Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Taiwan's aboriginal food (En Voyage)

More than nine-tenths of Taiwan’s population is of Han Chinese descent, yet the island’s indigenous minorities (537,000 out of a total population of 23.4 million) have managed to preserve many of their Austronesian traditions. Aboriginal languages are still spoken in remote mountain villages, and indigenous festivals delight foreign and domestic tourists. What is more, aboriginal cuisines are quite different to the Chinese-influenced fare usually eaten in Taiwan.

In the mountains that dominate Taiwan’s interior, aboriginal people traditionally lived by snaring and trapping wild animals and gathering wild greens utterly unlike the vegetables usually grown in the lowlands. These days, very few indigenous lives are untouched by modernity, but hunting and foraging habits still influence what aboriginal people eat. Mountain boar is leaner than domesticated pig; other succulent meats include muntjac and wild dove. What members of the Bunun tribe (one of 16 Austronesian ethnic groups recognized by Taiwan's government) call bubunu resembles a nettle, but when cooked in a soup it can ease a hangover. Bunun women learn from their mothers how to distinguish the nutritious balangbalang from a similar but poisonous plant. Rather than rice, taro and millet are the carbohydrates of choice.

Big-city restaurants run by indigenous people rely on family connections to source ingredients. As you might expect, aboriginal food is easiest to find in those parts of Taiwan with substantial indigenous populations, such as around the famous mountain resort of Alishan. In the eastern counties of Hualien and Taitung, where over a quarter of residents are indigenous...

This is one of two articles I wrote for the December issue of En Voyage, the inflight magazine of EVA Air. It appears on pages 32 and 33; the entire magazine is online. The photo, which I took earlier this year, show Bunun dishes at a restaurant in Kaohsiung City's Namasia District.

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