Past experience tells me that getting vegetarian or vegan food at a Chinese restaurant in the Western world is easy. A trip to Shanghai in 2011 told me a very different tale – I ended up eating at Subway because vegetarian seemed to be an alien concept to the people working at the restaurants there. The language barrier didn’t help either – not too many people spoke English, which surprised me a little given that I was initially trying to eat in a very tourist orientated area. A vegan food brochure, some days on the streets, and a lot of miles walked eventually got me to a few good vegetarian restaurants but sadly, they didn’t seem to be very thick on the ground.
So I expected Taipei to be much like Shanghai. As it turns out, yep, that’s the case, at least in a vegan eating sense (in other respects, the two cities couldn’t be more different).
We flew into Taipei at night but fortunately not too late to eat. After taking a taxi into the city and checking into our AirBnB apartment, we headed out to find a bite to eat. The Rahoe Night Markets happened to be just around the corner from our place. Night markets are a big thing in Taipei, and this one was packed to the brim, and bustling with activity as thousands of locals shopped, ate and socialised. As a Taipei local told us, “It’s like a state fair on crack”. He’s been to the USA, and he was so right, if only because so much of the stuff on offer was utterly alien to our Western sensibilities.
To say the least, the night markets are an eye opener. They’ve got every kind of meat you can imagine here, along with a few you probably can’t even comprehend, and it’s all on display. Picture hundreds of stands set close to each other in a long city street, all selling some bizarre food, and manned by people who generally don’t quite do English.
Most of the food wasn’t veggie friendly. Hell it wasn’t even in the same ballpark as veggie friendly. We navigated the lanes, avoiding the squid tentacles on a stick, the unrecognizable deep fried cryptic balls, the baby octopus sushi, the unidentifiable slabs of meat, the strange kebabs, along with what might have been quail eggs (but then again, they might not have been eggs at all). There were cages of huge live snakes! Whether this was the snake steak stand or the venom vendor, we didn’t care to find out. We also saw pet shops full of hamsters and bunnies set just off the main drag. Or maybe they weren’t pet shops at all… Most of the time, we just kept moving!
Some of the food looked pretty normal but wasn’t. I grabbed a slab of peanut brittle. It wasn’t anything like peanut brittle – instead, it was gooey, and tasted more like sawdust mixed with lard than a sweet treat.
Still, we had some success finding food. The enormous grilled mushrooms that looked more like leg bones than fungi were actually pretty good. And if you want tofu at the night markets, just walk around till it smells like you stood in dog poop. Hey presto, it’s the stinky tofu stand! No kidding – stinky tofu is a local delicacy, and yes, it pongs to high heaven. Doesn’t taste at all bad though.
Sarah got herself into some culinary trouble with a soup lady. All she really wanted to know was what was in the concoction that the lady was stirring. Next minute, thanks to a chronic case of language barrier-itis, she had a bowl of steaming yummy something in her hands, a bemused look on her face, and 30 Taiwan Dollars removed from her purse. The lady insisted that Sarah try it, so we sat down and had a closer look.
We assumed it was a dessert of some kind because it smelled sweet, and there were pictures of desserts, ice creams and other assorted sweeties all over the walls. It was soup, that’s for sure but it was no soup we could recognise. Grey brown in colour, with scary objects floating on the surface. Sarah described them as “cut up churro pieces” (Mexican donuts). After taste testing, she discovered that the smaller bits were peanuts, soaked and boiled into a soggy oblivion. The liquid itself was described as “pure sugar water”.
She was far braver than me because she actually drank some of this bizarre brew, while I just stared on in amazement and wondered about accessing the local healthcare system. It was pronounced as being “okayish as long as you avoided the peanuts” but drinking a whole bowl wasn’t on the agenda. We bailed when the lady wasn’t looking (of course, we couldn’t sneakily dump it anywhere – no rubbish bins, remember?) This soup came back to haunt us when we saw the same stuff in cans in the fridges out at Yangmingshan National Park. No thanks.
We eventually found out that there are quite a few vegetarian restaurants in the city but our walk around till you see a sign in English that says “vegetarian” system needs some work. I also need to understand that I’m nowhere near tough enough to eat much of the local chili sauce. One night at the markets, I ordered a bowl of veggie noodles. The vendor wondered if I wanted it “spicy” – I asked for a little bit, indicating a tiny quantity with my fingers. A couple of mouthfuls of the noodles with only a touch of the red sauce rapidly devolved into a near death experience. The vendor and his wife just about fell down with laughter as my face reddened, the tears started streaming, and I began choking. I had to ask for a take away pack so I could escape with a little portion of my dignity intact. This was just one in a series of painful chili adventures that convinced me that discretion is the better part of valour – a lesson I should have learned in Bali.
During the day, I usually frequented a local, inexpensive buffet style lunch bar, trying my best to understand which of the options were vegan. Sarah just stuck with her favourite quick meals, which were the simple egg, cheese and veggie sandwiches from the sandwich shop at the entrance to our apartment building – quick, easy and super cheap – that’s how the cookie crumbles when you’re a vegetarian.
We did make our way to the local Loving Hut. I’ve eaten at this vegan chain in San Francisco, where I had the best won ton noodle soup I’ve ever tasted, and in Auckland. This Loving Hut was totally different to the others (gee, imagine that). It was laid out buffet style, with a good choice of veggies and fake meat dishes. The staff offered us plates and we helped ourselves, while they busily ladled a selection of meals into takeaway containers by the dozen. I tried to ascertain if these were going to another branch, a market or to a charity of some sort but ye olde language barrier got in the way again. About the only meaningful communication we managed was to tell the oldest staff member that I’d been vegan for a little over two years. He’d been vegan since 1960ish from what I could tell, so he’s been at the game a lot longer than I have. He did describe me as “superman” though – I suppose he was impressed by the fact that I haven’t wasted away while gnawing on veggies over the years.
So finding vegan food in Taipei was a challenge, but certainly not an insurmountable one. I thought the next stop on our trip would be much more hospitable to vegans – after all, getting vegan food in any of Auckland’s Thai restaurants is a breeze. So how hard could it be on the ground in Thailand? ASHLEY KRAMER