Vegan Taiwan Local Specialties

About the “Local Specialties” Series:

Traveling to a foreign country as a wonderful opportunity to engage with another culture, and participating in local food culture is a crucial (and delicious!) way to immerse yourself in a new place.  However, ethical dietary restrictions can present a unique challenge to travelers: you want to experience as much as you can without violating your beliefs.  Because of this challenge, each time I travel I will not only write restaurant reviews, but also create a list of vegan or vegan-able “Local Specialties” that you can enjoy while traveling.

 

Taiwan is a vegetarian haven, and luckily, that means that many of regional foods are vegetarian too!  Of course, there are some things you can’t try, such as pig intestines and beef rolls.  But there are certainly enough famous vegan foods to keep you busy!

I. General Taiwan Vegan Specialties:

1. Vegetarian Buffets

One of the most exciting options for vegetarians visiting Taiwan is the existence of Taiwan’s vegetarian buffets.  Keep in mind that these buffets are not vegan – they may have egg or milk ingredients, and often times there are far too many people for  the staff to answer your questions (even if you do speak Mandarin).  So, it’s best to steer clear of things that likely have egg/dairy products – noodles, battered items, etc (I made the mistake of eating some of these while there, and now I’m not so sure they were vegan).  Even with those restrictions there’s usually still TONS of stuff available though! There’s lots of incredibly inexpensive vegetarian buffets in Taipei, including Minder Vegetarian (a chain) and Sunlike Vegetarian.  If you’re nervous about identifying items with eggs or milk, try out Evergreen Restaurant, a more expensive vegetarian buffet that marks items containing milk and eggs (but not honey – you’ll need to ask about that).

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2. Stinky Tofu

Chou Dofu, literally “Stinky Tofu”, is one of Taiwan’s most famous dishes.  It’s incredibly popular in Taiwan, and you can find it throughout Taipei’s many Night Markets, served in bubbling volcanic-looking vats.  However, in spite of it’s popularity, it’s definitely a dish that will send most visitor’s running.  The smell has been described as resembling rotten sewage, and many find the smell so repulsive that they find it difficult to get down.  However, it’s one of those things that I think you should try – in spite of its malodorous tendencies, it is a classic Taiwanese dish, and at worst it’s at least a good story!

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Unfortunately, in spite of it’s appearance, Stinky Tofu isn’t always vegan or even vegetarian.  While fermenting, the tofu is often soaked in shrimp brine or milk.  So, if you’d like to try Stinky Tofu, make sure to try it a vegetarian or vegan restaurant (depending on your diet).  You can find vegetarian Stinky Tofu at some vegetarian buffets, such as Minder Vegetarian and Sunlike Vegetarian. One of Taipei’s most reknown stinky tofu house, Dai’s House of Unique Stink, serves a menu of all-vegetarian and almost entirely-stinky-tofu-based dishes.  For vegan stinky tofu, I recommend visiting Mele’s Veggie Hut or Loving Hut (some of the locations carry stinky tofu, but you should call to ask).

3. Fresh Fruit & Fruit Juice

Taiwan is packed to the gills with cheap delicious fruit, so stalls selling exclusively fruit aren’t an uncommon sight at Taipei’s Night Markets.  I visited during summer, and the fruit stalls carried pineapple, watermelon, dragon fruit (both white and pink varieties), mangos, guavas and wax apples.

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There’s also tons of places where you can buy fresh fruit juice, either from stalls at Night Markets or at drink places that specialize in fruit juice.

Fresh Mango Juice in Taipei

Fresh Mango Juice in Taipei

4. Baobing (Taiwanese Shaved Ice)

One dessert you’ll see all over is Baobing, or Taiwanese Shaved Ice.  It’s essentially a pile of shaved ice topped with sweet beans (red & green), aiyu (jelly from figs), grass jelly, boba, taro, and any number of other sweet delights.  Sometimes it contains condensed milk or egg pudding, which definitely aren’t vegan. However, it’s definitely possible to get all-vegan baobing – you just have to look carefully at the ingredients.

The jellies (aiyu, grass jelly, boba, etc) are all generally vegetarian – there’s no need for gelatin because they’re naturally gelatinous substances.  However, if you’re nervous about accidentally getting something that has gelatin, you can get a bowl at Evergreen Vegetarian in Taipei.

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5. Pineapple Cake

Pineapple Cakes, a sweet cake with a chewy pineapple-y interior, are a common Taiwanese souvenir.  Sadly, most of the pineapple cakes you find in souvenir shops will con taint milk. Luckily iVegan Supermarket has 2 vegan pineapple cake options!  So, if you want to try them out or want to bring some home to your friends or coworkers, make sure to drop buy there.

Vegan Pineapple Cakes - a must-buy souvenir from Taiwan!

Vegan Pineapple Cakes – a must-buy souvenir from Taiwan!

6. Sweet Iced Teas & Bubble Tea

Sweet iced teas with tapioca pearls (boba), taro, fruit, various jellies, and more are very popular in Taiwan, and there are chain sweet producers with stores all over Taiwan.  While some of these drinks contain milk or honey, and they’re generally somewhat artificial-tasting, many of them are animal-product-free and perfect for a hot day in Taiwan.

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7. Taiwanese Tea

Tea  is very popular throughout Taiwan, and many different regions of the country specialize in the production of black, green and oolong tea. In fact, 20% of the world’s tea comes from Taiwan. Maokong Village, located on a mountain in the Wenshan District of Taipei, is famous for hiking and premium Tieguanyin oolong tea production.  It’s an excellent place to visit if you want to try some premium Taiwanese tea in Taipei.

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II. Jiufen

The beautiful town of Jiufen, just an hour outside of Taipei, is a must-see destination for anyone traveling through Taiwan’s capital.  Jiufen is famous for it’s winding Old Street and beautiful views of the sea,

1. Taro Balls & Sweet Potato Balls

Jiufen is famous for it’s taro rice balls, sweet chewy purple balls made from taro root.  You can buy these outside of Jiufen, but it’s said that the Jiufen version is subtly different (and better) from the taro balls sold in other areas.  They’re often sold in big vats, mixed with sweet potato balls and a sweet sauce, and poured into a bowl or over ice.  The taro balls themselves are vegan (so long as you eat sugar), and the sauce they’re served in is often a brown-sugar based sauce.  Obviously is best to check yourself, so if you can speak Mandarin and ask, it might be best.  However, if you’re nervous about buying them in sweet soup form, you can also just buy the taro balls themselves at certain stalls!

2. Green Tea @ Tea Houses

Jiufen is loaded with tea houses, so visiting one is an excellent opportunity to try Taiwanese tea.  Of course you can just by your own, but it’s also a good opportunity to have your tea brewed by people who know what they’re doing.  While I was in Jiuen, I visited City of Sadness restaurant and ordered a cup of their more expensive woolong tea (because hey, you have to take advantage of these opportunities!).  It was absolutely incredible to just sit there, sipping my tea on the balcony and watching as it became darker and the shops closed up.

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Woolong Tea at City of Sadness Tea House

Another excellent place to try tea is Ah Mei Teahouse, which is just a little up the staircase from City of Sadness.  This is a Japanese-style teahouse, but it still captures a lot of the atmosphere of Jiufen, and has incredible views.  It’s said that Hayao Miyazaki was inspired to create “Spirited Away” while visiting this tea house.  They have an excellent tea set for just 300TWD (about $9), which includes a pretty enormous amount of tea as well as Japanese-style tea snacks.

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III. Taroko Gorge Specialties:

1. Peaches & Pears

The Truku People are the indigenous people who originally inhabited Taroko Gorge before Chinese settlers came to Taiwan.  They still live there today, and during June & July they sell Peaches and Pears in the park.  One good place to pick up fruit is at the Taroko National Park Visitor’s Center.  The fruit is expensive – I got one peach for 100 TWD (about $3).  However, they were delicious, and it’s nice to support a local product if you can afford it.

2. Millet Wine

Another Truku product is Millet Wine, which you can buy partway down the Shakadang Trail.  It’s very sweet, but as far as I know it’s entirely vegan – it’s simply made from fermented millet.

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Taiwan Vegan General

A few weeks ago, I finally got a chance to use up my remaining vacation days by heading to Taiwan for a full 10 days. Every time I told my Japanese coworkers where I was going, their immediate response was something along the lines of: “Oh, you have to eat a lot of food!” Of course, not wanting to disappoint them, I accepted the challenge (it was just courtesy, not gluttony, I swear).

Taiwan is a country known as being a haven for vegetarians. Because of it’s strong Buddhist traditions, Taiwan is home to literally thousands of vegetarian restaurants. Most of these are Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, meaning that they also often don’t use eggs or any of the 5 “stinking” vegetables (garlic especially), as they are generally considered impure. So at many vegetarian restaurants, the one thing you need to look out for is milk. Of course it’s always good to check about egg as well, as every restaurant has it’s own guidelines.

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What to Look For:

Nearly all vegetarian restaurants will have sùshí (素食), or just “su” (素) somewhere in their name. This makes it really easy to identity where you can eat. Vegetarian restaurants will also often be marked with a symbol that looks like a backwards swastika, a symbol of Buddhism. If you’re vegan, look for chúnsù (純素). I also saw one place use 全素 to refer to “vegan”, but that seemed much less common, and apparently it can also sometimes just refer to Buddhist vegetarian (so it might contain milk). I would stick to the former since most vegan places I went to marked themselves with that.

Make sure to watch out for these characters: 奶 (milk) and 蛋 (egg). If you can’t speak Mandarin I’d recommend either saving them on your phone (in large print) or printing them out on paper and carrying them with you, along with the symbols for vegan (純素) and vegetarian (素). If you’re ever not quite sure, it will be good to have these to clarify!

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Helpful Websites:

1. Vegan Taiwan Blog – An incredible catalogue of information on vegan restaurants and being vegan in Taiwan.

2. Vegan Taiwan Guide to Food Labeling – lots of helpful Chinese character labeling explanations

3.  Wikipedia Article on Buddhist Cuisine – includes standards in different countries and helpful Chinese characters