Sacred grains

Sarah Gillespie travels to Hualien County, Taiwan, to learn about the significance – religious as well as culinary – of millet and rice 

Paid partnership with Taiwan Tourism Administration

Sacred grains

Sarah Gillespie travels to Hualien County, Taiwan, to learn about the significance – religious as well as culinary – of millet and rice

To listen along to this story on the indigenous culture of Taiwan, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

You can tell a lot about a culture by the way its words are weighted. The Japanese bow in four ways, with a different word for each; the Finns have at least 40 words for snow. The Amis — Taiwan’s largest indigenous group — have eight words for rice.

The words describe rice in different states — such as raw or cooked — and of different types. But the most important word is katepayi: the precious red glutinous rice that only they grow.

“We use the sticky rice in worship, making an offering for the safety of our families,” says Kanew Ipay.

Kanew is the chief of the Tafalong, a community of around 5,000 Amis living in Hualien County. We’re standing next to the Tafalong’s katepayi field, which yields about one tonne of rice per year.

A quilt of rice paddies blankets the surrounding lands, hemmed by the mist-wreathed mountains of the East Rift Valley. Most of these are for more profitable white rice varieties; Kanew owns ten hectares himself.

“The yield of red glutinous rice is only one-third, compared with normal rice; people are more interested in cash crops,” he says. “But we grow it because it’s part of our culture; we must preserve it.”

These days, tourists keep the tradition alive, contributing half the annual harvest. When the crops ripen in July, they join the Amis in the field, singing songs as they work.

As well as using katepayi in ritual, the Tafalong offer indigenous cookery classes. Kanew takes me into the tourist experience centre, where a pan of red glutinous rice has just finished steaming. I try a mouthful of the grains; they taste sweet and vegetal.

I’m to make fermented rice wine, under the guidance of chef Ilid Liu. “Until recently, this wine was made only by women in an isolated room, to protect it from… outside contaminants,” she says, grinning. “Before hunting or fishing, we spread three drops of the wine, for luck: one goes to heaven, the second to the ancestors and the third is for the earth.”

After cooling the rice in spring water, I mix it with yeast, then seal it in a jar.

Using strands of fluorescent wool, I make a pom-pom to affix to the lid; Ilid tells me that they represent the eyes of their ancestors. They’ll watch over the fermentation process, which takes about one month.

Fortunately, my hosts already have some rice wine on hand, and serve it in bottomless quantities along with our lunch: an indigenous banquet of pandan chicken, prickly ash omelette, stir-fried bird’s-nest fern, and spicy pork-and-vegetable wraps that I had made earlier with chef Ilid.

It’s the perfect complement to the table’s centrepiece: an enormous mound of katepayi.

The next day, I travel into the mountains of the East Rift Valley, crossing the border into Taitung County. Of Taiwan’s 500,000 indigenous people, a significant number live in Taitung, where one third of the population is indigenous. My destination is the Kamcing Tribe Village, where I will meet members of the Bunun ethnic group.

Before hunting or fishing, we spread three drops of the wine, for luck: one goes to heaven, the second to the ancestors and the third is for the earth.

I arrive at the entrance to the Kaiana Workshop and walk into a tropical garden, pungent with the scent of peaches and basil. I follow a trail of woodsmoke to the workshop, where I find CEO Hu Ibu and her father, Hu Tienguo.

Kaiana is the Bunun word for ‘hang’, a reference to the golden bunches of rainbow millet hanging from the ceiling.

Also hanging overhead is the one surviving Bunun pictograph: the millet harvest calendar, which shows to what extent the lives of the ancient Bunun were dictated by this precious grain. 

In less abundant times, staple foods became sacred: millet had a role in matrimonial rituals, and to this day, the pasibutbut (an eight-part harmony sung after the sowing of millet) is performed in concert halls in Taiwan and abroad, renowned as a standout example of indigenous Asian music.

The Bunun language has several words for millet in different states.

To demonstrate the millet threshing process, Tienguo flings a bunch into a pan on the floor and scrubs it between his feet, rolling the grains away from the stem. I attempt to do the same, the grains scratching against my soft, unworked soles.

Tienguo then picks up the pan and shakes it in a circular motion, as if panning for gold. The unwanted grit and husks float away, glittering on the breeze. He pours the grains into a mortar, and we pound it into dust with giant wooden pestles, Tienguo singing with the beat.

This powder is combined with water and heated to form a paste, which is served along with our lunch: wilted ferns and quinoa leaves, purple yams and crispy pork rib. The millet tastes sturdy, wholesome and rich. “It’s food for astronauts,” smiles Ibu.

After lunch, we jump into the back of a truck and trundle up the mountain, stopping at the family’s millet field. When dried, rainbow millet is golden in colour; it’s the unharvested plant that gives it its name. The flowers, heavy with humidity, shimmer in shades of mulberry, vermillion and ochre.

If it wasn’t for this family, millet might have faded from the village altogether. In 1979, high bills forced the Hu family — along with many others — to give up millet farming for higher-paid city jobs. 

But on finding himself unemployed in 2011, Tienguo returned to the village and began planting millet once more — thanks to tourism and government-backed agricultural research, it had become a far more profitable venture than it once was.

This act was the catalyst for many others, including the founding of Kaiana Workshop and the resurrection of harvest rituals such as the pasibutbut.

Now, he surveys his field of sacred grains with satisfaction. “As long as we have millet,” he says, “we have our culture.”

Need to know

  • Getting there: EVA Air flies to Taipei Taoyuan (TPE) from a number of international destinations, including London Heathrow (via a brief stop in Bangkok) and New York City.
  • Best time to go: Apart from June to September, when Taiwan can be hit by typhoons at times, the country offers a variety of tourist attractions and activities for the rest of the year.
  • Where to stay: From five-star luxury hotels and resorts to economic hostels, Taiwan offers a great spectrum of accommodations. Check out the Taiwan Tourism Administration website for more information.
  • Food: Street food and night markets! Taiwan is best known for its diversity of food. Visit the Michelin Guide website to discover more.
  • Must-pack item: A jumper and a mac might be needed as indoor air conditioners and sudden afternoon showers could turn the temperature slightly chilly.
  • Anything else? In addition to Taiwan’s Lucky Land campaign which gives out 5000 Taiwanese dollars in spending money, Taiwan is offering visitors a Free Half-Day Tour at the moment.

More information

This article on the culture of Taiwan was brought to you in partnership with the Taiwan Tourism Administration.

For more information and suggested itineraries, go to their website.

The writer was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Administration with flights provided by EVA Air.

JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.