September 30, 2010
Vegetarian in Taiwan

As a self-confessed carnivore, I thought it was time we had an introduction to the great vegetarian food available in Taiwan. And although I do enjoy the odd veggie meal, I thought it was better to get the view of a proper vegetarian. Many thanks to Jake for the following insight. Now where did I put that veggie ham...

 

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, is it a duck?

        Around twenty years ago, my sister's youth orchestra came to Taiwan to play a series of concerts here. The players were regularly treated to banquet-style dinners, and a "special needs" table was always included for those who were vegetarian like my sister. The story goes that at one such banquet, the waiter presented her table with what looked to be a succulent duck, roasted to perfection. Needless to say, the vegetarians were shocked. The chaperones signaled for the waiter who in turn alerted the kitchen. Immediately, the chefs emerged and gathered near the table, conferring with the nervous chaperones. Suddenly, one chef understood. He looked at the vegetarians, pointed at the dish, and said proudly, "Tofu...in shape of duck!"


        Indeed, Taiwanese food is often an adventure for the traveler, and vegetarian food is no exception, as my sister will attest. From tasty traditional fare to exotic Indian, Asian, and newer Western offerings, Taiwan, to put it simply, is fast becoming a vegetarian's paradise. So, without further ado, what follows are some basics on vegetarian dining in Taiwan.

        Vegetarian restaurants abound in Taiwan and are relatively easy to find. Due to the island's large Buddhist population, most every city and town will have at least one such establishment. Even less devout followers will go without meat on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar month, hence, the popularity of vegetarian restaurants. A good place to start looking for veggie fare is in or around a town's traditional market or by the railway station. Seek out the character "su" or the backwards swastika on the sign outside (please note, this also goes for food labels in supermarkets and convenience stores).

Traditional vegetarian restaurants usually come in two types. First up are the buffet-style cafeterias, where you help yourself to the dozens of delectable dishes on offer. These range from steamed and fried greens to a wide variety of tofu, noodles, and other veggies. You may be compelled to exclaim how good something looks, but certain restaurants have rules against talking while selecting your food. Just enjoy the soothing music and chanting common in many of these places. Price is usually determined by weight -I regularly pay between NT$70-80 NT for a good-sized lunch -and rice is an extra NT$10 per bowl. How can you go wrong?

Next up are the cozy sit-down places where you order off a menu. Options typically include different types of noodles -for example, sesame, wonton, and my personal favorite, "hong shao" noodles (which is a vegetarian version of the popular beef noodle soup here) -as well as dumplings, rice dishes, and tasty appetizers. Don't count on these restaurants having an English menu, but you can always point to what another diner is eating. Remember, it's all part of the adventure! 


*Taiwan has been embracing LOHAS and green living philosophies of late, and vegetarian restaurants are no exception. While disposable chopsticks and plates are provided, many diners choose to bring their own. A fun pair of reusable chopsticks from Taiwan makes for a great souvenir after all!*

A brief sampling of my favorite vegetarian places in Taipei:

Hui Liu - A great vegetarian restaurant that serves its delicious food and tea on its very own pottery. Be sure to try the little pizza, pocket salad, Marco Polo ravioli... Just try everything. www.huiliu.info/

Minder - A chain of restaurants around Taipei that offers both buffet and a la carte options. Some restaurants even serve up vegetarian pizzas! www.minder.com.tw/

Jin Guang Vegetarian Restaurant - This is where I ate lunch every day when I first arrived in Taipei. The people are friendly and warm and their food absolutely delicious. Try the buffet or order my personal favorite: the "xiang qun" noodles. Map


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