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Taiwan food: Around a tribal table

11/04/2014 Tatyana Leonov
A-Jiangs Guest House. © Alamy A-Jiangs Guest House.

Within a minute of us taking a seat at the communal table, plates start to appear: sizzling shrimps atop a bed of crispy noodles, a delightfully oily egg-and-flour-based pancake showered with shallots, glossy strips of seasoned bok choy, fried pork slithers, creamy potato salad, a vibrant medley of herbs and a large bowl of white steamed rice, of course.

A-Jiang and his wife are from the Tsou Aboriginal tribe, one of the 14 recognised indigenous tribes in Taiwan, and today they are cooking up a feast.

Because of population drift, many Tsou families have turned to tourism to help earn a living, and A-Jiang and his wife decided a guesthouse and traditional restaurant were the way to go.

Home 23 Cafe is their home, tourist accommodation and restaurant located in the Alishan National Scenic Area in Chiayi County. Their dwelling is made up of charming wooden and stone huts that A-Jiang built himself over the course of 19 years, using materials from the land. It depicts a traditional small Tsou tribal village to give guests an authentic indigenous experience.

It is believed that the Taiwanese indigenous people belong to the family of Austronesian people, and that they inhabited the island long before Han settlers arrived from China in the 17th century. The Aborigines lived as hunters and gatherers, much like they still do today.

Their approach to using the goods of the land applies to their cooking ethos too, and A-Jiang and his wife create meals like they always have - prepared from ingredients foraged in the surrounding countryside.

When he is able to grab a moment away from the kitchen A-Jiang, explains that they scour the fields for vegetables and herbs each morning and buy their meats from the local market (a modern-day luxury), which they will usually roast, barbecue or fry. There is no menu and they cook whatever they find and buy that day.

All indigenous tribes in Taiwan follow that same philosophy when it comes to foraging and cooking food. Fresh is best and my next stop is an Ami (Amis are the largest indigenous tribe in Taiwan) restaurant called Pakelang Boat House, located just past the Tropic of Cancer monument on Taiwan's eastern coast in Taitung County.

The owners here have fused art with cuisine, using materials from the land to build the eclectic ship-shaped restaurant. However, I soon find the real artworks are the divine dishes.

Chef Chan Lah has an infectious smile and cooks barefoot, wearing only board shorts. When I ask to take his picture, he shyly smiles at the camera and I catch a mischievous twinkle in his eye. With the help of a translator, he tells me he has never had any official culinary training and taught himself how to cook by watching his mother and grandmother. He then used his passion for art to come up with the elaborate meal arrangements.

Local, edible plant stalks are elegantly layered with carrot wedges and purple cabbage ribbons. It is the most magnificent salad I have ever seen or tasted.

Sticky rice comes enfolded in tubes beautifully laid out on bamboo. Quail sits alongside scallop kebabs.

Another colourful dish appears with miniature tomatoes perfectly placed atop delicately shaved taro.

When I don't think I can eat any more, a fresh seafood platter surrounded with local radish shavings arrives.

I know it is local because Chan Lah harvests the radish himself. He also catches his own fish and forages his own vegetables and herbs.

When asked if that is difficult, he laughs. "It's what I've always done. It's what my mother and grandmother did too."

There are about 150,000 Amis in Taiwan and, depending on which tribe and area you visit, a culinary experience can differ greatly.

For my last stop, I visit another Ami restaurant in Guangfu township in Hualien county. Cifadahan Cafe is renowned for its stone hot-pot dishes and features a typical Amis design constructed from locally harvested wood.

Like A-Jiang and Chan Lah, chef Lin Fen Ting (Nakaw in the Amis tongue) cooks only with seasonal and local produce that she grows or sources herself.

Early every morning, she combs the surrounding forest for wild greens, herbs and mushrooms, and then decides what she will cook, depending on her daily ingredients.

Guests travel far and wide to experience the traditional hot-pot meals and it is quickly evident why.

Each dish tastes amazing and she puts on quite the show for diners. She prepares the famed hot-pot dish at your table and watching her precisely chop vegetables and strategically place them into the soup is mesmerising. She knows she is good at what she does and exudes a rarely seen confidence.

Later that night, she sits down and starts telling me about the wood-carved sculptures scattered around the restaurant. I am not even surprised any more that she has carved them all herself in her "spare" time. It seems indigenous Taiwanese people make everything from scratch.

To demonstrate her aptitude, she speedily carves a mini owl, looking up often to gauge my reaction. Of course, I'm impressed. She has just cooked me the most remarkable meal and now she has carved an owl in five minutes.

I commend her work and she smiles at me radiating that rare self-assurance again. She then stands up to serve the next lot of food enthusiasts who have just walked in, not knowing yet that they are about to experience one of life's most interestingly unusual dinners.

The writer travelled courtesy of Taiwan Tourism Bureau and Scoot.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

taiwantourism.org.

GETTING THERE

Scoot has a fare to Taipei starting at $840 return from Sydney including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Taipei (4hr 30min); see flyscoot.com. As Scoot is a low-cost carrier, you pay extra for food, etc. Scoot does not fly out of Melbourne, but with Singapore Airlines, the fare is about $1100 low season, including tax.

TOURING THERE

Getting to the restaurants is easiest by doing a self-drive tour. Alternatively, Taiwan Holidays (taiwanholidays.com.au) and Mandarin World Tours (mwtravel.com.au) incorporate indigenous dining experiences into some of their itineraries.

EATING THERE

Home 23 Cafe, 129-6, Neighbourhood 4, Leye Village, Chiayi County.

Pakelang Boat House,  962, Changbin Township, Taitung County.

Cifadahan Cafe, 6, Lane 62, Daquan Street, Daquan Village, Guangfu Township, Hualien County.

C548X7 A-Jiangs Guest House, Alishan National Park Scenic Area, Chiayi, Taiwan taiwan food, story by Tatyana Leonov. CREDIT ALAMY

C548X7 A-Jiangs Guest House, Alishan National Park Scenic Area, Chiayi, Taiwan taiwan food, story by Tatyana Leonov. CREDIT ALAMY
© Veronique Mandray
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