Sat, Nov 26, 2016 - Page 13 News List

Pepper with a difference

Widely known as an essential oil for therapeutic use, maqaw is also used in Aboriginal cuisine and has much potential to be given a bigger place in the kitchen

By Ian Bartholomew  /  Contributing reporter

A simple dish of fried breaded fish is lifted by the combination of maqaw scented mayo and a bit of salad.

Photo: Ian Bartholomew

Litsea cubeba is a plant indigenous to Taiwan and found across Southeast Asia and is probably best known in the west as a source of the essential oil of the same name. It is used in aromatherapy, and while it does not feature widely in Asian cuisine, it is an important feature in the cooking of Taiwan’s Atayal Aborigines and sometimes appears in dishes of other Aboriginal communities.

In aromatherapy circles, it also goes by the name May Chang and in the culinary sphere as “mountain pepper,” but in Taiwan it is best known under its aboriginal name of maqaw (also spelt “makauy,” 馬告). It is an evergreen shrub that grows in the foothills and might be considered a foraged herb, as there appears to be only limited commercial cultivation.

Attempts to promote the cuisine of Taiwan’s Aboriginal communities has seen much made of maqaw, which has a flavor that combines elements of pepper, lemongrass, thyme, ginger and citrus oils. As a fresh berry, it can be crushed and used in herbal tea infusions, but for use in the kitchen it is generally dried and looks very similar to black pepper, though the dried berries are softer and cannot be ground in the manner of pepper. Crushing the berries before use is recommended to bring out the flavor.

For all the promotion, I had not taken to maqaw, finding that its complex flavors did not diffuse well into the few dishes I tried at various Aboriginal eateries. I was quite ready to write it off as just another desperate attempt at marketing something unique about Taiwanese culture. It is widely touted as wonderful with steamed fish, but I never found the flavor suffused the dish in quite as efficient a manner as thyme or lemon zest. In a Thai-style soup like a tom kha gai, it provides an interesting twist, but not enough to demand a substitute for galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, all of which now are readily and cheaply available.

While maqaw might be a local ingredient, it has “foraged” credentials and is relatively expensive, selling for NT$850 for just over half a kilo on the PChome shopping Web site, and often for rather more bought from Aboriginal specialty outlets. I am inclined to suspect that a certain degree of parsimony in the use of this ingredient may undermine its overall appeal in dishes served at medium or low priced establishments offering Aboriginal food.

My own efforts to showcase the distinct flavor profile of this local ingredient led me to a very simple solution, that of using it to flavor mayonnaise, and then serving this as a side to fish. The oil in the mayo seems to help draw out the flavor of the maqaw and the simplicity of the mixture avoids confusion with other similar flavors. An Aboriginal chef contributing to the Apple Daily also suggests the use of rice wine as a way of bringing out the best from this spice. Maqaw’s complexity gives the mayo a layered flavor suggestive of the use of a more complex mix of herbs.

While its culinary uses do not seem well known in the west, it is included in a range of culinary flavorings by Aftelier Perfumes, which suggests its use in anything from cakes to martinis.

Maqaw also has a wide range of health benefits, with various aromatherapy Web sites lauding its uses for enhancing emotional wellbeing, and the essential oil drawn from maqaw is regarded as being effective in skin care, particularly for the treatment of pimples. It is an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory, and is excellent for cleaning pores. It has some properties similar to tea tree oil, and there are those who recommend combining the two in a powerful and fragrant insect repellent. Added to that, it can even serve as an effective deodorant. All this even before it finds its way into the cooking pot. The Taiwan Environmental Information Center Web site makes much of the fact that an infusion of maqaw is used as a hangover cure by aborigines. Other local health Web sites suggest that it aids digestion, and that it has a mild analgesic and detoxification function as well.

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