Lily Wen steps out of her pickup truck and walks straight into the tropical jungle of Taitung, Taiwan, rummaging through the understory to find what she needs. She spots a vine with heart-shaped, glossy, dark green leaves wrapped around the truck of the paper mulberry tree. Dangaw (Piper betle) is the vine’s name in the Rukai language. Laoye荖葉 is its Mandarin name. With a distinct peppery and slightly spicy aroma, dangaw is usually cooked in stews. It’s considered a culinary delicacy and is one of Wen’s favorites.
She pulls up a bunch, throws it in the back of her pickup truck, and motions to the forest around her.
“I have a food map in my head of the forest,” she says in Chinese, smiling. “Before, we all did.” She drives back to her restaurant and begins picking the leaves off the vine. Today, she’ll be making chicken soup flavored with dangaw for her customers.
Wen is part of the Rukai people, one of 16 officially recognized Austronesian indigenous groups in Taiwan. The term Rukai, given to the people by former Japanese occupants of Taiwan, is is a broad category for an ethnic group that includes many tribal subsets.
More specifically, Wen is of the Taromak tribe, a mountainous group whose entire history has been on the Kindoor (Kendu Ershan 肯杜爾山 in Chinese) mountains on the east coast of Taiwan in modern-day Taitung County. The Taromak tribe used to live up in the mountains until 1923, when Japanese colonists came and forced them down from their ancestral village. In 1949, the Chinese arrived and mandated all indigenous peoples in Taiwan learn Chinese and stop speaking their mother languages. Christian missionaries simultaneously came in en masse. Today, Christianity is the main religion in Taromak, with five churches for a population of roughly 1,000. (Taromak refers to both the tribe and the place they live.)
“Colonization almost destroyed my culture,” Wen says. “Food is our last line of connection.”
A cultural activist, Wen is the owner of Dawana, a restaurant dedicated to indigenous cuisine. Dawana means a place of rest in the Taromak language, and is a reference to the cottages that the Taromak tribe used to erect around their fields.
“As a kid, when my parents worked in the fields, I would go in the dawana and play,” she says. “I’ve always had a heavy impression of always being with nature.”
The daughter of the last shaman of her tribe and daughter-in-law of the former chief, Wen says she is adamant about carrying on her tribe’s traditional cuisine. Food, she says, is a means by which she can educate her people on the native ecology.
Wen was the first person in her village to attend college and the first to obtain a master’s degree. Her undergraduate was in hospitality, and her masters, which she completed at the age of 53, was in Austronesian studies at National Taitung University. Her turning point was in 2007 during an indigenous peoples conference in Ottawa, Canada, where she witnessed how deeply the food culture of the native people there had already eroded.
“Their indigenous foods were already completely erased by white settlers,” she says. “I saw fried chicken and hamburgers. It scared me and I remember thinking how I didn’t want my own culture to become like that. My old mentality was that I wanted to pursue West[ern ideals]. But now I realized my life work is to decolonize my village. We are Taromak people. We should follow our own culture.”
Most of that work is through food. Dawana is Taromak’s only restaurant dedicated to indigenous cuisine. The seating is entirely outdoors, with handcrafted furniture made from driftwood. It seats up to 30 people, and Wen cooks and feeds visiting tourists and private parties, most of whom hear about her unique concept through word of mouth.
Here, at a plot right outside of her restaurant, she grows and forages her own wild vegetables. Unlike many other indigenous people around the world, the Taromak tribe still has ownership of its ancestral lands, and Wen will often go out into the forest by herself to pick what she needs.
She's always on the lookout for alabolro (Trichodesma khasianum), a papery edible green leaf with a distinct garlicky taste, and tana (Zanthoxylum ailanthoides), a spiky tree whose leaves have a peppery piquancy. Tana’s flavor profile is reminiscent of chicken broth; it is incredibly umami. Wen uses both plants for sauteeing in eggs, boiling in broth, or wrapped in dumplings.
Wild amaranth and edible ferns grow in abundance on Wen’s property, as well as talibaw (Macaranga tanarius), whose large leaves Wen uses as plates or as wrappers for sticky rice. A pioneer species that grows on disturbed soils, talibaw can be found everywhere throughout Taiwan. Yet it’s seldom used outside of indigenous cuisine, let alone in other restaurants in Taiwan.
As for carbohydrates, Wen relies on millet, red quinoa, and taro, the traditional staples. She makes a sweet millet wine, and incorporates the spent grains into a blood sausage that’s encased in pork intestines and stuffed with congealed pork blood, chopped celery, and pickled bamboo. Bamboo season comes around only once a year. Other neighboring tribes dry the bamboo to preserve it; as befits Taromak tradition, Wen pickles it.
She wraps the red quinoa into a pork dumpling. As for the taro, Wen likes to dry and pound it into a powder and steam it with pork. The Taromak way of cooking taro parallels that of Hawai‘i: it’s cooked for hours in an underground oven. Abai is another local specialty Wen offers at the restaurant; it’s a steamed tamale-like dish stuffed with millet and pork and wrapped with the leaves of the shell ginger, which imparts a particularly floral scent when cooked.
Wen learned most of these cooking techniques from her now-deceased mother, the last shaman of Taromak. “She would have shamans from neighboring villages over and we would have to have traditional food prepared all of the time,” she says. Shamanism, Wen notes, is now a dying craft throughout indigenous villages in Taiwan. The powers are transferred down by blood, and while Wen’s sister has clairvoyant powers similar to that of their mother, Wen says that her sister has mostly disregarded her shamanistic heritage in favor of Chinese Buddhism.
“As for me, I don’t have those powers,” she says. “But I use food as a way to help people reconnect to our culture.”
Smoked meats are the hallmark of Taromak cuisine. At the restaurant, Wen’s son Cegaw Lrakadrangilra smokes all the meats. He adds dried tana, salt, and pepper onto pork belly in a process called wakam — the Taromak word for barbecue. Wakam, in Taromak tradition, is a man’s duty, and is taught by the elders to the youths during their hunts. All the men in Taromak are expected to know how to kill and process an animal by the time they are in their mid-20s. They are often led on multiday hunting expeditions into the mountains by the elders, where they live off of the land and shoot wild deer, flying squirrels, boar, and sometimes monkeys.
“It’s imperative that we don’t let the animal suffer,” Lrakadrangilra says. “And when we kill it, we’ll touch its head, and thank it for its life.”
While all the men in Taromak know how to hunt and forage for basic leafy greens, very few people in the village depend on the forest for their day-to-day meals. The village is very close to the urban sprawl of the nearest city, where the majority of village residents hold jobs and shop for their groceries. The youth are noticeably absent from the village; most of them study or live elsewhere and only come back during the weekends.
“The indigenous way of living used to be sharing,” Wen says. “Culturally we’re not used to doing business here, which is why there are so few stores in town. Being a vendor is shameful. Before, you would just gift your taro to your neighbors and they would repay it in some other form. Now materialism has caused greed.”
Throughout the last century, some parcels of Taromak’s land have been sold off to Chinese settlers. Monocrop parcels of betel nut trees, hibiscus flowers, and ginger, all being grown for profit, are now visible on this land.
Dawana is just one of few projects Wen has started in hopes of reversing the effects of colonization in her village. She is in the process of planting a food forest on her one-acre property. She will soon invite villagers there to re-teach them the edible and medicinal properties of certain plants.
She’s tending the food forest according to long-held Taramok principles. “You replant where you forage so you always have food,” she says. “You also always rotate where you are growing food. It is important to let the land rest.”
She also hopes to move back to Kapaliwa, Taromak’s ancestral site, just a 30-minute drive up the mountain, and start an ecovillage and permaculture farm that mimics the way her people used to live.
“Back then, everything that you owned you had to plant or get it in the forest,” Gelesai Lrawbalrate, Wen’s 97-year-old father, says. Lrawbalrate is the oldest member of Taromak and the last remaining person in the village born before the Chinese occupation of Taiwan. In his youth, he would often run for days in the mountains between neighboring tribes just to deliver messages. All men back then were expected to run. They would do it barefoot; shoes were not a part of the indigenous culture. Growing up, he subsided entirely on the bounty of the mountains and on what he grew.
In many ways, Lrawbalrate is Wen’s last link to the old ways of living — and cooking. She spends a lot of time asking him how to grow certain plants, like pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan) and taro. The peas, which fix nitrogen into the soil via rhizobia bacteria, are traditionally planted at the border of the gardens to ensure long-term fertility of the land. And her father taught her that when harvesting taro, she should only pick off the small roots and not take the entire plant.
Despite having lived nearly a century, Lrawbalrate still finds the energy to help his daughter tend to her garden and impart his invaluable advice. “Your whole world was in your hand or in the forest. If you didn’t plant, then nothing would grow,” he says. “But even if nothing grew, we knew we still had the forest.”
“My dad is the last person who knows all these things, so I try to ask him a lot of questions during these last years of his life,” Wen says. “I leave a jar of pickled bamboo shoots at the foot of his bed so he can tell me when they’re ready to eat.” And when he says so, onto Dawana’s menu they go.