May Chang（Litsea cubeba）is an evergreen tree that is native to Taiwan. Its seeds are usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning called "mountain pepper" (山胡椒) in Mandarin and maqaw (馬告) by the Atayal aborigines in northern and eastern part of Taiwan. Dried ground maqaw has been used since antiquity for both its flavor and as a traditional medicine in traditional Atayal culture. Maqaw is believed to have the effect of promoting the production of body fluid and relieving thirst. It is widely used especially in summer to increase appetite and relieve hangover headaches. Maqaw is often used to treat digestion problems as well. Some tribes even use Maqaw as aphrodisiac. It is also believed to help strengthen immune system. The flavor of maqaw, suggested by its name of “mountain pepper,” is a well-balanced combination of peppery spice, ginger and fresh lemon. Fresh maqaw seeds are green, and Atayal women work together to collect seeds and dry them in the sun. Seeds turn darker when dried, and are ground before use.
The aboriginal Atayal tribe, whose name means “brave man,” has been living on the island of Taiwan for more than 5000 years. The Atayal people reside in an area with a variety of ecosystems, from mountains 2000 meters above sea level to seaside areaa. For this reason maqaw is often used not only in meat, but also in seafood dishes. The most well-known maqaw fish dish is made with fresh caught catfish wrapped with bamboo leaves and seasoned with salt and maqaw. The mix of bamboo fragrance and peppery spiciness is the best when served with traditional Ataya rice wine, t’lakis. Maqaw is also used in wild boar stew and pheasant soup. Atayal believe Maqaw helps the digestion of heavy meat dishes.
Maqaw is prized both for its gastronomic and medicinal functions. In one study from the early 2000s in the “Journal of Wood Science,” Litsea cubeba was proven to contain geranial, neral and d-lemonene, which have hypnotic and analgesic functions that help regulating animals’ central nervous system. In order to keep its usage and cultivation alive, maqaw is now also made into essential oil and other uses for this native plant are being explored.Back to the archive >