The Flavors of Indigenous Villages Brought to the City
Text: Kurt Weidner
Photos: Maggie Song
Tasting the delicious food prepared by members of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes can be an unforgettable experience. And thanks to restaurants like the Daluan in Taoyuan, you need not head to remote locations around Taiwan in order to enjoy indigenous delicacies.
Taoyuan County in northwestern Taiwan, home to the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, is the island’s most important gateway. About 20 minutes by car southeast of the airport lies Taoyuan City, a busy and densely populated place characterized by industrial clusters, with a vast number of factories in its outlying areas.
You wouldn’t expect a restaurant with an indigenous theme in this urban setting; most of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples call the high mountains or the sparsely settled east coast their home, not the cities on the western side. Indeed, however, there is one such restaurant in Taoyuan, run by a member of the Amis Tribe – the Daluan. Recently, Travel in Taiwan went there to learn more about it.
To get there, we took a cab from Taoyuan Railway Station (about 20 minutes). There’s not much of note in terms of scenery on the way – block after block of shopfront buildings built tightly together – so it was surprising to be greeted with something completely different upon our arrival at the Daluan. The restaurant is housed in a spacious one-story building with thatched roof and slate walls, surrounded by trees. At the entrance you’ll see burning torches, and upon entering you’ll be entertained with woodcarvings you’d more likely expect to see in a typical indigenous village, not in downtown Taoyuan. There is also an intriguing totem pole on display, with renderings of the faces of different tribespeople.
We were greeted by friendly waitresses, wearing the traditional red garb and feathered headdresses of the Amis Tribe, with a friendly “Na Ai Ho,” the Amis “Hello.” The restaurant has a rustic interior, with massive wooden tables and chairs. We were shown to one of the tables and were first served cups of millet wine, a common drink among Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. In the background, traditional indigenous music was playing, and we soon relaxed into the setting, enjoying what could have been the large dining quarters of a tribal chief in a remote mountain village.
Then, before we started our meal, we had the chance to chat with the owner of the restaurant, Lawai Dalai. Sitting himself down at our table, he told us a bit about the history of the place and his personal story. Like so many members of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, he left his village when he was young to seek his fortune in the city, where he tried his luck at various endeavors. In the end, he decided to run a restaurant with an indigenous theme, which has been a great success.
His interest in becoming a restaurant owner was stirred in his younger years when he worked as an interior designer and came in contact with people in the catering business. When one owner gave up his operation, Lawai stepped in and became a restaurant owner himself. This first attempt at running his own place, however, turned out to be tougher than he had anticipated, and after a few years he gave up and returned to his former profession.
With the passing of a few more years, still not willing to accept that he had not made it in the restaurant business, he opened another Taoyuan restaurant, naming it Daluan. He admitted to us that at this time he didn’t feel a strong connection to the culture of his own people or to Taiwan indigenous culture in general. This, however, began to change when he began to seriously pursue one of his passions, filmmaking. He began to film and document the things he witnessed in indigenous villages, in the beginning rather randomly, and then started to more systematically visit villages around the island. The more he traveled and the more he learned about the first peoples, the more he became fascinated by the richness of local indigenous culture.
Then, in 1994, Lawai found he was being influenced by something else, something quite unexpected. The music of Taiwan’s indigenous people became known worldwide. German new-age music group Enigma used a chant from the “Jubilant Drinking Song” (Sapiliepah a Radiw in Amis) in its song “Return to Innocence,” which became a worldwide hit. While the original singers, the now-deceased Amis couple of Difang Duana (Chinese name Kuo Ying-nan) and Igay Duana (Kuo Hsiu-chu), were not particularly pleased about the fact that Enigma had used their chant without permission, and that the form in which it was utilized also presented a break with tradition, for Lawai the worldwide reception of the song was eye-opening because it showed that music was a way for indigenous peoples to, literally, get heard.
He decided to give his restaurant, which was like most other eateries and lacked a clear style, a distinct indigenous theme, in the same way members of other ethnic groups in Taiwan, such as the Hakkas, use cultural themes to present their cuisines in restaurants. Despite various setbacks in the early years, notably in the aftermath of the major 921 Earthquake in 1999 and the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2002, Lawai continued to invest money and energy in his restaurant operation. After he had to close the first Daluan in Taoyuan when the lease contract ended, he opened a restaurant in New Taipei City, but soon decided to return to Taoyuan to open another Daluan – the one we visited for this article.
Astonishingly, besides putting so much time and energy in his restaurant operations, Lawai has also found the time to continue filming, and realized his dream of shooting a short movie. The Lost Sea Horizon, shot for the Public Television Service, even won won the prestigious Golden Bell Award for Best Mini-Series/TV Movie in 2011. The film tells the touching story of members of the Amis Tribe living at and with the Pacific Ocean, exploring their strong connections with the sea.
While we were listening to Lawai’s fascinating story, waitresses brought food to our table. Our attention steadily drifted to the delicacies teasing our nostrils, and we asked the owner to tell us more about the food he offers. The centerpiece of the set menu the restaurant prepared for us was a whole golden-brown chicken that was very large. The chicken is broiled in the traditional way, and its firm, fresh flesh told us our chicken had been running on a free-range chicken farm not long before arriving at our table. Lawai told us that the restaurant prepares not only traditional Amis dishes but classics from other tribes as well. What is new is his emphasis on modern healthy-cooking concepts, with only fresh, premium ingredients from trustworthy suppliers used.
Glutinous rice cooked in bamboo tubes is an essential part of a true indigenous meal, and was indeed part of our set menu. The tubes are the traditional “lunch box” containers taken into the mountains on hunting trips or to the fields or coast when going about farming and fishing. Among the more exotic dishes we tasted at the Daluan was a jellyfish salad, with tiny bits of jellyfish that melt in your mouth and leave the “taste of the Pacific Ocean,” as Lawai put it. We also tried betelnut flowers wrapped in nori seaweed sheets, and fatty wild boar meat in rice. All the dishes were very delicious, and authentically “native.”
While we were munching away, the small stage inside the restaurant came to life, and an attractive female singer accompanied by a keyboard player started to entertain the guests with indigenous songs. Soon everyone was in great spirits, and when the waitresses asked all diners to stand up and join a group dance, with all moving through the restaurant hand in hand, we could easily imagine how much fun it must be to take part in the big group dances during the annual Amis harvest festivals.
The Daluan is meant to be a place where people – both members of indigenous tribes missing their villages and non-indigenous people who want to experience indigenous culture and food – can come together and have a good time in a warm and cozy place. In the urban jungle of Taoyuan, this restaurant is a truly unique and unexpected oasis of culinary surprises and heart-warming native culture.
English and Chinese
|The Lost Sea Horizon||失落的海平線|
Daluan Indigenous Theme Restaurant (打鹿岸原住民主題餐廳)
Add:101, Sec. 1, Zhuangjing Rd., Taoyuan City (桃園市莊敬路一段101號)
Tel: (03) 355-7101