Sunday, September 6, 2015

Indigenous Fine Dining in the Hills of Taitung (Travel in Taiwan)

The emblem of Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant (響羅雷美食坊餐廳) is a snail, and for those reading the menu from left to right, which Taiwanese don’t always do, the very first item on the menu is Basil-Flavored Snails (塔香螺肉, NT$250 per portion). But edible gastropods aren’t the main reason why a cartoon snail represents this establishment.

Visitors who speak the language variously known as Minnanyu (閩南語), Taiwanese or Hokkien will quickly guess why the owners opted for a cute snail motif. The founder’s name is Mr. Luo Lei Pei-hua (羅雷陪華), and in Taiwanese snails are known as luolei. He's taken a childhood nickname and turned it into a brand. 

Two-syllable surnames are rare in Taiwan, and Mr. Luo Lei owes his to his mixed parentage. Luo was the surname of his mother, a member of the Puyuma aboriginal tribe. Lei was the family name of his father, who migrated to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland after World War II. Mr. Luo Lei grew up among Puyuma people, married a Puyuma lady, and considers himself Puyuma, hence his decision to put his mother’s surname first. All of his employees are Puyuma, too.

Xiang Luo Lei, a large open-sided structure made of wood and bamboo, looks over Taitung City from a foothills village 11 km inland of the downtown. There’s an hour of live music - typically a female vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitarist - every weekday evening starting at 7pm. On weekends, local schoolchildren perform indigenous dances. 

Huge photographs - some historic, some recent - of aboriginal people decorate the walls, and there are a handful of unpainted wood carvings. The decor is understated and tasteful, which is as it should be. As far as most customers are concerned, what goes on in the kitchen is much more important than the interior, the performances, or the view. 

Whereas the hearty fare on offer at most aboriginal restaurants can be relied upon at least to satisfy gourmands, the cuisine here is a notch higher. Some standout dishes surely qualify as gourmet - and that’s a word this writer doesn’t bandy about.

The menu lists more than 60 dishes, and Mr. Luo Lei’s wife starts by recommending the snails. They’re available year-round, she explains, but become scarcer when the weather is hotter. 

At least four dishes on the menu are distinctively Puyuma, she explains. One is Meat-Filled Wild Bitter Gourd (野苦瓜鑲肉, NT$350), the foraged gourds being far smaller than farmed variants. Another is Teng Xin Pig’s Foot Soup (藤心豬腳湯, NT$400 to 500 per portion, also available with chicken instead of pork). It’s cooked using a wild vegetable foraged by indigenous people in several places in East Taiwan...

To read the rest of this article, go here and scroll on to page 36

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