Archives for the month of: January, 2017

While walking along the Mawaku River toward the sea, I spotted an unusual set of footprints in the mud.


Dainty pawprints of the golden-bellied marten. Note the dog pawprint in the lower center of the photo for scale.

They were made by the golden bellied marten (Martes flavigula), a large and lovely member of the weasel family. Longer-legged and heavier than American martens, Taiwan’s marten is capable of hunting baby deer! Now that the clouded leopard is extinct and the Formosan bear increasingly rare, these beautiful secretive creatures, equally at home scaling mountain cliffs, slinking through the jungle undergrowth, or climbing into tree canopies, are Taiwan’s top mammalian predator.


The gorgeous Martes flavigula, showing off impressive canines…photo in the public domain. 

I hope to see one while I’m here!!


Hanging out waiting for a fat squirrel… this photo also in the public domain.

Sometimes during my life as an anthropologist I am overwhelmed by incredible events; things that seem to come out of books or dreams. Last week in the small town of Atolan on the beautiful east coast of Taiwan I watched as a whole pig, spreadeagled, was slowly turned on a huge grid-shaped spit over roaring flames.


Amis tribal members preparing pork for a special lunch to bring home the spirits of lost WWII warriors.

Siki Sufin, a sculptor of the Amis tribe, has been dreaming of the restless spirits of Amis warriors: men who were conscripted by the Japanese military to fight in the second world war. Many of these men, who fought in New Guinea, the Philippines, and other islands of the Pacific Theater, never returned. You remember those stories of old Japanese soldiers who hid for 30 years in the jungle only to emerge in the 1970s? One man, Attun Paladin (Teruo Nakamura was his Japanese name) was an Amis tribal soldier.


Attun Palalin, also known as Suniuo or Teruo Nakamura, an Amis soldier who held out on the tiny island of Morotai for decades. Garlanded with flowers upon his return to Taiwan in the mid-1970s. Photo credit to the Taipei Times, available in the public domain.

This sculpture by Mr. Sufin invokes the spirits of Amis warriors to fly back home to Taiwan and be at rest.


A fabulous chainsaw sculpture by Amis artist Siki Sufin shows wings raised in flight for returning soldiers’ spirits. This is a cast: the original was dedicated in New Guinea.

To tempt their appetites, Siki sponsored a lively pig roast and sing at the community center. The aroma of roast pork rose into the pearly grey sky along with voices raised in complex woven songs. My eyes burned from the beauty of the songs and the fumes of millet liquor that was continually pressed into my hands…

In the small Amis tribal gardens and fields, between the rows of familiar crops is a riot of mysterious edible wild plants and native domesticates lovely to behold. This is a uniquely tribal approach to farming.


Mr. Gao’s field. Wild greens grow between the crops, and when added to soups or lightly fried with garlic and salt are a delicious part of a typical Amis dinner.

The wild plants offer shade, keep soil moist, and some fix nitrogen. The pinkish red Taiwanese quinoa, above, was domesticated by tribes thousands of years ago and exists only on the island.

Common wild veggie dishes this time of year are dadugum and bird’s nest fern. The leaves of the former, and the baby fiddleheads of the latter, are coated in a light egg batter and deep fried, then dipped in a powdered mixture of salt and hot pepper (do NOT breathe this)!

Dadugum leaves taste like young dandelions: tangy with a light peppery after-taste. The fern fiddleheads are wonderfully succulent, like baby zucchini but a little sweeter. Our ancestors enjoyed lots of wild veggies too.  Let’s re-discover wild vegetables in our own gardens and farms! 

Well, I’ve arrived in a small village on Taiwan’s southeast coast. This is one of my research sites (yes, I’m here to do anthropological work in addition to eating amazing food and admiring cats and flowers!) It’s absolutely beautiful here.


Coconut palms dance wildly in the wind, making a delightful clacking noise. I’m standing with the sea at my back and the mountains right in front.

Yesterday I was thrilled to meet a man who knows how to make and shoot traditional indigenous bows and arrows. Mr. Gao, a retired tribal policeman, is of Amis ancestry and has collaborated with a man from the Truku tribe just north of here to re-create his traditional weaponry.


Mr. Gao stringing a small bow used for rabbit-sized game. The young man in the white shirt was my ‘shooting coach’.

The bows are simple (e.g., not re-curved or compound), and their length and power is related to the prey targeted: big bows for deer, smaller ones for rabbits. With humor and grace Mr. Gao and his family offered to let me do a little shooting. Take up the arrow, nock it, raise to the target, pull the arrow to the crease between your cheek and nose, and let go. Sounds easy, right? I hit the board six times out of 20, but never the actual target, and my right shoulder was aching by the last shot!


A toxophilist’s delight: traditional bows in all stages of manufacture in Mr. Gao’s workshop.


In this scene from Seediq Bale: Warriors of the Rainbow, tribal warriors with arrows on the nock are hunting for an enemy. This scene from the film directed by a film by Wei Te-Sheng can be found at \\

Taipei is a city of animal lovers, and cats have a special place in peoples’ hearts. A woman down the street feeds strays daily, and this little guy lives in a tiny house just near my apartment.


Chillin’ on Wenzhou Street…

He loves to sleep on scooter seats…


How does he manage not to fall off?

Every morning I am greeted by a lively rendition of Catzilla on a street corner.



Another favorite imaginary cat of mine is Maji Meow. Maji, a frequent commuter, is featured in public service announcements for the Taipei Metro. Poor Maji (I think of her as female as she is often encumbered with shopping bags) is constantly shoved, squashed, trampled, and denied seating by mean co-commuters.



Maji Meow squashed by a heartless hipster, and blocked by an stampeding student.

Her brow is usually wrinkled in consternation–s/he even bursts into tears sometimes!


I’d like to sit…but instead I’ll reproach you with tears streaming down my furry face!

If she was real I would take her into my lap and scratch her ears.

Taiwan is a fresh fruit-lovers paradise. From persimmons to dragon fruit to wax apples to starfruit and dragon eyes, the ingenuity of 10,000 years of Chinese fruit agriculture is on display at any street market in Taipei.

The mysterious fruit that has stolen my heart has many names. Sugar-apple, custard-apple, sweet-sop, cherimoya–its Latin name is Annosa squamosa, its origins lost in the mists of time somewhere in the central Andes of South America. Mark Twain called it “the most delicious fruit known to men”.


Sekya ready to eat!

The Chinese call it Shijia, in the Taiwanese dialect, Sekya, after Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha.


Buddha’s distinctive hairstyle.

You won’t find this fruit in North America unless you get lucky in an Asian market–but if you do, feel it carefully (don’t squeeze!)  If it’s soft as, say, your upper thigh, it’s ready to eat. If it’s harder like the top of your shoulder, let it rest on a soft surface at room temperature till soft. Carefully pull open the sekia on a plate or saucer (these things are delightfully messy) and use a small spoon to scoop the out the flesh. The big black seeds are very hard, don’t bite ’em. The flavor will amaze you: creamy, sweet, tangy, fragrant: if ice cream, custard, pears and lemons got together and had a baby it would be the magical Sekia.

This afternoon was cool and breezy, with clean air and purplish clouds hovering over Taiwan’s green mountains. I walked in the green thickets of the Taiwan Water Park’s ecological trail and was delighted to spot a hummingbird hawkmoth sipping from the flowers. I’ve only heard of them before this: a precious sighting and apparently good luck!

These tiny creatures look so much like hummingbirds in flight I was fooled; but they are only the size of a baby’s thumb; their Latin name, Macroglossum stellatarum, is longer than they are. I couldn’t capture my little friend with my humble phone camera, so below are images captured by professionals courtesy of Wickipedia (next time they ask for $$, give them a little.)


Haunt of the hummingbird hawkmoth. If you leave nature alone in Taipei, this is what you get! Luxuriant undergrowth along the ecology trail right in the middle of town.



Captured in action, courtesy of Wickipedia contributor.


Excellent photo, again from Wickipedia, that captures the birdlike tail of the hummingbird hawkmoth. Are you amazed? I was!

A fascinating blog from Taiwan Folklore–these dwarf people provoke comparisons with the tiny Homo floresiensis from Indonesia…

For those of you locked in winter’s icy grip and craving a little color: I offer images of Taipei’s famous Jianguo Flower Market. Tucked under an overpass, hundreds of sellers convene here every Saturday to sell flowers of almost every description. I was staggered by the variety and beauty of plants on offer: certainly, Taiwan’s lush sub-tropical climate is a flower’s best dream! The crowds eagerly buying plants for house and yard included many families, several Buddhist nuns, and a smattering of wai-guo ren (foreigners like me).

In this montage, see if you can spot: bromeliads, orchids; succulents; azaleas; hibiscus; peonies; and bonsai trees. Enjoy!


Shoppers enjoying the huge selection of beautiful flowers and plants.


Buddhist nuns in backpacks.

Today at lunchtime I foraged in the maze of lanes just north of National Taiwan University. A humble Buddhist vegetarian buffet beckoned; unlike American buffets, Taiwan’s are generally very fresh and very cheap.

This little restaurant, staffed by serene women in eyeglasses and aprons, featured meatless Buddhist dishes. Long before tofurkey, rich and savory flavors and textures in Asian vegetarian cooking have used a wide variety of fungi (lovely mushrooms of every shape and color and those crunchy black delights termed ‘mu er’ or ‘tree ears’), tofu in every form imaginable and some never imagined (silky, crunchy, in noodly ribbons), and an ingenious selection of wheat gluten nuggets in sauces sweet, salty, and spicy.

Rubbing shoulders with students and monks, I loaded my plate with delicious food for the US equivalent of $3. Nirvana.


Vegetarian Buddhist buffet. A happy sight for hungry eyes!


No one can prepare cabbage like the Chinese. When it’s fresh and cooked just enough, it retains a hint of sweetness.


Chinese stewed boiled eggs: salty, savory, satisfying.


Lotus root with red chiles; a lovely delicate flavor with slightly nutty overtones.


Crunchy ‘tree ear’ fungus with red chiles.


At least four different kinds of mushrooms evoke flavors of secret forests in Taiwan’s mountain heart.


Stir fried tofu chunks in a sweet and sour sauce.


Carrots, edamame, and tofu shreds in a light gravy.


Mysterious sheets of tofu, just a bit chewy with nice star anise flavors.