Story and Photos by Anthony Zunino
Lily, Auntie, and I climb into the farm truck after the lunch rush. I sit in the bed and watch the cloud-covered mountains roll by, cruising across the narrow strip of flat land which separates the Pacific Ocean from the tallest peaks in East Asia. This is Taiwan’s east coast, known for its surfing, scuba diving, and undeveloped natural beauty. Today we are headed to the beach to pick up driftwood. Lily collects this natural fuel to smoke her traditional wakam pork belly, just as her ancestors have done for millennia.
I met Lily Wen during my trip to Taiwan in 2018, part of a self-designed co-op which took me to four different farms across the island. My mission for those 5 months abroad was to study the intersections between culture and agricultural traditions. When I saw that Lily was running what she called a ‘forest farm’, I never expected to end up halfway up a mountain collecting leaves and pulling weeds. It turns out she meant that the entire forest is her farm, and these tender, slightly bitter leaves, laoye and yecai, form the basis for her restaurant’s traditional cuisine.
Lily is part of the Rukai ethnic group, a people indigenous to modern Taitung County, Taiwan. Specifically, she belongs to a community known as Taromak, one of several Rukai traditional lands across Taitung. The Rukai are one of many native ethnic groups who far predate the arrival of the Han Chinese to this small island. They are more closely-related to people from Austronesia, the broad ethnographic region encompassing Polynesia and Oceania, than those from East Asia. Like many indigenous ethnic groups around the world, the Rukai suffered under colonialism and continue to struggle for their sovereignty today.
“The indigenous way of life has existed for millennia, built around ancient knowledge and coexistence with nature,” wrote Cegaw Lrakadrangilra, Lily’s son, in an email interview with the NU Food Journal. “Indigenous people have long been a part of the ecosystem in Taiwan, reliant on the resources of the mountains, rivers, lakes and sea to survive.” Cegaw has a leading role in the Taiwan Indigenous Conserved Territories Union, an organization he helped found as a masters student in Taitung.
“We want to establish a self-governing organization for indigenous peoples to protect their traditional lands and practice sustainable development,” Cegaw said.
10 years ago, his mother Lily traveled to Canada to attend a United Nations meeting of indigenous peoples, she shared in an email interview.
“I asked, can you take me to an indigenous restaurant? One professor took me, and the food that came resembled a McDonald’s hamburger. The professor said that the hamburger was made with buffalo meat, and that that was indigenous food,” said Lily. “This really affected me, so when I came back I decided to start rebuilding our food culture.”
Lily went on to gain her degree in Austronesian anthropology, and soon hopes to pursue a PhD in food anthropology. She also started Dawana café, a restaurant which uses traditional techniques and ingredients to prepare Rukai food.
One of Dawana’s specialties is abay, a millet and taro root dumpling steamed in a banana leaf.
“Our restaurant uses names for food as we call them in our own language. When a guest reads ‘abay’ and ask us what it is — we begin to introduce it to them and explain the cultural meaning,” said Lily. “I want the restaurant to be a platform for people to get to know our culture.”
Cegaw’s favorite dish is wakam, translated into English as ‘hunter’s smoked pork.’
“The practice of smoking meat comes from the early history of hunters going up the mountain to track prey,” said Cegaw. “We sprinkle salt on the fire and smoke it to enhance the flavor, then the meat can be stored for a long time. I marinate it using a traditional plant called tana with some scallions — it has a beautiful flavor.”
Traditional technique lies at the heart of Lily’s cuisine, her oven proudly powered by driftwood.
“Taromak’s method of cooking is very focused on using the primitive heat of fire to bring out the essence of food,” said Lily. “I intensely watch the fire to make sure the entirety of the meat gets well-caramelized. When a piece of meat is dripping with golden oil, it makes your mouth water.”
One day during Chinese New Year, Cegaw and Lily put on their traditional Rukai attire and drove us north into the mountains. We entered a foggy village deep in the hills, where people grew pineapples and white radish. We came here to participate in Cegaw’s engagement to his girlfriend Ali. Ali is a member of the Bunun ethnic group, a culture native to the mountains of Taitung county, and known for being violently-resistant to Japanese rule in the early twentieth century.
Along for the ride was our friend Yuichiro, a Japanese student who had recently arrived to volunteer at Dawana. As we waited for the engagement discussions to begin, snacking on abay all the while, the Bunun elders joked with Yuichiro about how they used to hunt the heads of his ancestors. Their tone was friendly yet serious. While they were willing to share a meal and welcome him to their home without prejudice, they wanted him to remember the atrocities of the recent past. It was amazing to watch this diplomacy be conducted, however informally. It speaks to the complex process of reconciliation which Lily is undertaking through her cooking: Forgiving but not forgetting, coexisting but not assimilating.
With Cegaw and Ali now married, and their child just recently born, Lily looks forward to how the next generation of Rukai will experience their indigenous heritage. From the very first day of life in the Taromak Nation, this experience comes through food.
“When a woman becomes pregnant, she must immediately start preparing ilan (oil of life). This pork fat will be rubbed on the baby’s body and hair. It is like life, moist and rich. We will drip this oil onto millet porridge. It represents the vitality of life, and protection for the newborn child.”
All quotes in this piece have been translated from Mandarin Chinese by the author.