A People for Whom Bitter Tastes Sweet

24 07 2009


When I bite into the little green pumpkin-shaped fruit, a bitter, acidic juice spreads quickly through my mouth and makes a beeline for my throat.

“AAAAHHH!” I cry out in shock. Wang Lien-mei (王蓮妹), smiles at my reaction.

“For us, the Amis people, our lives are so bitter that we don’t taste the bitter in the gagoorroo,” she explains. “They taste sweet to us.”

I must have given her the most stupefied look in my repertoire, because she quickly explains how she has eaten the little green vegetables since she was a child. But I can’t imagine a life so bitter that these little bitter bombs could actually taste sweet.

What she tells me next stays with me long after the bitterness of the gagoorroo is gone.

Thirty years ago, a small group of Amis families — Wang and her fellow villagers –moved from their beautiful ancestral homeland on the east coast of Taiwan. They came to Taoyuan County, where the men of the tribe could find work deep in the mines and high up on the scaffoldings of Taiwan’s industrial north.

The displaced Amis settled in an area along the banks of a river — as the Amis often do — in Taoyuan County.

But plans for a bicycle path prompted a local government to force Wang and her fellow villagers out of the place they called “Sa’owac niyaro” (or “village by the riverside” in their language). When they came to Taipei to protest the plans, the local government tore down their houses.


Recently, two concerned Taiwanese academics — Lu Chien-ming and Hsu Shu-chen — arranged an installation art show to call attention to the villagers situation. In the above photo, you can see what remained of the village after it was torn down.


You can see how small the gagoorroo are compared to my hand.


They may be small, but the first bite is a bit of a shock.

Marinated Gagoorroo

Gagorroo marinated in soy sauce, red and gren chili peppers, and garlic, are served cold as a fresh accompaniament to rice.


Prof. Lu Chien-ming and Hsu Su-chen are the curators behind the art installation introducing the villagers from Sa’owac.

Village Head

The head of Sa’owac speaks to the villagers at the opening of the exhibition. Wang Lian-mei, who introduced me to gagorroo, sits in the front row on the far left.

Sadly, the story of Sa’owac is not an isolated one. There are at least a handful of other villages of displaced indigenous people in northern Taiwan that are in danger or have already been torn down.

Before I leave the exhibition, Wang tells me her one wish for her people: to have a long-term place to call their own.

“All of us who live in the village have grown old,” she says. “We just want to be able to live near the banks of a river so that we can grow vegetables that we can give to our children. Especially with the economy doing so poorly, we’d like to be able to help out our children so they at least don’t have to buy vegetables at the store.”




One response

26 07 2009
Michael Stevenson

Wow, those little suckers look dangerous!! I would still like to try their bitterness though! The most bitter things I have had is a grapefruit (which is ok to eat raw for me) and a health herbal product called Swedish Bitters which really is nasty if taken by itself! Thanks for the great education lesson about Taiwan’s aboriginals and their eating of this bitter vegetable. By the way, can you die if you eat the seeds?
Best wishes from Australia!
Michael Stevenson

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