Presentation of aboriginal Taiwanese cuisine at Hualien's Leader Hotel Taroko.
  • Presentation of aboriginal Taiwanese cuisine at Hualien's Leader Hotel Taroko.
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Recently, I traveled to Taiwan to learn about its food. I sampled a range of delicacies, but was most struck by a culture completely unknown to me: the aborigines of Taiwan. The original settlers of the country are not ethnic Chinese, but rather Pacific Islanders who discovered Taiwan thousands of years ago.

The government officially recognizes 14 tribes, but scholars say that's an artificial number due to the formal petition process necessary to gain official recognition. The aborigines have faced everything from discrimination to massacre. They've been isolated and poorly educated.

Taiwanese and aboriginal relations reached a crisis in 1986 when aboriginal employee Tang Yingshen killed his employer, along with the employer’s family, after the employer refused to return Yingshen’s identity card. In Yingshen’s mind, it meant that he would be stuck in a hopelessly miserable job forever. Though Yingshen was executed, the Taiwanese had a soul awakening: measures were put in place to try to give a better leg up to the aborigines. It’s been a slow-going process and despite the fact that unscrupulous city dwellers have been known to take advantage of the mostly rural aborigines, some aborigine businesses are sprouting up, letting the world know about their lives.

It's rare to find an aboriginal restaurant in Taiwan's cities, but Gulu-Gulu would stand out if there were 100. They don't have a website, but the address is 2, Lane 13, Wuquan W 4th Street, Taichung City, Taiwan. Phone: (04) 2378 3128. They're open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch; 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. for dinner. The early lunch hours are perfect if you have a bit of jet lag. (The menu is in English and Chinese. Credit cards are accepted. Reservations recommended. Dress is casual.)

Gulu Gulu's chef (and resident musician) Ran Er Ran

Gulu Gulu's chef (and resident musician) Ran Er Ran

The owner, Ran Er Ran, is Paiwanese – one of the aboriginal tribes from the eastern-most part of the country – and both a chef and singer-songwriter. He does it all at his place! It's decorated with maps of the aboriginal tribes, artwork, native-made blankets. Ladies, heads up: they have the infamous "squatting toilets" in the loo.

Aboriginal food is seasonal, local, fresh and sometimes wild-gathered. Presentation is simple and clean. Delicacies to start the meal included pork and wild green vegetables that had an asparagus-like flavor, presented with fresh bamboo and bell pepper, along with a thick puree made from sweet potato/peanut butter/betel nuts flour folded into a lettuce wrap. It had a rich, slightly sweet, slightly nutty flavor.

Gulu-Gulu serves aboriginal adult beverages like millet wine and passionfruit juice-beer punch. They help start the party before the live singing.

The menu has lots of vegetarian choices, like tofu. There's also a local favorite: bitter melon slices, treated as a vegetable. Sweet potato and millet are given a second treatment in a hearty, casserole-like dish. The whole fish presentation was amazing – an aboriginal deep-sea (apparently nameless) fish that was mild, fresh and tender.

When Ran Er Ran sits for a music set, it brings a lot of charm to the place. The restaurant is quite small, so the concerts are intimate. The friendliness of the Paiwanese shines through!

Taiwan's Sun Moon Lake Full House Resort was apparently "discovered" a few years ago by a few news outlets and actor Rob Schneider, of all people, but it's still a hidden gem. The place is a bed and breakfast, as well as a tribal cuisine restaurant, on the peaceful, scenic Sun Moon Lake. It was built from American timber with wood beams.

Of the couple who owns the place, the wife is the chef and resident artist. Her stylized self-portraits adorn many of the walls. The ambiance is more university coffee shop than resort – it's that relaxed. Classical music plays lightly in the background. With the relaxed, homey atmosphere encouraging patrons to linger over dinner in the upstairs restaurant, I couldn't help but ask the owner, Mr. Lin, if it was difficult to get people to leave at the 9 p.m. closing time.

The food at Full House Resort is made from simple recipes and local ingredients of the Shao tribe, an aboriginal tribe originating from the South Pacific. Mrs. Lin adds a modern twist by using fresh tropical fruits in most of her savory recipes. Pineapple and melon are paired with egg, passionfruit sauce with salmon (passionfruit is common here) as well as from-the-garden mango, pinenuts and mushrooms.

In case you're thinking it's mostly vegetarian, it's mostly not... but it's quite vegetarian-friendly. Omnivores will enjoy the shabu-shabu: Japanese-style hot pot self-cooking at the table. Theirs contains the freshest scallops, oysters, chicken and thin, fatty pork slices.

Statue of Taroko tribesman on the hotel grounds.

Statue of Taroko tribesman on the hotel grounds.

The Leader Hotel Taroko in Hualien, Taiwan, is owned by Taroko aborigines, and their restaurant is reflective of this. Stunning art adorning the walls and hand-carved chairs make for an immersion into the culture. The building itself resembles an aborigine meeting structure.

The indigenous mountain people prefer to stay in their community, so ingredients are the ultimate in localvore. Meals show how they use the bounty of the land, with prix-fixe dishes including such creative concepts as "Hyper Romantic Meal," "IDAS Tribal Meal" and "When Wild Boar Met the Eiffel Tower."

Gathered in the wild by the restaurant, vegetables include the stems of a type of morning glory that, steamed, tasted a lot like asparagus. The baked champignon was made from local king oyster mushrooms, rare in the U.S. They're just as tasty in Taiwan, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. The salad had okra, corn, mustard, mung sprouts, bean sprouts, Thousand Island dressing, red cabbage, iceberg lettuce and carrots.

Wild boar is prevalent in the Hualien area, and the restaurant prepares it in such a way that it remains tender and isn't gamey. Their pork soup with beans demonstrates how well-marbled, juicy and fatty wild boar can be. The glutinous (sticky) rice is served in the cutest, most bio-degradable containers ever: hand-harvested bamboo stems. And they serve plum juice mixed with their renowned local mineral water, which was refreshing on a hot day.

The property also has several simple, secluded cabins along a nature walk that includes the occasional wild monkey!

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