Growing Appreciation for Indigenous Cuisine

PHOTO: AKAME

Despite Taiwan’s Austronesian past and unique food culture, it is surprising that visitors to Taipei cannot sample the country’s earliest cuisine in style.

Taiwan’s Indigenous people have a long and proud tradition of essentially slow-cooked food that emphasizes seasonal and organic ingredients – quite in line with the foodie movement currently in vogue. But you won’t find an example of native fine-dining in Taipei, a city that lays claim to being one of the world’s leading gastronomic destinations.

That is the case even though the cuisines of so many countries and ethnic groups are well-represented here, not to mention the fact that the government is promoting the idea that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is different from China in part because of its Austronesian roots.

“Fine dining” is when expert chefs utilize the highest quality ingredients to produce well-presented dishes served by an attentive wait staff in refined surroundings. To enjoy that upscale experience, patrons are prepared to pay a premium. For many people, however, fine dining and Indigenous food are thought of as antithetical.

Most locals are not interested in spending extra on what is viewed as plain fare from the mountains. Far better, the thought goes, are snails imported from France and prepared by some semi-celebrity chef at an establishment with a foreign-sounding name. Indigenous food is typically associated with simple dishes, rudimentary preparation, copious drinking, and likely a karaoke machine for belting out Frank Sinatra tunes.

That view is harsh and possibly prejudiced. Actually, Taiwan does have some very good Indigenous restaurants, though they are found far from the capital – in the mountains, down south, and in the east-coast city of Taitung. One of these is Akame, which is difficult to get to without a car, as it is embedded in a remote part of Pingtung County, not far from the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Culture Park.

Akame in Pingtung County is one of the few restaurants in Taiwan that can claim to provide Indigenous fine dining. Akame’s owner-chef Alex Peng is Cordon Bleu trained. PHOTO: AKAME

Owner-chef Alex Peng is a Le Cordon Bleu graduate who was further trained by André Chiang (江振誠), considered to be one of the world’s top chefs (in addition to having a Michelin-starred restaurant in Singapore, he also runs Raw – one of the toughest places in town to get a reservation – in Taipei’s Neihu district). After working with Chiang in Singapore, Chef Alex decided to return to his roots in Pingtung in the ancient Rukai tribe village of Kucapungane (好茶村).

“Akame” means “grilling with wood” in the native language, and a meal starts with fresh baked rolls with whipped cream and toasted barley, similar to what is served at Raw. Following are tasty amuse-bouche and amazing main dishes such as fried quail eggs dusted with matcha powder; black suckling pig with plum blossom and millet cheese, dragon fruit, and dried prickly ash sauce; and baked spring chicken with a glaze of wasabi and honey, with fragrant Chinese toon. Among the dessert options are five-needle-pine churros dipped in a nutty chocolate sauce.

Food prepping is intensive, since some of the ingredients are rare and can only be found in remote areas. In a translated email reply to queries from Taiwan Business TOPICS, Chef Alex says of the process: “We use a lot of wild herbs from the mountains. Some are difficult to source, so we get friends who are familiar with the mountain environment to help us find them. For example, we use prickly ash leaf and flower, mountain asparagus, five-needle pine, and seeds from the nutgall tree.”

“Chef Andre inspired me a lot, especially how he read up about and understood the ingredients that he uses so well. So when I returned home, I never stopped looking for wild ingredients that I could use in our cuisine and was stimulated by a lot of different ideas on how to use them.”

Asked whether he considers the experience to be fine dining, Chef Alex is modest and straightforward. “Akame adopts an a la carte menu rather than a set menu. We change our menu a little every day, depending on the ingredients we have. The intention is to make everyone feel relaxed, enjoy the meal, and understand our cuisine. That’s why I would describe Akame as casual (or bistro-style) dining rather than fine dining. But of course Indigenous cuisine can be presented in all forms, including fine dining.”

The restaurant opened in 2015 and is doing well, Chef Alex says. There are two sittings of 19 places every evening, from 6 to 9 p.m. and from 9 to midnight. “Ninety-five percent of our clients are not from Pingtung, but come from other cities in Taiwan or from abroad.”

According to Michelin’s star system, a three-star restaurant is one that signifies exceptional food and is worth a special journey. Chef Alex decided to open in his Rukai homeland precisely because he wants the journey to also be part of the experience. “I wanted to make this something special, since a reservation and commitment has to be made, in addition to traveling for some time to a different space or environment, which will alter the mood.”

He adds that the goal is for patrons to understand “Akame’s reinterpretation of Indigenous cuisine, which we want to share with everyone.”

Akame. PHOTO: AKAME

Natural and fresh

Indigenous food focuses on freshness and natural ingredients, as appropriate for what traditionally was a hunter-gatherer society. The content of the meal was based literally on the catch of the day. For example, the Bunun, based in Nantou county, are “high-mountain people” famed for their deer and flying squirrel intestine dishes, as well as “gamy” meat that is barbecued or fried with garlic and ginger, then served in a spicy sauce. The Kavalan, who are “flatland” or “plains people” originally based in Yilan County, harvested millet, corn, and sweet potatoes, in addition to fishing and hunting.

Typically, root vegetables rather than seedling plants were cultivated, and meat was preserved with millet wine or salt. As opposed to Chinese cooking, which stir fries and stews to combine flavors, Indigenous cooking steams, boils, or spit roasts, essentially preserving the original flavor of ingredients.

Another method of cooking is to put stones in the fire and then use them to heat up ingredients placed in vessels such as bamboo containers for zhutong fan (竹桶飯). A unique feature of Indigenous cuisine is the palette of wild herbs and spices that can only be sourced from nature and vary from tribe to tribe.

The sourcing of traditional foods by hunting has been a contentious issue for many years. In 2013, a Bunun tribesman shot a Formosan serow and Reeves’ muntjac for the table. He was prosecuted under the Wildlife Conservation Act and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. An amended version of the Act that passed in June now allows for the hunting of wild game by Indigenous people for traditional rituals, “self use” or the family table, but not for profit.

The difficulty of sourcing such a wide variety of truly organic herbs and game for Indigenous fare has often been cited as one of the reasons why Indigenous restaurants find it hard to maintain operations in urban environments like Taipei. Certainly, they seem to come and go quite quickly.

Yunshan in Taipei had a well-deserved reputation for excellent Indigenous fare, but closed toward the end of last year. PHOTO: Yunshan

One establishment that lasted for four years but closed in late October was Yunshan (雲山, Cloud Mountain). Situated near Da’an Forest Park, it was run by husband-and-wife team Yabu and Mon Taiwan who are from the Atayal and Rukai tribes respectively. They served up classy Indigenous food in a relaxed, modern café-style setting, and won plaudits for doing so.Taipei Feast Week director Kevin Wolkober, who also created the app Eat Drink Taiwan, characterized the restaurant as unique: “The owners, Yabu and Mon, offered fine dining experiences made from local ingredients from their base in Nantou. I always found the dining experience personal, tasty, and thoughtful, as they introduced each dish to our group.”

Wolkober featured Yunshan as one of the five highlight restaurants during Feast Week in August, and praised it for making Indigenous dining accessible.

Speaking by phone from Puli in Nantou County, Yabu explained that the reason for closing the Taipei restaurant was to return home for the birth of their child. The couple now bake maqaw-spiced bread (facebook.com/yunshanbaker) and operate occasional popup stores at Taipei Main Station. Maqaw (馬告), sometimes spelled magao and also known variously as litsea cubeba, May Chang, and mountain pepper, is an evergreen shrub that produces an oil commonly used in Indigenous cooking. Following the example of Akame, Yabu and Mon are looking to start a new restaurant in their hometown, possibly in February.

Asked to describe his food philosophy, Yabu replies: “Our intention has always been to develop our own brand of food from the mountains and our own culture. In the future we want to find our own land and do our own thing, even better. We produce elegant, slow-cooked Indigenous food, where the combination of flavors is different from but relatable to Western palates. We want to introduce our taste and style and tell our story through food.”

“There have been other restaurants like ours, but most are similar to re-chao (熱炒) restaurants (cheap, cheerful stir-fried dishes). But for the price, it’s difficult to source and produce good mountain food, with all the special meats and herbs and intensive preparation. People think: ‘Why should we pay for this when there are so many other choices?’”

Authentic vs. innovative

In the course of researching this report and puzzling as to why there are no Indigenous fine-dining options in Taipei, it was recommended that I speak to Katy Hui-wen Hung. With Steven Crook, she is co-author of a book slated for publication in the United States later this year on the history and development of food in Taiwan.

Hung notes that it is important to distinguish between authentic and innovative indigenous foods. “They are two different styles. Authentic Indigenous food means what Indigenous people eat at home,” which is quite different from the fare at Indigenous restaurants catering mainly to non-Indigenous diners.

Since we couldn’t find an Indigenous fine-dining restaurant in Taipei, Hung recommended the next best thing, which turned out to be a 30-to-40-minute ride out of the city center into the semi-wilds of Xizhi district. We had to book in advance for the signature roast chicken, and on arrival at Yuanwei Kafeifang found the owner fanning the flames of an oven outside.

Yuanwei Kafeiwang is in a delightful location and serves food that’s simple, tasty and healthful. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

His wife was busy in the kitchen and we were led into the restaurant, which was packed with ethnic artifacts, artful homemade wooden furniture, driftwood, and the occasional stuffed animal. At one end of the room was a big TV and stage for karaoke. Outside there was a large pond, chicken runs, and corrugated outhouses, surrounded by a forest of green.

It was a friendly and inviting atmosphere and the chicken was excellent, but not much different from the baked fowl offered elsewhere around the island. The plates of vegetables had Indigenous twists, such as the addition of maqaw in braised cabbage or the pineapple cake at the end of the meal. This is what Hung terms “Taiwanese food with Indigenous fare,” rather than “authentic Indigenous food.”

Yuanwei’s owner, Yuan Guo-sen, who is an Atayal from Hualian, says Indigenous food possibly loses its essence in a metropolitan environment. Even so, he adds: “I believe you can do fine dining and it’s strange that it hasn’t been done more often. I’ve often thought about this, but you would have to prepare a lot of money for the décor, training, rent, and so on.”

Referring to the famed Indigenous dish of wild pig, he said it obviously wouldn’t be wild if it were farmed, so there was the problem of capture and cost. Also, some of the vegetables used are native to particular areas (and often at a certain elevation) and are difficult to grow elsewhere. Others have to be picked on the morning of the day they will be eaten. Even getting bamboo tubes made can be difficult and expensive.

Clearly there would be challenges in creating a truly Indigenous fine-dining experience in Taipei, but Hung suggests taking another tack. “What can be done and with minimal effort, should someone be interested, is to introduce and implement popularly known Indigenous ingredients to fine-dining restaurants or hotels, and they would work well as ‘special’ ingredients in their menus.”

“This most likely does not involve Indigenous chefs,” Hung continues, “but as part of showcasing Taipei’s vibrant food culture, I hope it works because Indigenous fare is an attractive and innovative direction.”

As the Austronesians predate the Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese arrivals, it seems odd that Indigenous food is not more highly prized as the country’s native cuisine and a valuable addition to its culinary fame. If I were visiting Taiwan for the first time, I would be interested in sampling the best Indigenous fare.

Feast Week’s Kevin Wolkober is in agreement and points to a way forward: “I’d love to see Indigenous fine dining in Taipei. To make this work, I think more Indigenous chefs and groups need to come together to share ideas and experiences of what they’ve created. I haven’t talked with Yunshan about this yet, but I do think it would be great if they share what they’ve done with other chefs to inspire more kinds of great fine-dining events.”

Yabu Taiwan notes that there are good Indigenous restaurants in such locations in northern Taiwan as Yingge, Sanxia, and Wulai, but “it’s a stretch to call them fine dining.” His conclusion is that “a genuine fine dining Indigenous option in Taipei is a dream, but I can’t really say that it will come true.”

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