As of the second week of April, just a handful of countries have yet to report cases of the novel coronavirus. One of them is Palau, a Pacific island chain that has had diplomatic relations with Taiwan since 1999.
In early March, when a newly-arrived US citizen showed symptoms of COVID-19, doctors in Taiwan used telemedicine technology to help Palauan physicians take samples from the patient. These were flown to Taiwan for testing; the results were negative.
Palau might so far have evaded a health crisis, but its tourism-driven economy can’t avoid other consequences of the pandemic.
Photo: Katy Hui-wen Hung
“We noticed the impact of COVID-19 very early on, because lots of tourists canceled their trips to Palau. Also, a lot of expatriates left the country. It’s effected nearly every part of the economy, because so many businesses rely on tourism,” says Tina Cheng (鄭欣庭), who helps her parents run 7-EAT Restaurant (美人魚餐廳), one of the most expensive restaurants in Koror, Palau’s largest city. Cheng’s father became 7-EAT’s manager in 2010; the boss is Palauan.
“To reduce expenses, we’ve cut down our hours of operation,” says Cheng, who says that the restaurant is also adjusting its menu to make it more delivery-friendly. So far, spicy fried chicken and sweet and sour pork, both served with steamed rice, have proved to be popular take away items with locals customers.
“Right now, we don’t worry about getting the ingredients we need, but if shipping is disrupted, there will be a problem,” she adds.
Photos: Katy Hui-wen Hung
In the past, 7-EAT catered mainly to tourists from Taiwan and China, as well as other non-locals. The menu includes lots of seafood, but Taiwanese diners especially liked a crocodile dish in which the meat is cooked the same way as Dongpo pork (東坡肉), and not just for its taste. Certain parts of the crocodile’s anatomy, such as palms, are rich in collagen — a natural beauty product that enhances skin elasticity and reduces wrinkles.
Gonzo gourmands sometimes ordered a dish now steeped in notoriety: A soup made with ginger and goji berries, with protein in the form of a stewed fruit bat. Earlier this year, amid speculation that the coronavirus originated in bats, photos and video clips showing people eating bats have been circulating online. Some of these images came not from China — as many people assumed — but from Palau, where 7-EAT wasn’t the only restaurant to offer an iteration of a traditional local delicacy.
Cheng says, from now on, tourists will be too scared to order bat soup. But she points out that locals are still eating it.
“Palauans have been eating bat soup for years, and never suffering any sicknesses as a result,” Cheng says.
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