Scattered all throughout the forests of Taiwan perched underneath the shadowy canopy, there are rattan palms with menacing spikes running alongside their trunk. Also known as the yellow rotang palm, they produce freckled, beige seeds, which can be made into necklaces or earrings. In the old days, the flexible branches of this palm were harvested and weaved into furniture and mats. Today, rattan palms—not necessarily just the ones with spikes—are mostly used as an ornamental plant on lawns or kept as houseplants.
But for Indigenous Taiwanese educator Dongi Kacaw and many of her peers, the rattan palm is so much more than a decorative plant: It’s a source of food, and its young tender shoots are delicious. “It’s a little bit bitter and astringent, but good in soup with pork ribs,” she says. “If picked at the right time, they’re also wonderful grilled and dipped in a bit of salt.”
For the past 26 years, Kacaw has been an advocate for wild, edible greens in Taiwan. She is the principal of the Hualien Indigenous Wild Vegetable Center, a community space on the east coast of Taiwan that holds lectures on traditional ecological knowledge, seed swapping sessions, and workshops on how to craft art from bark, wine from rice, and meals from tropical foraged nightshades. Through her work, Kacaw is broadening the public’s perception of Taiwanese cuisine—which tends to be focused on the food cultures of its major cities and the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora who make up the majority of the island’s population. But long before the first waves of Chinese settlers arrived in Taiwan in the 16th and 18th century, there was a vibrant and diverse population of Indigenous Austronesian inhabitants on the island.
“I am Amis,” she says, referring to one of 16 recognized Austronesian linguistic groups in Taiwan, of which there are many subsets. “We are a matrilineal society and back then, grandmas and moms would bring wild vegetables back after they came home from work. Eating wild greens is just a part of our culture.”
Indigenous groups have resided in Taiwan for millennia, but in the 16th century, waves of Chinese immigrants began to trickle in until eventually—by the early 19th century—their numbers outnumbered the island’s original inhabitants. In the early 20th century, the Empire of Japan colonized Taiwan and made a forceful attempt to assimilate Indigenous populations into mainstream society; in the process of doing so, a lot of traditional ecological traditions were lost. Plant identification knowledge, especially, was not prioritized, actively taught, or particularly valued.
Kacaw, who got her start by penning magazine articles on the topic, aims to change that. As part of her initiative, she encourages farmers to cultivate endemic, edible greens and she collects as many heirloom seeds as she can. Last year, she sent 12 heirloom legume seeds to the World Vegetable Center, an international seed bank based in southern Taiwan. “Three of those were part of a batch that were shipped over to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” Kacaw says proudly, referring to the world’s largest seed storage facility.
Kacaw’s knowledge of wild greens is almost encyclopedic. She walks me around the back of the Wild Vegetable Center, which, at first glance, looks overgrown and weedy—but that’s the point. Her philosophy is that what some people call “weeds” should be embraced and allowed to thrive wherever they choose. She points out common, everyday plants that can be found on the sidewalks and hills of nearly every neighborhood in Taiwan and notes that they can all be used somehow. There are a cluster of shepherd’s needles—a pervasive weed with bright, petite daisy-like flowers; its tender leaves can be stir-fried or folded into an egg scramble. There’s a tall bush with serrated leaves shaped like perfect spades; it’s ramie, a perennial plant related to stinging nettles whose fibrous stalks can be used to make fabric for clothes. Adjacent to the ramie is a small roxburgh sumac tree with glossy, curved leaves. “Back then we used the berries as a substitute for salt,” she says.
When she first started advocating for wild greens in the ’90s, she says she was greeted with skepticism. Indigenous culture was seen as backwards and unsophisticated, but attitudes have since softened as Taiwan has come to embrace its Indigenous roots. “People just didn’t believe these things were even edible but now, even the mayor is eating wild greens,” she says.
In 2000, Kacaw wrote a book called Edible Wild Greens of Taiwan’s Pangcah People compiling the vast knowledge of the vegetative world; it has since been translated into the Amis language and English. She gives tips on how and where to forage wild sugarcane—she used to collect the fluffy tips of sugarcane flowers to play with. Kacaw also dedicates pages to the betel nut palm, whose seeds are one of the most popular psychoactive substances in the world. But instead of focusing on the nut—which is widely known and used throughout mainstream Taiwanese society—she waxes poetic about the leaf of the palm. It’s thick, like cardboard, and can be dried and folded into a waterproof basin. It’s so waterproof, in fact, that boiling water can be poured into it without leaking. Kacaw makes the ordinary seem extraordinary, through her lens of inherited Indigenous knowledge.
But as much as she is an advocate for foraging, Kacaw is careful to tell her students to exercise caution. “Pesticides are a big concern,” she says, pointing out that some urban areas are sprayed in an attempt to stop invasive weeds. “And in our practice, we always just take a little bit. We never pluck out the root, or else the plant won’t grow back.”
In her many years of doing this, Kacaw says she has seen a gradual adoption of her philosophies by mainstream society. The Hualien Indigenous Wild Vegetable Center is a physical manifestation of her work. But Kacaw’s efforts have also had an effect on food culture around the island: Recently, there’s been an influx of chefs at restaurants across Taiwan using local vegetables. Additionally, entrepreneurial Indigenous youths are starting up cottage industries centered around plants that have been cultivated in Taiwan by Indigenous people for hundreds of years.
“In one of the neighboring tribes, they’ve created a whole industry around arrowroot, which can be made into a starch,” she says. Arrowroot, while not endemic to Taiwan, has been naturalized on the island, and there are now wild clusters of it in the mountainside. “It took them a long time to set up their business but it’s working.”
Despite her accomplishments and botanical knowledge, Kacaw stresses that there is much more to learn. The vast universe of wild edible plants cannot be mastered in one lifetime alone, and she hopes to continue studying for as long as she can. Her next goal? To publish recipes.
“You can spend all this time learning the name of plants, but unless you learn how to use them, you won’t have a personal relationship with them,” she says.