Asian organic food and herbal products can be sourced at the source.

Ask most people where early herbal and organic farming began and they are likely to respond, ‘Asia’ or maybe ‘Africa’. In truth, both answers are correct. In fact, any traditional farming techniques are considered organic if they use no chemicals to enhance or alter plants.

Asian organic produce has been in demand for centuries. When western explorers discovered Asian teas and spices, this prompted new trade routes and what was effectively the beginning of a global economy.

As a result of its warm, humid climate and rich growing regions, Asia offers a wealth of organic produce. You can also explore many of the region’s organic farms today, learning about, eating and even helping to plant and nurture fresh produce.

My recent farm forays in Asia have yielded a basketful of discoveries you might want to experience, whether you live in or are just visiting the region. There’s too much to cover in one trip, but over several visits you’ll definitely get smarter and healthier.

India’s Natural Wealth

The market reforms instituted in India as long ago as 1991 have helped to fuel growth and make this economy the third largest worldwide by purchasing power parity. India is only second to China’s 2.6 million hectares of organic farm land, with 1 million hectares.

I left the teeming hoards of Delhi on time to experience Rajasthan’s vibrant farm life on an active farm in the countryside near Jaipur. Now, this is not, I have to say, for everyone, as the accommodation is very simple. You sleep on a thin mattress with awarm blanket in a thatched-roof hut, only cooled by an overhead fan, but it’s how the locals live and more than adequate in the cooler night temperatures.

The work was not exactly back-breaking. We assisted in the harvesting and processing of traditional herbs used by chefs in kitchens across the globe and the fragrance was intense and life-giving, we all agreed. Our efforts were also used at dinner time, with the coriander, mint, cumin, red chillies and counch pods added to the aromatic meals.

In some ways, it reminded me of childhood visits to work farms in Wisconsin. I even got to feed goats and milk cows. Traditional scythes and wooden tools were used to cut and gather crops, and hand-wound and animal-pulled ancient machines to grind seeds into powder. Eating together in the family Chaupal (gathering or group center) was a richly felt experience for all, as we’d collected and cooked our foods.

Yoga was also part of the programme, done to a rising sun, which made things a bit more ethereal. The hosts Maliram-ji and his charming wife, Manju didi almost fell over themselves to see that we were comfortable. In the evenings we watched flocks of egrets and other local birds winging their way to the local watering hole from the mellow khatiya (woven resting bed) as we sipped tea.

Tours of agro-communities can be enjoyed throughout India. An earlier trip to Shekhar Bhadsavle’s “Farm of Happiness” near Katal Wadi in the Ratnagiri District was equally blissful and a tad more plush.

Taiwan’s Food Basket

Taiwan, like several other Asian countries, has implemented its own organic regulations, even going as far as to use the Council of Agriculture (COA) to officially accredit several organizations to certify organic foods – giving some reassurance to the populace and foreign produce buyers.

A decade ago, the Organic Trade Association already reported that Taiwan produced some 50 million USD of organic foods, so you can be sure that today’s volume of produce is even higher. The tourism industry has only just started to realize  the potential of promoting ‘LOHAS’ or “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability”, so there are not yet massive numbers of tours of professionally run farms. It’s more likely to be a “hit or miss” tour of smaller places in Taiwan, which suited me fine.

Once you have explored Tapei’s famous landmarks, including  the National Palace Museum, Taipei River and  the Yeh Liu Geo Park. It’s possible to book on a 3-hour permaculture tour to escape the crowded city scene. Having a Chinese-speaking friend, as I did in Chua, a long-time resident of Taipei, certainly made touring the rice fields of NanAu Natural Farms far more interesting, though the beauty will impress you, regardless.

Rice planting and harvesting techniques in Taiwan are fairly similar to those used in most of the world’s farms, certainly in developing countries, but it’s engaging to have it explained in detail as you observe hard-working folk.  Depending on the season, you will see people transplanting individual seedlings (a seemingly back-breaking job), and engaged in the task of weeding a million weeds a day. Despite the tiring tasks to hand, the pride in their produce and their country is palpable.

A more pristine nature experience can be enjoyed at Piyaway Village, deep in Taiwan’s mountainous region. Here, the friendly Atayal indigenous people demonstrate their age-old organic methods of growing and harvesting loquat (pipa fruit to the locals), as well as peas and papayas and peaches. That’s a trifecta of very healthy crops, and we even  learned  how to make a couple dishes with each of them.

I’d also suggest a trip to the T.K. Herb Farm in Puli Township, as it is one of the loveliest farms I’ve ever seen. It is stunning to photograph as you meander through. Wondrous herb gardens combine with rock and water formations to make a totally serene setting.

You can enjoy teas and excellent food selections in the covered open-air restaurant, which is screened in to discourage evening insect visitors. We were also allowed to do some of our own supervised cooking, which made for a fun time for all, especially visitors with small children.

Japan’s Organic Opulence

It may come as a surprise to learn that half the Japanese population belongs to an organic consumer co-operative. This is no small movement, yet its members regularly meet with farmers, and community representatives nationwide work hard to keep organic farms open and integrated into society, helped by the Japan Organic Agricultural Association (JOAA).

I made a point of visiting an organic tea farm in Japan, which I’d encourage for all tea lovers. Since so many people had told me to visit Shizuoka, a key green tea production area, I made a day trip out of it.

Our tour group, hosted by Naumi, an older farmer who had graduated to less tiresome work, was first shown how black and green teas are selected, picked, sorted, cleaned, packaged – and also how they should be brewed and sipped. A sublime organic lunch followed the tour with freshly harvested greens and fruit, braced with Saki and sweet rice and a brief history of Asia’s tea trade and the West’s romance with its produce, which lent a greater understanding of tea’s significance in Japan. We also learned about the many refined aspects of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, rightly considered an art form.

To fully experience Japanese organic farming, however, I’d suggest one visit in particular: to Kochi City, in Kochi. Located on the tiny island of Shikoku, this prefecture is quite isolated, so a bit difficult to reach, but well worth the trip.

Kochi  prized as the nation’s key production site for ginger, yuzu sweet fruit and eggplants, in addition to being a paradise for walkers and surfers. Established by Akinori Kimura, a cult figure for popularizing organic farming, Kochi commands a deep respect among most Japanese people. The story of Kimura’s near-suicide over farming failure and  his subsequent organic-growing success is well known.

Kochi is also known for its greenhouse farms. I toured a number of lovely sweatboxes for cucumbers, melons, sweet peppers, spinach, kale and strawberries. Of course, all were at different growth points for the season, so the greenhouses smelled either more of earthy soil or thriving crops.

Whatever country you choose to explore, the stunning variety of organic farms you can tour as part of a trip in Asia is impressive indeed. After all, its fascinating to see how the world eats and it will definitely confirm your aversion to canned food or microwaved chemicals.


Some Tips to Organic Exploration

If you want to include some earthy, organic exploration on your next trip to Asia, visit a few online resources in advance to familiarize yourself with the options and organizations out there.

  • EZYGO has several organic farm tour packages and cooking classes available from Thailand to Malaysia or Vietnam and most other Asian nations. www.ezy-go.com
  • For volunteer experiences across the world, see WWOOF options at www.wwoof.net
  • To learn about the growth of organic agriculture in Asia, visit the website of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. www.ifad.org

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.