The Paiwan people of Southern Taiwan traditionally carve beautiful, evocative ancestor pillars of stone and wood. These pillars have graced the houses of noble families for hundreds of years.

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My sketch of “Tjivuluwan,” a very old male ancestral figure associated with the Paiwan community of Jiaping. The community allows depictions of this pillar to be made public.

National Taiwan University’s Anthropology Museum has taken care of many ancestral pillars that were ‘collected’ in the 1930s from villages that were abandoned during the terrible period of relocation of indigenous people by the Japanese colonial government.

Recently, Dr. Chia-Yu Hu and Museum staff have worked with Paiwan communities to create the best plan for caring for these ancestral pillars. This success shows the power of people working together from two very different sides of the cultural heritage landscape: very inspiring.

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Red eye of the sun winks at the horizon, it’s twilight in the Taipei mountains.

After riding the gondola up to the beautiful mountainside town of Maokong that overlooks the vast metropolis of Taipei, Dad and I stroll around looking for tea cuisine.

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The city below us; Taipei 101, once the tallest building in the world, is to your right.

High above the sultry humid city, cool breezes rustle. A small opening in the green beckons us down to a delightful restaurant whose laid-back, Japanese ambiance in the evening calm evoke a Miyazaki moment.

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Shan Shui Ke Tea House: ‘Mountain Water Guest’. There are flowers and frogs tucked in everywhere. Seemed like kodamas, the tiny forest spirits of Princess Mononoke, were perched just out of sight.

The tea-oil chicken is so tender it falls off the bones, with a delicate tea-flavor throughout. It is graced with paper-thin crispy ginger slices that are so awesome Dad and I duel with chopsticks to grab them.

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The fragrance of tea rises from all three dishes…is your mouth watering yet?

A heap of crayfish have been shaken with sweet potato starch, salt, and white pepper, then fragrant oolong tea leaves are tossed in. The crayfish are fried to crisp perfection and scattered with chiles and scallions.

The fried rice also has crushed tea leaves along with shreds of egg, scallion, and pork. The delicacy of the tea flavored food and beauty of the setting are a treat never to be forgotten as the lights of the city wink on below us. The proprietor of Maokong Shan Shui Ke Tea House, proudly tells us that the chef working the miracles in the kitchen is his wife. For those of you in Taipei: go, go; for everyone else, I hope this entry gave you a few relaxed minutes in your day.

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Lights twinkling and trees rustling in the evening cool.

If you are like me, you love browsing a farmer’s market. In a good one, and Taipei has a multitude, the produce itself seems alive with personalities of their own.

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Oranges glow in the foreground of a fruit vendor’s booth. Taiwan fruit is firmer and sweeter than most in the United States.

If you are like me the little market near my Taipei apartment is a dream come true. People swarm through and around the colorful fruits and vegetables like fish through a bright coral reef, hefting and squeezing the items, greeting each other, shouting greetings at the vendors, juggling bags, handing over money.

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I love the woman laughing in this blurry photo. It seems to capture the energy of friendship and food that typify a good open air market.

At my favorite veggie vendor the kind man in a red baseball hat speaks in Taiwan language just like my Dad. He often throws an extra bit of something into my bag: some scallions, a crisp cucumber, maybe a handful of fresh firm green beans.

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Capturing this vendor in action is impossible. You have to be one of those nature photographers with a special lens to capture activity too rapid for the human eye.

Welcome to almost-summer, welcome to the first harvests of the season!!

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Mouthwatering yams, cauliflower, red and yellow peppers, guava fruit, bitter melon, and some kind of purple herb (basil?) await hungry shoppers.

 

 

 

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“Guma” or ‘father’s elder sister’, a Paiwan elder of noble lineage, at 87 remembers Japanese rule and traditional millet cultivation. “I never knew envy”, she says.

Part of being an anthropologist who studies ‘the long view’ is interviewing people — most of them older than oneself. I am no longer a young woman, but feel humble and deferential in front of these folks.

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The Paiwan elder lady to the right chews betel nut, a mild stimulant with more than 3,500 years of history on Taiwan. Her niece to the left in profile looks Polynesian to me: and we know Polynesians are linked linguistically and genetically to Taiwan’s tribal people.

From Amis, Atayal, and Paiwan tribal communities, my indigenous interviewees range in age from 50 to 87 years old.

Most of them have lived through famine, wars, and the loss of their culture and language. One Amis lady, Zhong Mama, told us sadly that her two sons and daughter are already dead. And yet they share their knowledge with me, smile, offer me food and rice wine, dress me in their ritual clothes, even scratch my back when I can’t reach a mosquito bite.

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An Amis elder with the skull of a large Formosan boar that her husband caught with a snare.

When Dad is with me (he is 81), the old folks relax visibly. The grannies flirt a little, try to get him to speak Japanese with them (you have to be at least 80 now to have been in school during the Japanese colonial period, which ended with WWII in 1945).

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Dad asking an Amis elder about cultivating ferns in the forest.

My goal: to get old enough to share knowledge and show kindness to a young and curious person!

 

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A big bunch of djulis, ready for harvest.

Thousands of years ago during the Neolithic period, the ancestors of today’s Taiwanese tribes tinkered with a common weed to create a protein-rich super food. It’s related to quinoa, but much more beautiful.

The Paiwan call it djulis (‘JOOlis’), the Amis call it kowal (goWALL). It’s scientific handle is Chenopodium formosanum (as in, Formosa, the old name for Taiwan).  Together with millet and dry-cultivated rice, this mysterious scarlet crop was a key food for most of Taiwan’s tribes, and even their domestic animals, for many generations.

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Just outside Taitung, a field of scarlet djulis in front of a Taoist temple.

Under Japanese and Chinese governance, this crop has slowly declined and now very few people know how to cultivate it. I’ve been lucky to learn more from Paiwan and Amis elders. Due to its beauty and alleged high nutritional value, djulis has recently gotten some serious attention from scientists and agronomists. A key characteristic: it likes to be dry. This could be a benefit in Taiwan’s increasingly frequent droughts…

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A Paiwan couple create a lovely wreath out of djulis from their field.

The recommended cooking method is sprinkling in a handful with rice for flavor and color. But djulis is pretty good in cookies too! If you are in Taipei, come visit the nice djulis garden on the National Taiwan University campus, just to the left of the Anthropology Museum.

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I am crowned with the wreath!

 

 

 

 

 

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Ancient Paiwan village of Cacevakan. We were lucky to arrive after caretakers removed some vegetation.

Two days ago, after a very sweaty steep hike my two colleagues and I reached an amazing stone village sitting quietly in the deep forest of Taiwan’s southernmost mountains. Two eagles soared above us, monkeys clucked their warning calls, and a tiny fanged deer barked in the shadows.

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A female Formosan macaque is keeping me in sight while her youngster escapes into the canopy.

This village was last lived in maybe 500 years ago by the ancestors of the Paiwan people, a mountain tribe with great expertise in ancient traditional cultivation of seed crops. Unlike my Amis friends in the east, the stone villages of Paiwan ancestors were so high in the mountains they rarely saw the sea. Paiwan society is made up of commoners and noble families, who ruled by the favor of the gods and were responsible for caring for the least fortunate in their villages. Americans could learn from them.

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To orient you: this map shows Amis territory, light green in the lower right, and Paiwan territory, pinkish purple in the south. The map is in the National Taiwan University Anthropology Museum in Taipei.

My anthropology colleagues are amazing scholars who have generously shared their time and expertise about Taiwanese cultures ancient and modern. I am so lucky to know them! In the next installment: tribal super food.

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My two colleagues from National Taiwan University: Dr. Sumei Lo, left, is a cultural anthropologist who works with the Amis people and is learning more about the Paiwan people. Dr. Maaling Chen, right, is an archaeologist who studies ancient stone house settlements. Maaling is carrying a stick for the ‘hundred pacer’ snakes in the area, allegedly so poisonous you die after taking 100 steps! They are sacred to the Paiwan people, luckily we didn’t encounter any.

 

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The color of the bountiful ocean off of Lanyu; home to big schools of flying fish!

In Taiwan, if you want an amazing seafood meal, you need to go the source: the harbors. Next to the big busy warehouses where the fishermen unload and auction off their catch, small eateries attach themselves like limpets. Their humble appearance (tiny stools, sticky tables, cooks and waitstaff in Disney character tee shirts and rubber boots) belies the unbelievable quality of the food you can get there. Are you ready for some serious foodie writing?

In Chenggong Harbor on the east coast, we ordered four red and pink squirrel fish, their eyes a-goggle. Two were cooked in a savory sauce of brown bean, wine and chile with plenty of garlic and white pepper, garnished with crispy sweet slivers of green and red peppers. The other two fish were seethed in a delicate soup flavored with a hint of garlic, ginger matchsticks, and baby basil leaves.

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The weatherbeaten but colorful boats of Chenggong harbor. This photo from http://tour.taitung.gov.tw/en-us/Travel/ScenicSpot/619/Chenggong-Fishing-Harbor

Dad also grabbed a plate of ‘whatevers’—scraps like heads, eyeballs, a golden wad of fish eggs, mysterious bony fish bits, handed it to the cheerful, pretty cook, and asked her to do her best. Her best was delightful: the odds and ends were stirfried in a sweet dark umami sauce redolent of brown beans and garlic; the meat fell off the bones, the eggs melted in your mouth, and even the tough head pieces became flavorful and fun to pick apart for small savory rewards. We needed two bowls of fragrant sticky Taiwan fonglai rice to soak up all the sauces.

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Flying fish, sacred to the Yami People of Lanyu (Orchid Island), are hung out to dry in the fresh sea air.

Next, we travelled by ferry to the tiny island of Lanyu (Orchid Island). There we encountered the evolutionary and culinary wonder that is flying fish! After we sweatily dragged our bags to an indigenous lodging house, we hit the streets at twilight looking for dinner. A busy little local joint served us one crispy fried flying fish each. Their winglike fins and pretty tails were so crisp they shattered in the mouth and the flesh was firm, fresh, nutty, and delicious.

Side dishes included tender strips of pale white and pink raw clam meat on a bed of fresh cabbage, topped with handmade mayo and sprinkled with chili flakes; sea cucumber shreds in a salty black bean and soy sauce; and tender green ferns (a new species to me, curled like baby fingers) lightly braised with garlic and more chilis. Alongside was a bowl of delicately flavored algae broth and a savory dried shrimp omelet finished with fresh scallions. Oh what a dinner! For both of us it was just over $7 US.

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This is a public domain photo–they look exactly like this! So pretty, beyond words really.

On the ferry ride home Dad and I stood on the back deck in gale force winds, reveling in the clean air and huge beautiful rolling waves like dark blue glass. Lo and behold! A flying fish burst from the waves, wiggling like mad, its glassy fins blurring like a dragonfly’s. It seemed to float above the waves, a tiny miracle of evolution, before vanishing again. Underneath, a big predator — probably a swordfish — was chasing them. The flying fish continued to zing above the waves in silvery flocks, soaring for hundreds of meters. In these choppy seas when they hit a crest they somehow ‘skipped’ themselves to add another flight just like I would skip a pebble on a pond. Exquisite! Dad, I and several Taiwanese passengers whooped as each flock took to the air!

Have you ever eaten a fern? The young uncurling leaves, called fiddleheads in the US, can be amazingly tender and delicious. The Amis people love ferns, called ‘lokutl’ in their language, and gather them wild or cultivate them in gardens and forest plots.

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Mr. and Mrs. Wang’s fern garden. Can you see where the leaves have been harvested?

Our Amis friend Mr. Wang showed us a beautiful mountain spot, in his family for many generations, where he and his wife carefully grow the ferns for the local market.

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The stuff in the middle is damp, partly rotten, and smells like the soul of the forest.

The mulch that collects in each fern is collected as clean organic mulch for their gardens in town. Sadly, all of their children are working in modern jobs in remote cities with little interest in this Amis style of cultivating wild vegetables.

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A muntjac, or barking deer, spotted in the central mountains. They adore ferns, as Mr. Wang complains…

You might remember that Mr. Wang sold us fern leaves last month and the local restaurant covered them in a light batter, flash fried them, and provided a dipping mixture of salt and Taiwan white pepper (a more fragrant and complex cousin to the familiar black pepper in your shaker. To die for!! The tiny barking deer agree, and raid his garden regularly…

 

 

Dad is now officially an anthropologist!

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Would Margaret Mead’s own dad have gone this far?

We’ve been staying in a tiny indigenous lodging house (owned by Zhong Mama, in my last blog post). She and her 84-year old husband showed up last night with traditional Amis costumes. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Dad let himself be dressed in full male regalia.

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The women’s head-dress contains a mixture of traditional materials (fur, leather, feathers), and modern (bright silk thread, rhinestones). It’s tight behind the ears, but very lightweight.

We were instructed not to giggle, a typical nervous reaction to being honored. But when Zhong Mama and Baba showed us our image in a mirror and then took our pictures, their wrinkled faces were wreathed in smiles!

Anthropological fieldwork in the sub-tropics can be hot and sweaty business. I took this shot yesterday while surveying a field where my father, an Amis lady, and I went to gather wild greens for dinner.

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I could use another hand or two.

Zhong Mama, as she is called, is a youthful 72 years old. Her wild veggie gathering kit consists of a beautiful handmade basket of grasses and a small knife. A whole basketload to feed five adults took only about 15 minutes from start to finish.

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Zhong Mama in farmwoman fashion attire: sensible headgear and a touch of makeup!

The veggies are called sama, dadugum, and gachipilay in Amis language. T

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Gear: handmade basket, twine, and a tiny knife.

They were lightly stirfried with garlic and salt, then some water added for a light broth, and finished with Taiwanese white pepper. Delicious peppery flavor, a tang of bitterness like young spinach or dandelion leaves.

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Eat up! It’s organic!!