2012 / 2月
Sam Ju /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Geoff Hegarty and Sophia Chen
Taiwanese food is the result of a fusion of the eight major cuisines of mainland China. In addition to the major Chinese dishes and night-market foods, there is another dish strongly recommended by gourmets for visitors interested in Taiwanese cuisine. If they haven’t experienced zhutong fan (竹筒飯/rice in bamboo tube), it means they haven’t visited Alishan!
So what makes Taiwanese cuisine unique? Well, nowhere else in the world can you enjoy the flavors of authentic Taiwanese indigenous food.
But what does “the real thing” taste like?
Taiwan currently has 14 indigenous tribes with a total population of more than 500,000; the Amis are the largest group accounting for 40%, followed by the Paiwan at 20%, the Atayal at 15%, and other groups each comprising less than 10%.
It’s said that diet is often the outcome of locality, and in fact the traditional foods of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples come almost entirely from their native regions. As a result, some groups have developed quite unique styles. The Tao (Yami) on Orchid Island (Lanyu), for example, rely heavily on flying fish caught from the sea as the basis of their diet; in fact, they’re sometimes called the “flying-fish tribe.”
The Amis, whose homelands are located around the lower mountain areas and the coast of Hualian and Taitung, are recognized as knowing a vast number of edible plants. Because of their location, they were mainly gatherers rather than hunters, and were the earliest indigenous people to come into contact with the Han Chinese. The tribe is also knowledgeable and skilled in the use of flora as food—they are sometimes teased as being able to “eat everything on the mountain apart from soil and rocks.”
However, food for indigenes is not only a means to meet their physical needs, but also has a deep cultural meaning, and is subject to many social rituals. They abide strictly by the rites of tribal cultures—when to eat, who should eat or what type of food shouldn’t be eaten. For example, the hundred-pacer snake is revered by the Paiwan as a totemic animal, so snake meat is a big taboo.
Taiwan’s earliest residents were its indigenous tribes. Their food culture was recorded in a Han-language document which can be found in Lin Hai Shui Tu Zhi (A Study of the Seashore Environment), written by Shen Ying in the Three Kingdoms period (220–280 CE). The document describes the islanders as enjoying a rich variety of crops, fish and meat. They preserved fish and meat by pickling with salt in large pots for several months, creating a delicious dish. In addition, “People used millet for making alcohol which was stored in wooden tanks. Seven-inch-long bamboo tubes were used for cups for drinking the brew.” While eating and drinking, they sang songs for entertainment.
While each tribe has developed in slightly different directions, today’s indigenous food culture has been mostly inherited from their ancestors of 1800 years ago.
For example, they all pickle their meats, though in different ways. Compared with the Amis’ silaw (salted raw fish or meat), the Atayal tribe’s pickled meat dish tmmyan is much more sour, as glutinous rice is added to the marinade.
Although today the staple food of indigenous peoples is rice—like the Han Chinese—most tribes (except for the Tao on Orchid Island) traditionally make alcohol from millet rather than rice or other grains, and millet liquor is the best known local indigenous product.
As mentioned, according to Lin Hai Shui Tu Zhi, Taiwanese indigenes used bamboo tubes as vessels for drinking alcohol. Tian Zheyi, a cultural scholar of the Bunun tribe, points out in his book entitled The Society and Culture of Taiwan’s Aborigines that prior to sinicization, indigenous eating utensils were very simple: for instance, bamboo tubes were used for soup, and woven rattan or bamboo bowls for rice and meat.
Bamboo was the natural material for cooking utensils. According to Tian, the Atayal’s traditional cooking method zhu zhu (cooking with bamboo) refers to their method of cooking rice stuffed into a bamboo tube. The bamboo is cut into several node lengths and filled with glutinous rice which has been soaked in water for more than eight hours. The tubes (which in the traditional method have no other ingredients added) are then sealed with shell ginger leaves. After being steamed or boiled, the rice is fragrant with the scent of the natural leaves.
Stones and tree leaves were also used as cooking utensils. For example, another of the Amis’ traditional cooking methods, shi zhu, involves cooking with stones. A punt-shaped container made from an areca palm leaf sheath is filled with vegetables and seafood, water is added, and red-hot pebbles are put into the container to boil the water, with a small amount of salt added during cooking. This is the Amis’ traditional shitou huoguo (石頭火鍋/stone hot pot).
In recent years, cultural tourism has become popular in Taiwan, as well as globally. In addition to experiencing the exotic aspects of indigenous culture, the cuisine has also become an important attraction for tourists, especially for Han Chinese. Indigenous foods such as roasted boar meat, millet liquor, bamboo-tube rice, and fried wild vegetables have become increasingly popular.
Yet some restaurants in urban areas that advertise indigenous dishes also sell things like spareribs with rice and beef noodles, which clearly are not traditional indigenous dishes. So it’s far from clear whether many tourists actually experience the real thing at restaurants in indigenous areas.
Joyce Yeh, associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures, National Dong Hwa University, believes that sinicized indigenous foods can be regarded as convenient alternatives to cater for Han Chinese taste.
The owner of an Amis-style restaurant in Hualien County once complained to Yeh that many tourists are unable to appreciate the authentic, but very different, flavors of indigenous dishes, and thus the food is often wasted.
“Han Chinese who come to our restaurant still want to order dishes that they know such as braised fish and three-cups chicken. A group of customers ordered areca palm hearts, but they didn’t like it and left the entire dish untouched. It’s a pity to waste food. They didn’t appreciate the fact that it was the real thing.”
Also, tourists are unable to distinguish dishes from different tribes.
A Truku restaurant offers an “ethnic integration” menu, advertising its house dishes using indigenous food ingredients cooked according to Han Chinese methods: “The Truku’s banana sticky rice is our house dish. We also have the popular Amis dish of wild vegetables. But if customers order snail meat, I will cook it in the style of three-cups chicken.”
Wu Xueyue, an expert in the wild vegetables favored by the Amis, says that in traditional indigenous dishes, garlic or scallion are not fried first to obtain strong flavor. In contrast, they prefer plain flavors and simply sprinkle a little salt over the food. “I’m afraid that many tourists might mistakenly regard the sauces in three-cups chicken as an authentic indigenous taste.”
Most indigenous foods come from the earth, especially the sometimes bitter-tasting wild vegetables. To reduce the bitterness, strong sauces are avoided, and the wok cover opened only sparingly during the cooking process.
The Amis love soup; they believe that the way to best use good ingredients, whether vegetables or meat, is to put them in a soup. They will cook three or four different varieties of wild vegetables together adding only a little salt. This is the best way to experience the flavors of the earth.
“People who have never tasted wild vegetables must try black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), known as tatokem in the Amis language. The best way to cook it is with beef. Another rather unusual soup dish is snail meat cooked with cochinchina momordica seeds,” says Wu.
Wu recommends some special indigenous dishes: beef offal soup with tatokem, available at Niubada restaurant in Hualien City, has the “wildest” flavor. The stone hot pot at Hongwawu restaurant in Guangfu Township has a naturally sweet taste without relying too much on sauce. People who want to taste the real thing need to drop the Han Chinese habit of using barbecue sauce. Dageeli Tribe Restaurant, a Truku eatery in Xiulin Township, manages to keep the authentic flavor of its wild vegetable dishes.
It’s also possible to enjoy indigenous cuisine in Taipei City. Food critic Ann Hu recommends Weidewei Kitchen, located in the Naruwan Indigenous Market near the night market on Guangzhou Street—its fried snail meat is quite unusual and not often seen in the city. The restaurant’s owner, who belongs to the Puyuma tribe, says that alianthus prickly-ash is often fried with snail meat in her hometown, but she has replaced it with basil for her Taipei customers. If anyone wants to taste the real indigenous-style dish, she will be happy to oblige if they tell her when they order.
Because the food culture of Taiwan’s ethnic groups has undergone a long period of exchange and integration, blending ingredients and flavors with other traditions has become common. Chen Di, a late Ming Dynasty scholar, in his treatise Dong Fan Ji (Records of Eastern Barbarians), mentioned that Taiwan’s indigenes planted green onions, ginger, yams, and taro. However, these vegetables are common in other food traditions, so today they are no longer regarded as unique to indigenous culture. Other wild vegetables such as bird’s-nest fern, okra, and facing-heaven peppers are also quite common across cultures.
The use of wild vegetables in cooking has received promotion recently, and as a result some previously uncommon vegetables have gradually conquered the taste buds of Han Chinese. Lin Deci, an elder of the Rukai tribal village of Taromak, says that the Rukai use a wild vegetable, called kekerere in their language, as the main ingredient for dumplings that are very popular with tourists.
Lin’s children, living on the mountain, sell the Rukai’s traditional food a-bai across the country through Internet and telephone orders, with sales of 700–800 per day. The farthest orders have come from Kinmen.
To make a-bai, ground millet and minced pork are wrapped in the leaves of Trichodesma calycosum, and then in shell ginger leaves. After steaming, the shell ginger leaves are removed and it’s ready to eat. It looks like a type of rice cake. Wu Xueyue says that indigenous people didn’t have zongzi (glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) in the early days, but because of the need for a simple snack food when they went hunting or gathering vegetables, every tribe has developed a similar food, such as the Paiwan’s jinafu, a-bai from the Puyuma and the Rukai, the Amis’ alifengfeng, and bamboo-tube rice from the Atayal and Tsou. But they’re all similar to the Han Chinese zongzi.
Japanese travel writer Mari Katakura, in her new book Ultimate Impressions of Taiwan, expresses her particular appreciation to the Puyuma people of Taitung County who treated her like one of their own. At every farewell, they filled her bag with food like sugar-apples, papayas, and wild vegetables. They even worried that she might feel hungry on the train, and prepared a-bai for her to eat as she traveled.
Joyce Yeh, who has observed the interaction between indigenous people and their visitors over the long term, says that for outsiders who sincerely want to learn about indigenous culture and the stories behind each dish, no matter where they come from, the indigenous people of Taiwan are always generous in sharing the authentic flavors of their food, even sharing the actual food made and reserved for the use of their tribe. In her hunting experiences with the Atayal, she was invited to eat raw flying squirrel testicles, symbolizing a sort of blood-brotherhood with the tribe.
From an evolutionary perspective, disadvantaged and less capitalized ethnic groups have often kept alive the rich traditions, stories and rituals connected with their food, all of which helps to explain why in recent years indigenous dishes have become an attraction for curious tourists. Thinking optimistically, food as a medium can not only provide opportunities for cultural exchange and mutual understanding between different ethnic groups, but can also help to boost their confidence when they need the power to stand up to the world. Thus a simple item like food may bear enormous cultural significance.