Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant
Indigenous Fine Dining in the Hills of Taitung
Text: Steven Crook
The emblem of the Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant is a snail, and for those reading the Chinese-character menu from left to right, which Taiwanese don’t always do, the very first item listed is Basil-Flavored Snails (NT$250 per portion). But edible gastropods aren’t the main reason why a cartoon snail represents this establishment.
Visitors who speak the language variously known as Minnanhua, Taiwanese, or Hokkien will quickly guess why the owner opted for a cute snail motif. The founder’s surname is Luo Lei (full name Mr. Luo Lei Pei-hua), and in Minnanhua snails are known as luolei. He has taken his childhood nickname and turned it into a brand.
Two-syllable surnames are rare in Taiwan, and Mr. Luo Lei owes his to his mixed parentage. Luo was the surname of his mother, a member of the Puyuma tribe. Lei was the family name of his father, who migrated to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland after World War II. Mr. Luo Lei grew up amongst the Puyuma people, married a Puyuma lady, and considers himself Puyuma – hence his decision to put his mother’s surname first. As well, all of his employees are Puyuma.
From the restaurant, which is a large, open-sided structure made of wood and bamboo located in a foothill village, you can see all the way to downtown area of coastal Taitung City, 11km away. There’s an hour of live music – typically a female vocalist accompanied by an acoustic guitarist – every weekday evening starting at 7pm. On weekends, local schoolchildren perform indigenous dances.
Huge photographs – some historical, some recent – of native people decorate the walls, and there are a handful of unpainted woodcarvings. The decor is understated and tasteful, which is as it should be. As far as most customers are concerned, of course, what comes out of the kitchen is much more important than the interior, the performances, or the view.
Whereas the hearty fare on offer at most Taiwan indigenous restaurants can be relied upon at least to satisfy gourmands, the cuisine here is a notch higher. Some standout dishes surely qualify as gourmet – and that’s a word this writer doesn’t bandy about.
More than 60 dishes are listed on the menu, and Mr. Luo Lei’s wife, acting as our host, starts by recommending the snails. They’re available year-round, she explains, but become scarcer when the weather is hotter. At least four dishes on the menu are distinctively Puyuma, she informs us. One is Meat-Filled Wild Bitter Gourd (NT$350), the foraged gourds being far smaller than farmed variants. Another is Teng Xin Pig’s Foot Soup (NT$400 to NT$500 per portion; also available with chicken instead of pork). It’s cooked using a wild vegetable foraged by indigenous people in several places in east Taiwan, and Mrs. Luo Lei says she warns anyone thinking of trying this dish that it’s exceptionally bitter.
If you’ve enjoyed indigenous cuisine in other parts of Taiwan, you may be surprised that Xiang Luo Lei’s cooks make little use of aromatic litsea, one of the ingredients which helps differentiate indigenous cuisine from mainstream Taiwan cooking. Also known as mountain pepper or magao – the Mandarin term is derived from maqaw, the Atayal tribe’s word for it – aromatic litsea simply isn’t as common in the wilds of Taitung as it is elsewhere in Taiwan, Mr. Luo Lei explains.
The restaurant serves one indigenous favorite that is well-known as a specialty often seen in the hot-spring town of Wulai, south of Taipei City. Bamboo Tube Seasoned Rice (NT$50) is exactly what the name suggests. For diners who find plain white rice uninspiring, it makes an interesting change.
Like Bamboo Tube Seasoned Rice, no tribe can claim a monopoly over what the Puyuma call A-Bai (NT$50). Made from fermented millet and pork, this delicacy is somewhat similar to sushi in terms of appearance and consistency. Because portions come wrapped in banana leaves, and can be consumed in a few bites, these tamale-like snacks also resemble flattened zongzi, the sticky-rice pyramids Taiwanese feast on around the time of the Dragon Boat Festival (June 20 this year). Being lighter and less greasy, they won’t leave you feeling filled up before you get to work on other dishes.
Mr. Luo Lei explains that, traditionally, food wasn’t wrapped in leaves for the sake of presentation. Nor was it done to save money, or for environmental reasons. He remembers a time when refrigerators weren’t common in remote villages like his. When families had more meat than could be eaten that day – after a successful hunt, say – they’d wrap the excess in large leaves and bury the parcels, placing a stone slab on top so the cache wouldn’t be disturbed by animals.
“Three Cup” dishes are a mainstay of greater China’s cuisines, the flavor and name coming from the roughly equal amounts of soy sauce, rice wine, and sesame oil in which meat is simmered until most of the liquid has evaporated. In addition to conventional Three-Cup Chicken (NT$280), Xiang Luo Lei offers Three-Cup Rice-Field Frog (NT$300), Three-Cup Bamboo Partridge (NT$250), Three-Cup Soft-Shelled Turtle (NT$450), and a few other variations on the theme.
Indigenous cuisine has a reputation for being meat-heavy, perhaps because stone-slab barbecues can be seen in so many buluo (“tribal communities” in Mandarin). That said, however, vegetarians will leave Xiang Luo Lei full and happy. Even hard-core carnivores should seize the opportunity to try certain vegetables which may not be available in their home countries. Bird’s Nest Fern (NT$200) is one. Fiddlehead Fern Salad (NT$150) features another. Despite its name, White Water Snowflake (NT$180) is a scrumptious green with stems the length and thickness of spaghetti strands. As habits go, chewing betel nut is almost as bad as smoking, but there’s nothing unhealthy about consuming fibrous, crunchy Betel-Nut Flowers (NT$200).
When the food arrives on your table, you’ll probably want to tuck right in. Do, however, take a few moments to appreciate the effort that goes into presentation, as in this respect Xiang Luo Lei is some way ahead of many comparable establishments. To accompany the Basil-Flavored Salted Barbecued Fish (NT$350), slices of cucumber are arranged in the shape of a four-leafed clover. The Stone-Roasted Pork (NT$250) comes neatly sliced and arrayed on a bed of raw onion. The pork is tastiest when dipped first in garlic vinegar, then sprinkled with ground pepper.
Xiang Luo Lei’s menu is in Chinese only, but with the aid of this article you should be able to order an enjoyable and memorable meal. Here’s another suggestion: In Taiwan, no one minds if you peer at what they’re eating, ask what it is, and then point to it to indicate you’d like a serving of the same.
Because the menu was designed with extended families and largish parties in mind, bring friends along so you can try more dishes. Don’t worry there won’t be enough space – the restaurant can accommodate close to 200 people. Liquid options at Xiang Luo Lei include Taiwan Beer, Heineken, and local red wines and liquors, plus the usual juices and teas.
Getting to Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant requires a car (taxi) or motorcycle, but navigation is straightforward. From downtown Taitung City, head away from the ocean on Zhongxing Road. Stay on that thoroughfare as it becomes Provincial Highway 9, then be on the lookout for a turnoff on the right just past Fengtian Elementary School (you veer off to the right, rather than making a full turn). Follow this road, Lijia Road, into Lijia Village. The restaurant is just beyond the village, on the left. There’s no English sign, so look for the snail emblem. Parking is readily available nearby.
English and Chinese
|Bamboo Tube Seasoned Rice||竹筒飯|
|Basil-Flavored Salted Barbecued Fish||塔香烤鹽魚|
|Bird’s Nest Fern||山蘇|
|Fiddlehead Fern Salad||過貓沙拉|
|Meat-Filled Wild Bitter Gourd||野苦瓜鑲肉|
|Teng Xin Pig’s Foot Soup||藤心豬腳湯|
|Three-Cup Bamboo Partridge||三杯竹雞|
|Three-Cup Rice-Field Frog||三杯田蛙|
|Three-Cup Soft-Shelled Turtle||三杯甲魚|
|White Water Snowflake||水蓮菜|
Xiang Luo Lei Restaurant (響羅雷美食坊餐廳)
Add:19-1, Lane 689, Lijia Road, Lijia Village, Beinan Township, Taitung County (台東縣卑南鄉利嘉村利嘉路689巷19號之1)