Lucy Casley tries the indigenous cuisine of Taiwan
One of the best ways to get an understanding and connection with a culture is through sharing food. Taiwan has a diverse culinary culture that can vary from street food at the Shilin Night Markets in Taipei, traditional Chinese food, or a banquet of the food typically sourced and cooked by its indigenous population.
This style of food is foraged and hunted from natural resources; typical dishes include taro, sweet potato, game such as deer and boar, and wild greens. Though the indigenous people in Taiwan make up less than 2 per cent of the population, you can still sample authentic indigenous cuisine at select restaurants across the country.
Gi Kau Restaurant in Sandimen is one of the best. Set among misty green hills, Gi Kau has the vibe of a serene chateau in the mountains. Artsy waterfalls and sculptures welcome guests — largely locals — into a large space spread over two open levels with beautiful wooden chairs and a cosy feel.
A refreshing iced tea got us started while our guide ordered for us from the Mandarin-only menu. We learned early on that you let the wait staff know when the teapot is empty by leaving the lid slightly tipped and giving a wave.
Our feast arrived swiftly. The vegetable spring rolls on baby lettuce leaves topped with currants was a favourite, along with the croissant-like buns called Shortbread with Pork. You make your own by tearing the shortbread down the middle and filling it up with tasty pan-fried saucy pork. "Don't forget the lettuce," chided our guide. "You need your greens too."
One side dish had thick cuts of bitter gourds stir-fried with eggs. It was dark green with really corrugated skin. Taste-wise it was a wonderful dish and the bitter gourd was perfectly done — crunchy and yet not overly bitter. The chicken was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, similar to how duck is cooked in New Zealand.
The Exotic Sweetheart Rolls — deep-fried taro puffs with a crispy thin noodle-like texture around the outside topped with a swirl of delicious sweet sauce served as dessert. My only complaint was the sight of a dog sitting on a chair at a nearby table being fed slices of chicken while wearing a nappy. Now that's something you don't see every day.
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The Taroko Village Hotel is another prime location for sampling indigenous cuisine centred around seasonal vegetables. I opted for the $14 Health Meal where I picked a main dish (vegetarian fried ginger noodles and bok choy) and was presented with an assortment of small dishes as entrees.
As my plates were brought out, I noticed the delicacy in which they were served in carved wooden plates, especially the dish carrying the wild vegetable salad that was shaped like a hunting sword. The local tribe creates these works of art themselves and we were surrounded in the dining room by hundreds of incredible carvings, mostly of wild boars, which the tribe hunts for food.
A highlight of the meal was the mushroom soup with daylily flower which proved a sweet warming brew. I also tried traditional bamboo rice from a neighbour. Diners must break apart the bamboo tube it arrives in to get to the glutinous rice, which has the subtle but tasty flavour of pure bamboo juice. This is part of the natural way that Taiwan's indigenous peoples keep their food healthy. It worked. I left Taroko Village feeling as though my soul had been fed.
DETAILS Shilin Night Market is at 101 Jihe Rd, Shilin District, Taipei.
For more information on the restaurants go to gi-kau.com and tarokovillage.com.