The patron goddess of Taiwan is Mazu, 媽祖, who watches over all those who are imperiled by the sea but especially fisherfolk. The Taiwanese have a vivid and loving relationship with the food of the sea, as shown by these lovely shots at the fish market just west of Taichung.

One of my earliest memories is of Dad and Mom feeding me octopus tentacles with chopsticks. We lived with my infant sister in Columbus, where Dad had a teaching job at Ohio State University. To my child’s mind and palate, octopus tentacles and stinky tofu (of which more later) were in the same league as hot dogs; salty, savory, satisfying.

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Fried crabs in the shell, left; tentacles of large squid. They may be the ferocious Humboldt squid, caught by Taiwanese fishermen off the Peruvian coast far away.

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Much tinier squid on a plate in a humble eatery near the fish market. They are served plain, a rarity in Taiwanese cuisine.

Taiwan is a mongrel place, rich and savory and complex. A little family history: my father was born in 1936 in Dadu (大肚) Village just outside of Taichung on the west central side of the island. Dadu means Big Belly in Mandarin Chinese, a symbol of prosperity in Chinese culture. According to a Wickipedia entry, Dadu was also the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Middag, a tribal alliance between the aboriginal Taiwanese groups of Papora, Babuza, Pazeh, and Hoanya. The Han Chinese eventually drove these indigenous communities away from the flat coastal plain in the 1700s, planted rice and built buildings, and the huge cities of Taiwan’s west coast were born.

Dad tells me that his great grandfather on this father’s side immigrated by boat from Fujian Province in the middle 1860s, at the age of four. That side of the family has origins in the Northwestern part of what is now China: legend has it they were Turkic Silk Road traders who moved east, then south, and finally hopped across the Taiwan Strait. My grandmother’s side of the family has origins in central part of China near Xi’an, the famous site of many dynastic capitals and most notably of Emperor Qin’s terra cotta army and death complex. They immigrated to Taiwan in the 1880s.

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Xi’an, China in 2006: Dancers play the role of haughty Qin Dynasty courtly beauties at the foot of the huge death mound of Emperor Qin. My grandmother’s family come from this area of China.

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Inner Mongolia, 2006. My grandfather’s Turkic or Uighur ancestors likely crossed vast stretches of the Xinjiang Desert on camels or tough little ponies like these during Silk Route trading trips.

 

 

 

Is Bubble Tea a drink, a food, or a dessert?  Invented in Taichung, on the west central coast (where my father lives now), this wildly popular tea is a blend of tea, milk, sugar, and ‘bubbles’–little squishy sweet globes of manioc starch. Better known to Americans as tapioca, manioc starch comes from an ancient root that was domesticated more than 6,000 years ago by Native South American tribes. Manioc comes in two varieties: bitter and sweet. The bitter kind needs lots of cooking to remove toxins (useful for keeping pests at bay). The sweet kind can be found in Mexican produce sections and can be subbed for potatoes in a chicken stew.

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Manioc, like many traditional root foods, has long, complex sugars that digest slowly so that you don’t absorb many before they exit your body. Slow-release starches are a GOOD thing, as you feel full but don’t pack on carbs as quickly as say, Twinkies. My research project in Taiwan will focus on another complex starchy root–taro–which has a rich and ancient past in Southeast Asia and Polynesia (poi, anyone?) Above is a delicious combination of them both: taro-flavored bubble tea!

We and our primate ancestors adore eggs. In our earlier tree-dwelling phase, eggs snatched from nests were a high-protein food that could be enjoyed by infants and adults alike. Eggs were part of paleodiets that pre-date our species, even our genus. They are important to hunter-gatherers, gardeners, farmers, and city folk. No diet, paleolithic, neolithic, or industrial, is complete without eggs (my apologies to those of you who are allergic).

The Taiwanese love a good thousand-year egg on their breakfast plate, a tradition that floated across the Taiwan Strait more than 400 years ago on bamboo junks. The below example comes from the kitchens of Academia Sinica (picture the Smithsonian Institution or M.I.T., smaller with nice dorms and a restaurant). The eggs (duck, chicken, or quail) are prepared by wrapping in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls and then leaving for weeks or even months. In the old days eggs were buried and there are tales of ancient eggs being exhumed–then consumed.

Chinese people probably didn’t invent thousand-year eggs until the advent of domestication (so you could grab a few eggs on short notice from chickens, who were converted from jungle fowl at least 6,000 years ago) and settled living (so you could bury your eggs and be reasonably sure to remember where you left them).

When removed from their coating, the egg shells are a delicate grey-brown sometimes with branchlike markings. The above left image is of a painstakingly wrapped thousand year egg; on the right, of my Taiwanese breakfast egg. The yolk turns granular, with a deep thunderhead-grey color and a faint flavor of salt, smoke, and sulfur. The white becomes an exquisite translucent deep brown or caramel color, and rubbery-smooth. I’m not making this sound very tasty; nonetheless,  you’ll have to try one and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Have you experimented with a Paleodiet before? I’ve actually lived with hunter-gatherers and eaten a real paleodiet, complete with fibrous roots, all kinds of fruits, beans, and nuts; and wild creatures like anteaters, storks, crocodiles, electric eels, armadillos, and of course, nice juicy larvae!

In my view any paleodiet that doesn’t include bugs is phony, straight up.

But you might not have to eat bugs to eat optimally. There’s a concept out there called your ‘food family tree’ that basically says you should eat what your ancestors were eating–not your ape-like ancestors, but more recent farming or herding ancestors (or, if you are of indigenous descent, then your hunting/gathering/fishing ancestors). Great concept, huh? Especially since, unlike the paleodiet, your Neolithic diet might include beer and wine :–) The tribe I lived with, the Pume of Venezuela, make a delightful beer; women chew cakes made of manioc root, spit them into a bucket of water, cover with a cloth, and leave it alone for about 12 hours. The mixture turns into a sweetish light beer–with chunks. Cheers!

My Taiwan project will focus on traditional foods of the indigenous Taiwanese farmers: Millet, taro, wild ginger, chenopodium (known to us by its Peruvian name of quinoa). This sculpture, from the Taiwan National Museum of Prehistory, shows a young lady bringing home tribal crops in her carrying basket. These crops may hold a secret not only to improved health, but resiliency to climate change (which is really affecting Taiwan’s agricultural economy). My next post will be about specifically adaptive characteristics of ancient foods, including crops like these, and why our diets should include more of them.

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At the National Museum of Prehistory in Taitung, a sculpture captures the image of Neolithic crops of millet, taro, and rice carried by a young tribal woman to help feed her family.

One of the things I need most for the Taiwan Tribal Farmers project is mapping equipment. If you would like to help support this effort, please contribute at gofundme.com/29sm4wrg  Even a tiny bit is one step closer to my goal of helping tribal farmers map their fields and homes. Thanks for considering it!

dad and me taiwan nat university.jpgAbove: me and Dad at National Taiwan University Indigenous Museum.

Thousands of years ago, Taiwan was home to tribal peoples of diverse language and religions. Today their descendants hold on to ancient traditions like the dance shown below: Ita Thao tribal dancers re-create an origin story of hunters pursuing a white stag high into the mountains to discover the beautiful Sun-Moon Lake.

sun moon dancers Further to the Southeast, in between the green mountains and blue Pacific Ocean, tribal farmers continue to cultivate crops in fields marked with Neolithic stone markers (below).

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In December, I will travel to Taiwan on a Fulbright Research Fellowship to work with tribal communities to learn about crop types that hark back to Neolithic times. I think that these hardy ancient crops might hold the key to diversifying Taiwan’s agriculture and building resiliency to climate change.  Part of my task there will be to map tribal fields, which will help farmers get accurate measures of field size and amount under cultivation.  Exciting!

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A classic Taiwan hotel breakfast, enjoyed at Academia Sinica. Chinese ingredients include congee (rice porridge) and pickled root vegetables. Taiwanese flavor is found in fresh local dragon fruit and lichee nuts, along with cured fish. Euro-American fare is eggs, hash browns, and piping hot coffee.

In America, ‘melting pot’ refers to the unique blend of cultures and histories in our country. More recently, the term ‘salad’ refers to the integrity of individual pieces, tossed with a tangy dressing that (usually) unites us all.

I am Taiwanese/North American (Scots-Irish-English-French Canadian). Like many mixed race people, I was keenly aware and curious about that far-away land from an early age. But for complicated reasons, I only met a few of my father’s family when growing up, and did not get a chance actually to visit Taiwan until 2011. I’ve been back several times since, and will soon (December) undertake a 7-month research project there.

This blog will talk about the country, its people, food, religions, cultures, heritages, political quirks, and food (did I say that already?) Due to my lack of skill at speaking Chinese or Taiwan-hua, I will inevitably miss a lot. But I hope to convey a bit of appreciation for this uniquely blended place, its mysteries, its place in the world, its flavors and textures. If Taiwan is a bit confused about its own past, presenting a rich and bewildering array of faces to the world, maybe this blog will help you find a bit of Taiwan in yourself.

 

 

 

 

Dear Readers, I know I signed off earlier this month. But would like to share this new information with you, courtesy of the University of Montana Archivist Donna McCrea, who has been doing some research since I turned over the diaries:
 
“From the 1930 Census. Ruby Scofield Doyle was the wife of Thomas J. Doyle. According to the 1919 Missoula City Directory T. J. Doyle was ranching at Clearwater at that time. Dorma Doyle was born March 16, 1922. She married Harold A. Hardy on June 18, 1947 in Kalispell. Hardy died in 2001. They had no children (at least none that the funeral home knew about.) There was only a death notice, not an obit for Harold.
 
Dorma was listed in the city directory a few years ago (!) but then the trail goes cold. She is not listed in the Social Security Death Index. The funeral home states they have two nieces and a nephew.”
 
Can little Dorma Ruth still be alive?  She would be 92 years old now!  Does anyone reading this blog have any information?  If yes, we hope she is in Missoula.  Donna would very much like to share these diaries with Dorma or any family members who are interested.  Please contact the U. of Montana Maureen and Mike Mansfield Archives if you have any helpful information.
 
Your friend and blogger,
-Pei-Lin
 
 

 

Dear Readers: I’m putting this blog aside now. Got a job in Boise, Idaho and am leaving shortly for a new adventure.

Thanks for hanging in there with me for so long, for your interest and insights and humor. This was my first shot at blogging and you’ve made it special. Please see my earlier posts today for all the remaining photos that were salvaged from the dumpster; they are beautiful, funny, charming, and a little haunting. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

These wonderful diaries, and scans of the photos, now reside in the University of Montana Maureen and Mike Mansfield Archives—forever safe, I hope, from the ignominy of french fry grease and beer bottles in some back-alley dumpster. Please go visit them there, along with a transcript of the first diary. The other three remain untranscribed. 

I would like to thank an anonymous salvager, John at Circle Square Antiques, and Donna at the University of Montana for seeing the value of these diaries and photos.

If anyone recognizes a family member I hope you will contact the University of Montana Archives. If diaries like this were written by my ancestress I know I would certainly wish to read them. 

I confess I am a little teary-eyed as I type this farewell. The mystery and drama of another person’s life and loves, the world she lived in that was so different from ours and yet so alike, really brought me deep into the heart of western Montana. It’s hard to leave. Can you write a love letter to a state? Maybe not. But a love letter to a state of mind; yes I can write that. That was this blog. 

With Love.

 

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