Sunday, 2 August 2009

Introduction to Being Vegan in Taiwan

Why a Vegan In Taiwan Blog?
When I first came to Taiwan nearly three years ago, with the intention of teaching English for a year and then returning to New Zealand, I had heard that it was great place for vegans; this was a significant reason for choosing Taiwan to live over Japan or Korea – a decision I certainly don't regret. For about two rather hungry and miserable weeks, however, I lived on dumplings for lunch and subway for dinner, or for a change, occasionally subway for lunch and dumplings for dinner, or even subway for lunch and dinner. At one point, I traveled right across Taipei to search (unsuccessfully) for an ordinary Taiwanese buffet recommended by the Lonely Planet, though a kind-hearted Taiwanese person did eventually search online for me (again unsuccessfully) and then finally explain my needs to a nearby non-veg restaurant. A few days later, I found a Buddhist vegetarian (with the unmissable reverse swastika) deep-fried fast food vendor in Gongguan, which sustained me every night for another week or so. It was only the assurances I had received from fellow veg'ns before leaving New Zealand, that kept me in Taiwan for that first month,
during which time I lived in hope – and sometimes in hunger – that I would eventually work out where all these great vegetarian restaurants apparently were.

And I did. Within in a month or so, I was finding delectable vegan food everywhere I went in Taipei, and had all but forgotten my earlier
struggles to survive. However, it all came back to me when a friend and vegan writer, Herwin Walravens, came to Taiwan to print his new, glossy, Vegan Guide to Japan, and explained how difficult it was to find food, and recommended that I start a vegan guide to Taiwan. This blog is modeled on Herwin's Vegan Guide to Japan and new Vegan Guide to Thailand, soon to become a pocketguide like his Japanese equivalent.

This blog is primarily aimed at the new vegan (or vegetarian) foreigner to Taiwan, whether here as a tourist, on business, or for work, most likely as a teacher. For readers of Chinese, the following sites also list vegetarian restaurants: [COMING SOON]

This blog will focus first on survival in Taiwan, but may, in the future, if it gets enough readers, include reports on more interesting
vegetarian restaurants for long-term expats to try out (please send me recommendations). It will focus first on Taipei and Hsinchu, the two cities most likely to be visited or lived in by tourists, new teachers and businesspeople.

Vegan Survival in Taiwan

Finding Vegetarian Restaurants
Vegan restaurants really are everywhere: I haven't had an apartment without at least two or three within walking distance. However, they are often down small alleys and back streets, and are not easy to find.

2. ASK people. Don't be afraid to walk into a shop (a convenience store is a good place to start) or even ask a stranger on the street if they know where one is; likely they will, and if you are lucky and they have time, they might even walk you there (gotta love Taiwan for things like that).
3.Print the following characters up and paste them around your house.
Virtually every vegetarian eatery will have these two characters, either alone together or as part of the name.
Is it Vegan?
Probably, but not necessarily. First of all, there is currently a scare that much fake meat contains real meat; read about it here. For now, I say leave it to the Buddhists, Ching Hai devotees and, if necessary, law-makers to sort this out, and assume that at truly vegetarian restaurants, assume that it is, but watch this space).

Some dishes contain cheese or milk products in the sauces, but it is usually very obvious, as dairy products are not used in traditional Chinese/ Taiwanese cooking, and are expensive to import (and a class/status symbol – something that needs to change in Asia) it is generally either obvious, or not used at all.

A bigger concern, however small, is that many fake meats do contain milk products, particularly whey. At a small place, it may be possible to ask to check the ingredients (if the bulk packaging they buy lists them), but at a large place, I do not recommend eating any fake meats at all. (Note: this recommendation has just been edited after a little further investigation into whey in fake meat.) It is a risk most vegans take all over the world (the fake meat you ate at your local veg Chinese restaurant was probably made in Taiwan), but I am in the process of writing to the major chains to find out how common it is, and which of their food is vegan. In the meantime, I do not recommend eating any 'fake meat' at any buffet. There is always plenty of (healthier) and much more trustworthy tofu products, spring rolls, vegetables etc. Note, however, that even some "tofu" is made with milk. It usually looks softer and is served with minimal, or no, sauces. Tofu which is heavily marinated, or deep fried, is fine.

Of course, the safest bet is to go to a Loving Hut (website in Chinese, my article on them here) or another restaurant run by the wonderful “Supreme Master” Ching Hai followers, as all are strictly vegan, and there could be no doubt that they would source their vegan ingredients very carefully. These restaurants serve good food, usually slightly more international than the regular Taiwanese restaurants (especially the buffets, which all serve very similar food), are well-priced, and generally have staff who speak good English.

What if a Vegetarian Restaurant Can't be Found?
An unfortunate reality in Taiwan, like most of Asia, is that non-vegetarian eateries are unlikely to do truly vegetarian – let alone vegan - food, spare the safest bet of steamed vegetables and steamed rice – hardly Taiwanese cuisine worth raving about. (Contrary to popular belief, the same goes for Chinese and most other East-Asian restaurants all around the world.) Most, if not all fried food (eg fried rice), will contain lard (if not stock, and potentially a whole
lot of other nasties), in the same way that food from a normal Thai restaurant will contain fish derivatives, whether “vegetarian” or not. However, the fact of the matter is that in Taiwan it is virtually never necessary to eat at such vegan-unfriendly places; I eat out upwards of ten times per week (usually at one of the two simple buffets within walking distance of my home, or the other five a few minutes ride away) and do not remember the last time I ate at a non-vegetarian restaurant. If I go out with a group of non-vegetarians, it''s usually not difficult to persuade them to go to a vegetarian restaurant – the numerous fake meat dishes they serve help there – but in the worst case scenario, I now usually eat before hand and just have a drink at the non-veg restaurant. However, if you wishes to try your luck at a non-veg restaurant, here are a few tips.

1.Chances are if you're going there or being taken there, the staff will speak English and understand “vegetarian”, “egg” and “milk”, “cheese” and “cream” (but perhaps not “dairy products”) and probably understand what you want, in English.
2.If not, the best thing to say is: “woo chrr chyuen swu” (inRomanised pinyin, it is written: 'Wo chi quan su'). Literally, this means that you are vegan and do not eat onion and garlic (and a few other things Buddhists don't eat) but it is really not worth communicating your desire for garlic and onion, as this will just confuse things; they will hopefully be familiar with Buddhist cooking and if so it is the best you'll get . However, due to its tones, if you are new to Chinese, the confused waiter/waitress/chef may well think you are speaking English and not Chinese, so it would be much better to show them this, the Chinese of the above: 我吃全素 (despite being one of the hardest languages to read and write, literacy rates are virtually 100%, especially in the cities). For interest's sake,
'quan su' is very similar to “Jey”/ “Jeh” from SE Asia, or Jain food from India.

3.Taiwanese are inherently friendly to foreigners, and, should you have problems, especially in a major city, it is almost certain that someone who speaks English will race over and help you. Use them - they mean it genuinely - and thank them afterwards with “Share share nii!”. (People new to Taiwan, especially if they've spent time in South East Asian countries, can mistake a genuine attempt to help a foreigner – and perhaps a desire to practise their English and/or show it off to their friends – as having a hidden agenda to sell, scam or otherwise be a nuisance. Use it and appreciate it. (Doing business involving large amounts of money with Taiwanese is, however, another story.)

4.Realise you are taking a risk. There is a significant chance your food is not vegetarian, either because the non-veg waiter/waitress/chef did not nderstand, or just did not care (however nice they seemed). The chances are lower than perhaps getting fish in SE Asia, but are there. In Taiwan, veg'ns eat at vegetarian restaurants and non-vegetarians eat everywhere, including often vegetarian restaurants. Many Taiwanese are vegetarian on certain days of the week, or month, or I think when relatives die, and some do deals (with deities I think) that they will go vegetarian for a set length of time if good fortune comes on them, such as business success or gaining entry into a good university.

Is that Egg?
Quite possibly, but look closely. The I-Kuan-Tao group are a small, vegetarian religion in Taiwan who run a few of the vegetarian restaurants, and they do eat and occasionally serve eggs, however, due to the large majority of Buddhists frequenting their restaurants, they generally just cook simple egg dishes, and shouldn't put them in main dishes (the nature of Chinese food should make it obvious anyway). However, the majority of restaurants are run by Buddhists who wouldn't; however some, most notably the Minder Vegetarian chain (link in Chinese) make very good imitation eggs out of carrots and tofu and who knows what else, but they are vegetarian (presumably vegan).

Cakes and milky-looking desserts / puddings, unless stated “quan su / 全素(see the link on labels) should be assumed to contain milk and/or egg, unless of course they are at the great vegan Loving Hut (no it's not a love hotel) chain, where they are made out of soymilk.

Convenient Stores

When all else fails, there's always the convenience store, and there's usually one 'just over there'; Taiwan has more 7-11s per capita than any other country in the world, and with almost the highest population density in the world, probably the most per square kilometre also; in Taipei there literally seem to be at least one on each major intersection. And unlike the rest of the world, virtually all large convenience stores serve vegetarian meals (they're yet to be confirmed vegan, but it's a fairly safe bet that they are).
Edit: see my article on the new 7-11 meal here. Note that the word 7-11 (or just "the seven") is commonly used here to refer to any convenience store, including the chain's rivals such as 'Family Mart' and 'OK Mart'. This meal can ONLY be found in a genuine 7-11. All the frozen meals I have found at other chains (not that there are many) contain milk. This shouldn't be a problem, as 7-11s are everywhere in cities, and common even in small towns.

Take one out and bring it to the counter, and while you pay for it, they will ask whether you want it microwaved (or probably point to the microwave if you look like a confused waiguoren and they can't say it in English, or lack thee confidence to even if they can, which is most likely). Smile and nod or point to the microwave. Make sure that they open it and place a slit in the cover of the container, otherwise it won't cook properly, and may get hot enough to melt the plastic slightly (carcinogens anyone?). They nuke for a couple of minutes, take it out and shake it, then put it back in again for a bit longer. It's not five-star organic, raw, multi-course vegan cuisine, but it's a life-safer when you really can't find a vegetarian restaurant, or don't have time or can't be bothered to look for one.

In the same freezer, there should be frozen sweet potatoes (that's kumara for any kiwis out there). The Taiwanese eat them frozen – apparently it tastes like ice cream, but not to my palate – but with a bit of persuasion, they'll microwave them for you. Just beware that they come out steaming hot, and tend to drip boiling water from the corner of the cardboard package.

Somewhere under the counter, are free sauces to go with them in convenient little sachets – help yourself. The ketchup, chilli and sweet chilli are vegan, so long as flavours/flavour enhancers (typical in any processed sauce sachet) are fine.

The 7-11s tend to trial a range of interesting snack food, including for a while vegan rice crackers from the US, vegan spicy corn chips made locally, and even (mouth watering remembering) for any kiwis out there again, Whittakers dark chocolate bars. However, none of these lasted, and there are no such specialities at the moment, but watch this space. There are, of course, always nuts (watch out for fish, but it usually has pictures of fish on it if it contains it) and dried fruit, usually sweetened and containing a range of (probably unhealthy but vegan) additives, such as aspartame and food colourings. The 7-11s also sell small packs of plain tofu, and small jars of TVP and peanuts, but they really don't compare to the frozen meals.
Edit: see the 7-11 post (link above) for vegetable crackers now at the 7-11.

Websites
Most travelers will be familiar with the Happy Cow.
There are indeed many, many more than here (a job for me is to put more, especially the more interesting ones) on but this list should be easily enough to start with, and good practise for navigating Taipei's excellent and ever-expanding MRT system, or Kaohsiung's new one. Roads, streets and lanes can be a little confusing (check for the places on google Earth before you leave, and whether it's listed there or not, print the map out) and don't be afraid to go to the area by the MRT (subway / underground) and then ask someone to point you in the right direction. If you can't be bothered walking and finding it,
or are running late, another option is to print the address and give it to a taxi driver, but realise that it may take the driver a couple of times around to find it if it is in a small alleyway off a back street (taxi's in Taiwan are cheap, and drivers are very honest; I haven't been ripped off in any way in over two years in the country).

Not all taxi's speak English, but most should be able to read the address in English; if they can't, you could always read them the address in English (forget the tones) and they should work it out. With patience and reassurance (they probably will be embarrassed about their bad English, even if it's brilliant, which it probably won't be) a taxi driver should be able to help you find any place so long as the address is complete, for only a few dollars, so long as you came from somewhere nearby.

Restaurants

Everyday Eats
While fine dining eateries, especially ones with international menus, are few and far between, Taiwan has literally hundreds of small buffets, each serving similar traditional Taiwanese food, consisting mostly of steamed vegetables, fake meats, soups, dumplings, and sometimes sushi. Other than the small risk of dairy ingredients (see above), any diary products should be visible, and most will not use egg (again, any egg will be obvious).

In most restaurants, the procedure is as follows: walk in, take a paper plate and begin serving yourself. Pricier establishments have clean tongs which get washed after each use; others have a set of tongs in. or beside each dish. For takeaway dishes (wai dai – literally “outside bag”) fill up a small rectangular box, which may have separate compartments. Hungry foreigners may require two – expect an extra pair of chopsticks to be thrown in for the other you eating
it. When you have finished, take your food to the counter and place it on the scales, pay and you're done. Some establishments (the excellent Minder Vegetarian chain are a fine example) have separate scales for “Dine-In” or “Take-out”. Soup – though more a drink than a western-style soup - is always free.

Most neighbourhoods will contain a buffet or three, with the ubiquitous
Su Shi” usually lit up in neon. I have attached some photos below.

It should be noted that as the food sits around a long time, and the
cheapest of establishments don't have glass panes to protect the food from coughing and sneezing customers, buffets are perhaps the least food-safe option, though I have only gotten sick from one buffet in over two years, at which the tofu tasted strange. The balancing-out factor is that turnover is usually very fast, with a good buffet serving dozens if not hundreds of people per meal.

Perhaps the best buffet chain – consistently clean and delicious, though not vegan – is the Minder Vegetarian Restaurant (website in Chinese). These are always busy, and food is always fresh and delicious. Being Buddhist-run, they serve some dishes containing dairy, but never use egg (though some of the carrot-and-potato imitations could have you wondering). I am awaiting a response regarding which dishes are vegan, but it is safe to assume that any without any obvious dairy are. Some mportant locations are:

1. Taipei Main Station: from the main ground floor, take any stairs up to the foodcourt on the first floor, which makes a ring around the inside circumference of the station. Follow it round until you see the sign. This is a much smaller than than most, but very convenient.

2. Eslite Bookstore Building: this is the most convenient – and almost the only – decent vegetarian option when visiting Taipei's must-see skyscraper (still the world's tallest completed building, but not for much longer). From Taipei 101, walk out the SongZhi Road exit, turn left and head towards the Eslite Bookstore (multistory building, shown below [SOON]) about five minutes walk towards the MRT station. Go inside, go down to B1 and it's just behind the stairs. (If you really must eat at 101, subway is your best bet, followed by an Indian meal of dubious quality, authenticity and vegan standards. A kebab shop seems to come and go as well, so falafel is also a possibility.)

3. Hsinchu: Zhong Hua Road. Walk out the main train station (that's the older, conventional train station, not the new high speed train station), turn right and keep going about a kilometre. If in doubt, ask someone, or a taxi driver, for “Ming De Su Shr Yuan.

4. The original, best restaurant, is at 137 Minquan Road, in Xindian. If you haven't eaten at any of the others, this is probably worth visiting for the experience, but if you've been to another one already, it's not worth tracking it down for the increase in size. An alternative option is to eat upstairs, where you pay about 400NT for all you can eat, and can have dishes (eg sushi) be made to order by waiting chefs. Dining here is quite an experience, and the travelling vegan should eat at one such 'all-you'can-eat' buffet at least once while in Taiwan. However, the service comes at a price, as the hungriest of foreign vegans would be lucky to spend half as much on the same food downstairs, when paying by weight. Take the MRT to Dapinglin Station (far south on the green line), and take exit 1. As you walk up and out onto the footpath, follow that road for about one kilometre, until you see the restaurant below.

5. Close to the above restaurant is the excellent Tzu Chi Buddhist Hospital, which is a good hospital to go to if one has the need. Like virtually everywhere in Taiwan, doctors and dentists all speak very good English, as they train using US textbooks in English. The best thing about this hospital, however, is the large, all-vegetarian foodcourt in the basement, including, again, a large Minder Vegetarian Restaurant.


Loving Huts
The Loving Huts are, without a doubt, a vegan's best bet for a quick, tasty meal in almost any major city in Taiwan. They are all vegan, immaculately clean, surprisingly cheap, and staff generally speak good English.
EDIT: My new post on Loving Huts is here (or follow the link above).

The Loving Huts are the largest chain or many, many restaurants run by followers of the "Supreme Master" Ching Hai, a Vietnamese-born religious teacher who lives in the US but has close ties to Taiwan. She and her followers actively promote veganism and environmentalism, for example this advertisement is in the Taipei Main Station, so will be viewed by tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
In Taiwan, the restaurants are all vegan (but not in China or Vietnam)

3 comments:

  1. Wow! Once again, this post was very helpful to me. I really appreciate it! It definitely seems like it's a lot easier to find vegetarian food in Taiwan than where I live in Korea. I'm excited to go to Taiwan for Christmas!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Jesse

    Glad to have just found your blog. Am not vegan (yet), but vegetarian and look forward to trying some of your recommendations. Have added a link to your blog from my site.

    Cheers

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi GreenTaiwan blogger (sorry I don't know your name!)

    Thank you. It looks like you have a good collection of all things green on your blog!

    Jesse

    ReplyDelete