Archives for category: wild food

Nighttime in the forests of Taiwan is velvety dark. Mysterious cries float through the leaves and massive tree trunks. A myriad of frogs, insects, and night birds croak, sing, and chirp. Giant flying squirrels cheep to each other in the canopy. And then you hear it: A sharp, echoing bark! Is it a dog?

Barking Deer in Fushan Forest

A tiny doe licking her fur to complete her evening grooming routine.

No, it’s Taiwan’s barking deer — English call them muntjac (latin name, muntiacus reevesi). These terrier sized deer have little antlers and fangs, apparently for fighting to maintain territory. The image above was taken by me in Fushan Experimental Forest; the image below is from mammals.biodiversityireland.ie.

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Male showing antlers and canine teeth.

These deer, called Shan Xiang in Mandarin, used to be favored prey of Taiwan’s indigenous hunters who used bow and arrow, and nets. Japanese logging at the turn of the century, farming, and development have reduced the forest-meadow interface that these animals prefer. They are protected now.

But the deer could be making a comeback. During my travels I heard them barking in several nighttime forests and as you can see above, I spotted little does grazing and grooming in the evening and morning. Also, indigenous farmers mentioned that Shan Xiang will sneak into gardens that are located near forest edges. I hope this charming Taiwanese animal continues to survive and thrive!

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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…

 

 

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!