Maqaw is the Atayal and Tsou name for a kind of wild pepper, also known as “mountain pepper.” Harvested from the aromatic litsea tree, which blossoms in spring and bears fruit in summer, its flavor is a blend of pepper and ginger. The tree is mainly distributed in Taiwan’s submontane zone at 100 to 1,500 meters above sea level, and every February it starts to be festooned in delicate little yellow flowers that herald the coming of spring. Caped in this exquisite mantle, it presents no less lovely a sight than cherry trees in full blossom. At this time, the hills are suffused with its spicy fragrance. Its essential oil is distilled for use as a cosmetic fragrance and as a raw material for pharmaceutical products. Sprigs of the tree bearing flowers and fruit are often used in floral decorations, while its fruit and seeds are often used by indigenous people as salt.
If you travel in mountain areas, you will often see roadside sellers of “maqaw sausages” spiced with this pepper. In indigenous people’s eyes, the mountain pepper is a precious treasure. The Atayal like to pickle and eat its fruit; the Saisiyat mash and steep the fruit, to drink as a hangover cure. A majority of indigenous people use it for seasoning food in place of salt.
In the life of Atayal and other indigenous people, maqaw is an extremely important condiment. They regard it as symbolizing the endless cycle and sustenance of life, representing the traditional wisdom and life spirit of their ancestors. It is ideal for seasoning mushroom and chicken soup, seafood, and maqaw sausages, for spicing maqaw coffee, for braising tofu or eggs, and for much more.