During my visit to Taiwan about one year ago the presidential campaign was in full swing. The energy in the streets was palpable: billboards both old fashioned and electronic were full of smiling candidate faces, and small vans meandered the streets blaring political songs. Even my Dad got caught up in the fervor–which never seemed nasty, just enthusiastic (perhaps some of this is due to my imperfect command of Chinese).
This is not the only point of contrast with the recent American election: Tsai Ing-Wen won. Not only is she Taiwan’s first woman president ever, Dr. Tsai is highly educated, single, and descended from Paiwan indigenous ancestors. Like Hilary Clinton, she is trained in the legal profession and like Elizabeth Warren, she harks back to aboriginal roots. Most remarkably, President Tsai came to hold the highest office in an East Asian country completely through her own energy, talent, and drive: with no family or political dynasty helping her (see http://thediplomat.com/2016/05/tsai-ing-wen-a-new-type-of-female-leader-in-asia/ for a great read on this topic).
The strangest twist in this comparison is the recent controversial phone call between President Tsai and President-elect Trump. It’s difficult to picture two leaders with more different backgrounds and world views on either end of the phone line, but we live in strange times. Despite my mixed feelings regarding the One China policy, I see the phone call as a tendril of hope that America’s president elect is willing to talk and listen to world leaders unlike himself.
Jade green snail clings to a leaf in Taroko National Park.
Taiwan’s central mountains lush with subtropical deciduous trees and bamboo groves
In two weeks I depart for Taiwan on a six-month long sojourn! The objective: to conduct research into the island’s Neolithic origins and gain a better understanding of the farming heritage of aboriginal people who live in the mountains today.
Despite modernization of agricultural practices, Taiwanese tribal farmers are familiar with ancient crops whose origins reach back more than 6,000 years. My research, funded by American taxpayers in the form of a Fulbright Research fellowship, will investigate the role of agriculture in Southeast Asia’s Neolithic origins, and resiliency of these ancient crops under changing climate, landscapes, and cultures.
Please stay with me as I post updates–and join the adventure!
A huge grouper eyes us as we walk past his domain in the Taiwan Aquarium in Pingtung, southern Taiwan.
Moving south again to Taiwan, I would like to share a picture of an aboriginal dog from the Atayal village of Smangus in the mountainous center of the island. I hope to see many more of these beautiful, intelligent animals during my research trip beginning in December.
These dogs are boar-hunters, companions, and guards for the tribal villages of the mountains. They are always inky-black, with sharp upturned ears, alert brown eyes, and muscular, compact bodies. I was sorely tempted to bargain for a puppy…
Can you spot the noodles in the dog’s dish?
If Taiwanese tribes are indeed related to seafaring Austronesian peoples as suggested by linguistic similarities, then these unusual Taiwanese dogs may be ancestral to the extinct poi dog of Polynesian cultures in Hawai’i. Below is a historic picture of a Hawai’ian woman with her poi dog. These dogs were small and short-legged, showing how quickly dog breeds can be altered in size and appearance.
I encountered a variety of native dogs while working with the Pumé hunter-gatherers of southern Venezuela. These puppies, photographed by me in 1993, were being toted by a young lady and her grandmother packed for a wet season camp move several miles away.
Unlike Taiwanese Atayal dogs, Pumé dogs are typically white with black spots. But the two breeds are similar in their athletic wiry build, keen intelligence, and excellent value as hunters, companions, and sentinels. Many native special breeds (like the poi dog) are now extinct. But where would we be without them? Hats off to Native dogs everywhere!
While visiting Kyoto last week I was enchanted by the Gion District–the variety of food and shopping is stunning. Many of the stores are small businesses, still family owned. One beautiful clear evening I walked with the happy throngs until I limped and still couldn’t see it all.
The restaurants, candy and tea stores, and ice cream shops all are beautifully appointed, spotless, and showcase uniquely Japanese plastic replica food art in big shiny windows. Here is my favorite display of the night: The middle rows show really unique parfait ice cream pairings with matcha cubes, mochi balls, and chunks of sweet potato with sesame seeds. But zoom in on the top row: from left to right you can spot french fries, breaded pork cutlets, fried prawns, and my boyfriend’s pick, ‘American Dog Parfait’–by which is meant corn dog complete with ketchup and mustard. It might seem bizarre to us, but I think it is a perfect example of that flavor called ‘umami’ in Japanese that combines salty/savory/sweet.
I was stuffed from dinner so will have to return to Kyoto, starve myself all day, and then go to this amazing parfait joint.
In my closet hangs a lightweight gossamer cotton kimono, properly termed a yukata. My auntie Gwan sewed it for me 30 years ago, when I was in high school. This lovely garment is a testament to the Japanese colonial period from 1895-1945, when my father’s family–all Chinese, of course–were Japanese citizens, wore kimono, spoke Japanese, ate Japanese cuisine, went to Japanese schools, and even went by Japanese nicknames. My uncles still go by Taka, Susumu, Toshi, my father’s nickname is Naho.
China ceded Taiwan to Japan in the 1890s after losing a naval war. And the legacy lives on.
For the past week I’ve been in Kyoto, with complex emotions roiling through me regarding Japanese history and its impacts on China, Taiwan, and my own family. But as I walked the streets, especially in twilight, the magic of Kyoto was everywhere. Here is a cup of cold sake and sashimi that I enjoyed in a tiny restaurant near the Imperial Palace.
Freshest sashimi I’ve ever had. Sweet and delicate.
Nothing beats an overflowing cup of cold sake on a steamy August evening.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.