Today’s post is dedicated to all lovers of vegetarian and vegan food who are planning on visiting Taiwan. Charlie of Charlie on Travel is sharing her food experience on the cheap.
As vegetarian travellers living in Taiwan, many an incredulous meat-eater would ask us: What do you actually eat? Followed by: Don’t you feel you’re missing out on all the Taiwanese specialities?
There are 1.7 million vegetarians in Taiwan and countless more sometimes-vegetarians – many locals will tell you they are vegetarian for a few days a week, or on the 1st and 15th day of the lunar month. Buddhism is one of Taiwan’s major religions (the other two being Taoism and Confucianism) and strict Buddhists don’t consume meat or eggs.
With vegetarianism being so deeply rooted in the Taiwanese culture, being vegetarian in Taiwan is not only easy, but also delicious. For me, moving to Taiwan improved both my lifestyle and my diet. There are cheap vegetarian (and vegan) eateries are all around and they cook up their very own Taiwanese specialities! In fact, the food is so good, you might end up getting a little Buddha belly.
Dumplings (shuǐ jiǎo)
Shuǐj jiǎo are dumplings which have been boiled in water, though you often come across steamed dumpling too. Dumplings are made from a thin circle of dough which is filled with meat or vegetables. Common vegetarian fillings include spring onions, cabbage, and tofu.
In Taiwan, there is one very famous dumpling restaurant: Din Tai Fung. Growing from humble origins selling steam buns (xiao long bao) on a little stall outside, Din Tai Fung is now a global chain with two Michelin star restaurants in Hong Kong. However, the original restaurant is on Xinyi Road in Taipei, and still serves up the best dumplings in the country for less than the price of a cinema ticket.
Cost: Less than $0.33 each from a local eatery (around 10 dumplings needed to get your Buddha belly going).
Veggies and White Rice (bái fàn)
White rice, which is kept steaming hot in a rice cooker, is a staple in much of Asia and Taiwan is no different. Vegetarian lunchtimes are characterised by buffets where you are served a whole variety of different veggies on a bed of fluffy rice. It’s simple, but healthy and filling.
You will see Chinese cabbage (qīng cài) everywhere, as well as sweet potatoes, taro, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and broccoli amongst other more exotic tofu dishes. You might also see purple rice, known as wǔ gǔ fàn (five-grain rice), which is known for it’s health benefits.
Cost: $2 for an average lunchbox.
Curry (gā lǐ)
Japanese-style curries are really popular in Taiwan and you’ll often see school kids chowing down on them when class is over. Japanese curry is apple-based with a sauce that is mild and sweet, but not creamy. If you want your curry spicier, just say hǎo là, though you might regret it.
Vegetarian curries will contain carrots and potatoes, and usually a few additional vegetables depending on what’s in season. Vegetarian curries are available in curry restaurants as well as in most vegetarian places.
Cost: $2-6 depending on where you’re eating.
Steel-Cooked Rice (tiey ban fàn)
This is my absolute favourite dish! You can get it in Loving Hut, one of the vegetarian chain restaurants, by asking for tiey ban fàn. It comes out still frying on a steel hot plate that has a slat of wood underneath. The base of the dish is layer of rice, which is then topped with carrots, peas and sweetcorn in a peppery sauce. The meal originated in Korea, but the Taiwanese have their own version.
Chilli Tofu (mapo dòufu)
A dish of chilli tofu is not for the faint-hearted! I say dish, but really I mean a blazing-hot cauldron. Chilli tofu is usually large enough to share, and with that amount of chillies in the broth, eating it on your own would be quite a feat anyway.
If you’re crazy like us, you can eat it right out of the hot dish, but most Taiwanese pick out the tofu chunks with their chopsticks and tone the flavour down by adding it to a little bowl of white rice – a wise decision.
Cost: $5 for a dish that serves 2 or more.
Getting a Buddha belly in Taiwan can be done for less than $10 a day!
Taiwan has plenty more vegetarian specialities that didn’t make my top five. The most famous dish has to be stinky tofu – you can smell it a mile off, but it tastes better than it smells. Spring onion pancakes are also found at all the night markets, as are thin wraps filled with shaved peanut brittle, ice cream and coriander. If you have a real sweet tooth, mango ice is the best thing for the hot summers, and sweet red bean soup for the colder winter months.
What are your favourite vegetarian foods to eat whilst traveling? Have I missed out any awesome vegetarian Taiwanese dishes?
Author Bio – Charlie from Charlie on Travel
Charlie is a world traveller, freelance writer and house sitter taking an alternative path across the world. Her travel blog, Charlie on Travel, is about simple, sustainable and socially-responsible travel. Follow her adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.