Archives for category: gardening

Many Amis people have moved to the mega-cities of Taiwan in pursuit of a better life. In the concrete and pavement jungles, some Amis people are creating small urban gardens to grow fresh, inexpensive, easy-to-cultivate produce. The flavors of home include some weedy wild plants, like this one below. The main thing: make sure no fertilizers or other chemicals are in the soil.

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, Amis and other indigenous Taiwanese consider edible weeds as a daily health supplement that is also delicious. They stir fry them, or seethe them with cured meat in savory soups.

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Inspired by the Amis idea of easy fresh urban-foraged produce, I’ve planted two service berry trees in my yard. Now it’s mid-June and the berries are at their ripest. If you live in an area with service berry trees (they are native to most Western states and like creek banks but also do well in office landscaping) go pick some!

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Service berries are important to Native American diets, and can be used to make pemmican. They’re a little less flavorful than blueberries but delicious and FREE. Rinse, dry, and put ’em in pancakes, muffins, or over ice cream. Or, freeze on a cookie sheet and store for winter snacking.

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Have you ever heard that dandelion greens are edible? Amis tribal gardeners of Taiwan who make ‘wild’ greens an everyday part of their menu. These little volunteers were growing in my Boise, Idaho backyard.

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Common dandelions (Taraxacum spp.) were introduced to North America from Europe and are become a familiar sight in yards, parks, and lots. After briskly invading, they are now ‘naturalized’ — in a state of balance. Neither wild, nor tame.

The leaves can be harvested before blooming, and ideally before the buds form. But you have to keep an eye out, because dandelions are very speedy bloomers. It’s very important to harvest from areas that are chemical-free!

 

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I soaked my dandelion leaves in water with a little salt, then rinsed and blanched them (pop quickly into boiling water and remove). They can be chopped lightly and sauteed in sesame oil with minced garlic and ginger and a touch of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce. Dandelion greens have a pleasantly bitter ‘zing’ that pairs well with fatty meats or cheesy dishes. Most Amis gardeners sautee them like I did or put in soups with salty pork bits, rather like Southern collard greens.

 

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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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!

 

 

 

 

 

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…

 

 

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!!

The fusion of tribal wild vegetables and Chinese cooking techniques can have very happy results…during my interviews with Amis Tribal Elders, I purchased two sacks of wild vegetables sold by elders at booths on the main street. The restaurant down the street was happy to prepare them for us…

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Mr. Wang Seng Chang, an Amis tribal elder, holds a wild vegetable that he cultivates in a garden plot. Mr. Wang says that his family eats wild veggies every single day.

There were two main vegetables in season: one called ‘tadugum’ is a leafy green of the nightshade family, related to tomatoes and potatoes. Unlike those plants, it’s the leaves that are eaten exclusively. You can stir fry the deep black-purple leaves like kale or spinach with garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and a hit of soy…

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Tadugum, or wild nightshade, stirfried to perfection.

The second is called ‘lo kutl’ by Amis farmers. This beautiful plant, also known as bird’s nest fern, normally grows high in the forest canopy but enterprising tribal people now cultivate it in pots or gardens. Like a hungry bear, you can collect the tender ‘fiddleheads’ of the ferns as they emerge. These may be lightly stir-fried like the tadugum, or battered and flash-fried then served with fabulous sweet-tangy Taiwanese home-made catsup.

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Battered fern fiddleheads with homemade catsup. Just the thing after a long day of ethnographic fieldwork!

 

 

 

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.

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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!