The Cultural Significance of Taro Among Taiwan’s Tao People

A view of Orchid Island showing green hills, a bright blue bay, the Tao city and blue sky

The Tao People

Orchid Island, a landmass 49 nautical miles off the coast of Taiwan, is home to the Tao people, one of Taiwan’s 16 indigenous tribes. The Tao people are distinct from Taiwan’s other indigenous groups because they are of Austronesian descent, but there is some disagreement of when they arrived on the island. 

Some historians believe the Tao landed on Orchid Island while fleeing Spanish occupation of the Philippines 200 years ago and some hypothesize that they arrived as early as 800 years ago. However, historians [KD1] generally agree that the Tao people migrated from the Philippines. Members of the same cultural and linguistic group still reside in the northern tip of the Philippines.

Tao, or Dawu, means “people” in the group’s indigenous language. When China gained control of Taiwan in 1945, forced assimilation led to the loss of the traditional Tao language among younger generations of the group. Many cultural practices, however, remain in place.

The Tao people have an egalitarian society and don’t recognize specific chiefs or religious leaders. Tao religious observations are connected to the annual practice of catching and preserving flying fish. You may even recognize the traditional Tatala boats decorated with red, white, and black paint common on Orchid Island beaches.

In addition to fishing, the Tao group relies on pig farming and harvesting taro for dietary staples. Even the traditional housing of the Tao reflects their connection to taro root: stone homes sit in a grid intersected with pig pens and wet taro fields.

The Tao and Taro Root

Taro is a root vegetable with a texture like sweet potatoes and a fuzzy brown exterior like coconuts.

Historically, the Tao women harvest the taro root. On Orchid Island, a variety of taro species grow in shallow water fields. Harvesting the taro is labor-intensive and done sustainably without the use of pesticides. Some taro varieties can take over a year to mature and be ready for harvest. 

The Tao people often use taro as an offering during ceremonial occasions and give it as a gift when someone has a baby or moves into a new home.

As Tao individuals leave Orchid Island to find work in mainland Taiwan, the amount of people left on the island to harvest taro has dwindled. Local schools host projects that teach students about taro farming practices and provide them with traditional taro dishes in their school lunches.

Nimay is a taro dish traditionally prepared during the fishing season. The taro is boiled, mashed, and mixed with pork lard to get a sticky texture. It is often served with pork skin or steamed crabs to keep the fishermen’s energy up during the busy season.

Aptly named, fried taro flying fish buns are unique to Orchid Island. These snacks consist of fried buns filled with taro and locally caught flying fish.

Taro’s popularity extends to mainland Taiwan. Taiwanese night markets offer taro-flavored bubble tea and ice cream, and in local restaurants, taro pancakes and soup are dependable staples. Although you can try taro across Taiwan, Orchid Island gives a unique look at the indigenous importance of this nutritious food. 

Learn More:
Exquisite Taro Dishes and Insight into Tao Culture
Cultural Survival on Taiwan's Orchid Island