There were lots of things we liked about Taiwan, but the food was not really one of them.
This discovery came as something of a surprise to us, especially given that most of our Taiwanese friends and students had sung the praises of their country's cuisine.
Sadly, Taiwan was a disappointment for us when it came to food.
Admittedly, you might think we’re a bit biased. As two vaguely vegan and gluten-free eaters, we usually struggle to find the kind of stuff we like to eat. Food containing dairy, wheat, animal flesh, additives, preservatives or derivatives of dodgy companies and dubious processes is not normally on our menu.
Taiwanese food has all the above in abundance.
When I looked through our photos to plan for this post, I noticed a bit of a trend. In the first few weeks of our Taiwan-trip, the images uploaded were quite interesting: You could tell that we were discovering new and exciting foods to try, with plate after plate of colourful food displayed in our album.
Even fish made an appearance, as we’re two foodie-adventurers who like to give lots of different things a go, despite usually avoiding meat-related meals.
Then as the weeks turned into months and the novelty began to wear off, the photos of food diminished. A wryness emerged in the types of food pictures we posted, as though we were mocking the culinary offerings of Taiwan.
“Look how awful this dish is…” says one photo. “Jeez, can you believe people eat this?” says another.
Then the photos of strange products we found in supermarkets started to surface. And snaps of billboards highlighting the hideous disregard our species has for other animals.
It was as if being in a culture so alien to our home country was amplifying how seriously f*cked up the world’s food industry is.
By this, I mean that Western culture and its promotion of so-called “good food” is no different. Whenever I see advertisements for “finger lickin’ chicken” or “I’m lovin’ it” my mind’s eye starts running images of factory farms. I can’t not think of animal cruelty with this aspect of the food industry.
And then my thoughts turn to how so many people are unconscious when it comes to food production in the name of convenience.
In Taiwan, this unconsciousness seemed especially evident.
One look at the farm fields and fish pools interspersed between the heavily polluted urban landscape told us why good food was so hard to find in Taiwan. Suddenly, that fish we ate earlier threatened to make a reverse appearance.
Bottom line is, in Taiwan we really got fed up with trying to find wholesome, unadulterated, fresh and organic REAL food.
The search became a holy grail for us, traipsing around towns in a vain effort to find something worth eating. We usually resorted to eating vegetables and deep-fried tofu in a vegetarian buffet bar somewhere. Which would have been fine, if it wasn't a daily event.
There are vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan, although most of the veggie-friendly joints are buffet style and have an unimaginative, unchanging menu. It was tasty, healthy stuff, but we were mightily bored after only three weeks, even when Nate found a restaurant that served hash browns (sweet baby cheeses, we piled our plates high with those dainties). Food also tended to be quite oily, especially the "mock meat" we discovered.
Kitchen? What’s a kitchen?
Street vendors and restaurants are where most local Taiwanese go for their daily meals, but after seeing the same processed rubbish and unashamed meat-fest at every stand, we soon gave up eating from them.
These places are so cheap and numerous, it’s more convenient to eat out rather than cook anything at home. In fact, one surprising thing we learned within a few weeks of living in Taiwan was that very few people have a kitchen.
When we asked for an apartment with one, you’d have thought we had asked for a helipad on the roof and a jacuzzi in the lounge. Why would anyone bother cooking at home when you could eat out for less than five dollars?
Well, when you’ve got the double whammy of having a specific diet and living in a culture that thinks vegetarianism means not eating onions or garlic (NB. This is actually to do with Buddhism, but we'll discuss that in another post), a kitchen is kind of handy.
Nate and I are resourceful souls. We discovered that some of the supermarkets and street markets sold produce in its raw, unprocessed state, so rather than heading to the restaurants we started cooking our own meals at home using wholefood ingredients.
Our photos from Taiwan started to feature these homemade culinary efforts. Luscious salads and plates of chilli with fluffy rice. We began to eat green stuff again. And nuts, seeds and pulses.
And unsurprisingly, our mood lifted and health improved.
We'd advise people with specific diets who plan to spend a long time in Taiwan to choose an apartment with a kitchen. It makes things so much easier when you can prepare your own food. We even got into the habit of taking a packed lunch out with us while sightseeing, to be sure we didn't kill anyone due to low blood sugar levels.
The Happy Cow App
An app that saved our lives out there in processed-food-Purgatory was Happy Cow, which helps vegetarian and vegan food-lovers to locate places where they can eat. I look back on our time in Taiwan and think that if it hadn’t been for Happy Cow, Nate and I would have probably flung ourselves into Taroko Gorge out of sheer hopelessness.
Through user-reviews and Google Maps on the app, we began to find places in Taiwan where vegetarians and vegans weren't only tolerated, they were catered for! Suddenly, there was a ray of light into our dark world of oily buffets and limp vegetables...
We discovered a cute little vegan café in Jiaoxi for excellent soya lattes and dairy-free cake (life is not worth living without these two staples in the vegan diet).
In Hualien on the east coast of Taiwan, we located a very popular restaurant called "Ming Yuan", which served incredible veggie offerings. We ordered a selection from the menu and had plate after plate of divine meals arrive.
Another vegan-friendly joint we loved in this city was Dos Tacos, a Mexican restaurant run by a Canadian and his wife. Alright, so this post is supposed to be about Taiwanese food, but the meals there were so incredible we had to mention them.
Finding food with friends
In our quest for decent grub, were also aided by the friends we knew in Taiwan. People like Carol and Shaina who took us out for street food in Tainan; we slurped on bowls of nutty mushroom noodles with bok choi. Or with Daria in Taipei, who took us to Herban in the city centre: this modern kitchen/bar serves up organic, non-GMO, non-MSG, locally-sourced and vegetarian/vegan ingredients. A breath of fresh air in this crowded, fast-food-oriented metropolis!
Daria also joined us in Jiufen (source of inspiration for Miyazaki's "Spirited Away") where she helped us appreciate the flavours of stinky tofu. Aptly named, this Taiwanese speciality smells like old socks to some, raw sewage to others or blue cheese if you’re particularly imaginative but it's quite tasty if you find a decent cook to serve it up.
We think that exploring a place with the locals is a sure way to have a positive, memorable experience of native cuisine, wherever in the world you are.
The Taiwan Experience of Eating Out
Finicky foodie or not, you will still find atmosphere and sensory adventures in Taiwan’s night markets. As long as you don’t mind parking yourself on plastic chairs in concrete alleys used as thoroughfares by crawling mopeds, next to open drains or racks of charred duck heads, you’ll love them.
Irony aside, one of our favourite night markets was one of the first we ever went to, in Luodong in the north-east of the island, which we remember for the countless stalls selling street food that ranged from fragrant to foul, and familiar to just f*cking weird. I cast my memory back to our walks through these chaotic lanes of vendors, steaming pans and munching patrons and always feel a wave of positive nostalgia of how exotic it felt.
The former capital and cultural city of Tainan is said to be the best place to go in Taiwan for food, and is famous for seafood and sweet treats. In fact, Tainan is nicknamed “City of Snacks” because of the “xiaochi” served there, which equate to Spanish tapas in that they are small servings of food for people to share. Tainan was our favourite city in Taiwan, and somewhere we would love to revisit.
If you're in Taipei, it is somewhat easier to eat out. As well as the chain veggie restaurant Loving Hut (more boring buffets...groan) there are also modern, elegant eateries like Soul R. Vegan or NKDFood for raw vegan dining. Trendy cafes like Ooh Cha Cha and Green Bakery also provide plenty of treats for people who like their food simple, healthy and ethical.
Wherever you are in Taiwan, look out for dan bing, which are fluffy spring onion (scallion) and egg pancakes made in minutes on a griddle in the street. We would gorge ourselves on these snacks. We also loved the tea places that seemed to be on every corner and even learned how to order green tea in Mandarin. To avoid being served a ladle of syrup with any drink you order, be sure to memorise the phrase “bù jiātáng” (meaning "without sugar"); it seems the norm in Taiwan to add sugar to everything.
Our Chinese Takeaway
What we’d like our readers to take from our post is this: If you visit Taiwan and you love meat and fish and dairy, go crazy. You’ll love it. There are pork dumplings, beef noodles, spicy chicken wings. You’ll find sushi bars all over the place. And the Taiwanese love their cream cakes and fresh bread.
But if you’re a health nut or simply someone who eats like they give a f*ck (we love the Thug Kitchen philosophy), we would recommend downloading Happy Cow or seeking out a local to help you find what you can eat.
Sure, there are many problems with the food industry in this country (as with the rest of the world), but with vegan-friendly establishments popping up all over this tiny leaf-shaped island, there is hope yet!
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