. Hopefully the tradition will find a way to continue, despite the obvious challenge facing it.
Fu Ji Fish Stove | 福紀魚灶
Next, you’ll be taken to a traditional fish stove, the Fu Ji Fish Stove (福紀魚灶), which sadly is the only remaining kind of traditional stove in the community.
Penghu first developed its traditional fishing industry in the 1960’s. The main bulk of the fish caught now is this fish picture below, which has the humorous name of “smelly meat fish” (臭肉魚). It is basically a variety of sardine. Each fishing village near the coast typically has a “fish kitchen” equipped with a stove, pan and chimney to cook the fish.
And you won’t just get the chance to see the stove. Oh no! You’ll get to sample a wide range of food which have been prepared fresh in the stove by locals, just for you! I had no idea that we’d get to try so many wonderful, traditionally cooked foods, so to say I wasn’t just a bit ecstatic would be a lie!
Fish, shrimp, squid, egg and peanuts; one dish after another kept coming out. “Eat, eat!” we were told. The freshness really came through in each bite, and it could certainly be felt as everything was piping hot!
There’s really something special about eating something that has been prepared right before your very eyes. The dishes were all presented to eat in their purest form, nothing added to enhance the flavour, save for what I imagine was only a pinch of salt in the boiling water. The natural umami in the food was left to speak for itself.
It was really interesting to watch the cooking process as well. I’ll explain how the fish are cooked. First, the fish are washed in salty water and placed on a round bamboo sieve ready to be cooked. Next, the fish are placed in the wok, water is added, and after a few minutes cooking in the pot are removed.
Afterwards the fish can be dried in the sun until it’s time for them to be packaged. The fish are either imported to Taiwan’s main island, or even Japan. Similarly to the masked girls tradition, the use of the the traditional stove fish industry has also seen a decline, in this case because of fewer fish being caught.
The most fascinating part to me was that discarded peanut shells were used as fuel. As the Taipei Times reports, usually “cow manure cakes” consisting of both cow manure and crushed peanut shells are usually used to increase flammability. Fortunately, we were spared from the smell that would have caused!
Windbreaks (Caizhai) | 菜宅
One distinct feature you will notice around Penghu (and on the tour) are these beautiful walls made of coral:
These walls, however, are not for decorative purposes, but rather play an important role in protecting local crops from wind damage. During winter, strong north-east winds begin to blow through Penghu.
The locals’ innovative solution to the threat of their crops being debilitated is to gather large amounts of coral and piece them together to build formidable windbreaks.
Caizhai (菜宅) as it is called in Mandarin, can be seen in Jibei Island, Xiaomen Island, and other places throughout Penghu’s many archipelagos.
Want to find out what else you can do on the tour?
Read Part 2: Traditional architecture, ox ploughing and unique sights and stay tuned for Part 3 (fine dining under the moonlight) of my series on Nanliao Community!
Can I visit Nanliao Community by myself?
Yes, you’re welcome to visit the community by yourself without going on the tour. You can have fun navigating around the area, and you might even get lucky and get to meet some locals. But needless to say, you won’t get a chance to partake in any of the experiences above.
Interested in the tour?
If you would like to inquire about the tour please contact:
The tour is $2500, and includes all the activities, food, and a dinner feast at the end. It is conducted in Mandarin, so if you don’t know it be sure to bookmark or print off a copy of this series for your reference!
Please note: Bookings must be for a group of 10 or more people. Unfortunately, the organizers currently do not have the resources to make booking for smaller groups.
Well, that was just a taste of the beginning of the tour. There is a lot more to come. I’ll publish Part 2 in the coming days, so be sure to check back!
Leave a comment below if you’ve got any questions, or simply want to share the Penghu/Nanliao love. I’ll be sure to get back to you soon!