As more people embrace new flavors and healthy living, vegetarian cuisine is no longer confined to traditional Buddhist dishes.
Fifteen years ago, Taipei-based restaurateur Marco Lapka and his wife Queenie Wu added a twist to their vacations. When on holiday, they would eat only vegetarian meals. “It’s easy to find good meals with meat almost anywhere, but for plant-based food it’s harder,” Lapka says. “It adds some unpredictability to our travels.”
Over the years, the vegetarian vacations provided the inspiration for the plant-based restaurant Herban Kitchen, which Lapka and Wu launched in Taipei in 2013. The restaurant is not wholly vegan (free of all animal products). About half the menu items include eggs or dairy products, but all are meat-free. “There are no dead animals here,” says Lapka.
The husband-and-wife team opened the restaurant to introduce their vegetarian comfort food to Taiwan, where Buddhist influences make it more receptive to plant-based diets than is the case in the United States, says Lapka, who is originally from Minneapolis. “There isn’t the same kind of negative stereotyping of vegetarians and vegans here,” he says.
Indeed, the World Atlas ranks Taiwan as having the third highest rate of vegetarianism in the world after India and Israel. An estimated 13% of the Taiwan population – 1.7 million people – are vegetarian, according to government data. There are about 6,000 vegetarian restaurants nationwide.
“The huge number of vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan is one of our best kept culinary secrets,” says Wu Chi-hui, a software engineer and animal rights activist. While Wu himself is passionate about animal rights, he says that the vast majority of Taiwanese herbivores eschew meat for religious reasons. “It’s really different from what’s typical in the West,” he says.
Taiwanese Buddhist vegetarians exclude from their diets what they call “the five pungent foods” – garlic, onions, chives, green onions, and leeks, all from the allium genus of flowering plants. The Surangama Sutra, a major 10th century Buddhist text, says the five pungent foods “create lust when eaten cooked, and rage when eaten raw.”
Further, according to the Surangama Sutra, “Even if someone can recite twelve sutras from memory, the gods of the ten heavens will all disdain him if he eats pungent foods in this world, because of his strong odor and uncleanliness, and will give distance themselves far from him.”
There’s no doubt that garlic breath is offensive, not to mention the havoc that alliums can wreak on some digestive tracts. Certainly, Buddhist vegetarians can easily get by without garlic and onions in their diets, says Ella Liu, a Taipei resident who has been on an allium-free vegetarian diet for the past few years. Liu adopted the Buddhist vegetarian diet for religious purposes, not for health or environmental reasons. “It’s an important part of the Buddhist faith in Taiwan,” she says.
At home, Liu’s mother cooks her allium-free vegetarian meals. When eating out, she can easily find simple Buddhist vegetarian fare, although she acknowledges that quality varies widely. If you’ve ever been to one of those vegetarian “buffet” restaurants where the dishes look – and taste – like three-day-old leftovers, you’ll know what she means.
At Herban Kitchen, Lapka says that most of the dishes can be cooked without garlic or onions, although he prefers them with alliums. “You lose a lot of flavor, but some dishes work without them,” he notes.
Indeed, the restaurant accommodates Buddhist vegetarians, but its focus is on hearty, flavorful, and savory dishes of various origins. Take the Vegan Mac & Cheese, which also happens to be allium-free. There’s no cheese. Instead the macaroni, carrots, and potatoes are bathed in cashew cream, which is milder and more aromatic than melted cheddar. It’s delicious without leaving you drowsy from fullness.
Equally exceptional are the Spinach Cashew Fried Wontons, a vegan reinterpretation of the America Chinatown classic, substituting cashew cream and spinach for the pork. With the savory cashew pulp filling, the pastry almost recalls crab Rangoon, that illustrious wonton stuffed with cream cheese that has long been a fixture of American Chinese cuisine.
For a convincing meat substitute, try the protein-packed fiery Homemade Shroomutton Curry and Pita, which includes eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, chickpeas, and mushrooms. Surprisingly, the mushrooms have a meaty firmness that resembles a nice cut of lamb. They’re the ideal foil for the robust curry that’s neither vegan nor overly buttery.
Herban Kitchen is one a slew of plant-based restaurants that have sprung up around Taipei in recent years to capitalize on the interest in eco-friendly, healthy living. “There’s been a boom in plant-based restaurants over the past four years,” says Mai Bach, a California native and founder of the vegan Ooh Cha Cha café, which has a branch near the Guting MRT station and another near National Taiwan University.
Bach sees the interest in plant-based diets as a part of a broader shift in Taiwan towards healthier living. She points out that many of the health problems becoming common in Taiwan, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, are linked to diets high in unhealthy fats, carbohydrates, and refined sugars – common ingredients in processed foods.
Well planned plant-based diets, whether vegetarian or vegan, “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” according to the American Dietetic Association.
Overwhelmingly, the main patrons of plant-based dining establishments in Taiwan are younger people – frequently millennials on their MacBooks or iPhone Xs (and sometimes both at once).
Mayur Indian Kitchen (MIK), which operates seven restaurants across northern Taiwan, tapped this market segment as well as demand from Indian residents and visitors with the launch of an exclusively vegetarian outlet, MIK-3, in 2017. On a recent visit, a gregarious visitor from Chennai told me that the rava masala dosa (a savory fermented lentil and rice crepe) on my plate was a specialty of his hometown, located on the subcontinent’s southeastern coast.
“Vegetarianism is in our [the Indian people’s] roots,” says founder and head chef Mayur Srivastava, who has been based in Taiwan for a decade. “Our gods tell us to be vegetarian. They won’t look favorably upon us eating meat.”
Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism – the three major religions that originated in ancient India – all have strong links to vegetarianism. Jainism bans meat consumption altogether, while Buddhism and Hinduism discourage it.
But MIK-3 couldn’t survive by relying primarily on Indian customers. “Of course Indian people come to the restaurant, but there aren’t enough Indians in Taiwan to sustain the business,” Srivastava says. Rather, it’s the interest of young Taiwanese – especially women – in vegetarian dining that makes the restaurant successful.
Tapping India’s vast vegetarian culinary tradition, Srivastava has crafted a menu featuring hundreds of dishes from throughout the subcontinent. Many can be prepared either vegetarian, which usually means with ghee (purified butter), or vegan (with canola oil).
In some cases, the vegan option is an improvement. The fragrant spices in the vegan yellow lentil curry with tomatoes are more pronounced without the ghee. Vegan rava masala dosa is plenty hearty with its spicy potato filling and dipping sauces of homemade coconut chutney and spicy lentils. The savory coconut chutney, made with fresh coconut, green chillies, and ginger, is so delectable you’ll be asking for seconds and thirds.
As tasty as the food is at MIK-3 and Herban Kitchen, it can be on the rich side – even the vegan preparations. Deep-frying figures prominently in the preparation of vegetarian Indian appetizers such as samosa, pakora and onion bhaji. And it’s one of the reasons that Herban Kitchen’s cashew-pulp wontons are so delicious. Both restaurants also make liberal use of butter and/or heavy cream in their non-vegan dishes.
For a guilt-free plant-based meal, the innocuously named Plants Eatery, which focuses on nutritious vegan cooking, is a good choice. Co-founder Square Jao established the restaurant because she believes strongly in plant-based diets, which she says are better for our bodies and the environment. “It’s possible to get all the necessary nutrients our bodies need from plants, and I can’t support the destruction of the environment caused by large-scale animal husbandry,” she says.
The clientele at Plants is half local and half foreign, including quite a few international tourists. On both of my visits to the restaurant, I didn’t see anyone beyond the dawn of middle age. “Older Taiwanese are unfamiliar with this type of food,” Jao says.
For those unfamiliar with terms like “macrobiotic” (balancing the yin and yang of your diet), “raw” (excludes anything cooked at a high temperature or processed), or “super food” (rich in nutrients), the menu can be a bit daunting. And then there’s the matter of gluten, the infamous wheat proteins that cause gastrointestinal distress in those allergic to them. Plants declares itself to be “gluten-free” on the top of its Facebook page.
My advice: Don’t think too much, just eat. It’s hard to go wrong given the quality of the ingredients and the prowess of Jao’s head chef, who honed his animal-free cooking skills in Vancouver for years before taking the job at Plants in 2016.
One of the standouts is the zesty Fusili Alfredo, which uses lentil rather than wheat pasta, nut parmesan cheese, and a delicate cream sauce made from nuts. Garnished with oyster mushrooms and green beans, it’s a major improvement over the heavy cream-drenched American corruption of Italy’s Fettucine Alfredo, a dish you might order in New York’s Little Italy along with a bottle of cheap Chianti while a Frank Sinatra record plays in the background.
Another must-order item dish is the Sprouted Pumpkin Dahl, Indian-inspired but a whole lot lighter than a traditional curry from the Subcontinent. It’s satisfying without being soporific. The menu describes it as a “stew of pumpkin, seasonal vegetables, sprouted red lentils and Indian spices, served with mixed local salad greens.”
Mai Bach’s Ooh Cha Cha is another favorite of vegan diners in Taipei. Founded in 2013, the restaurant focuses on creative but unassuming plant-based food. Think roasted beet hummus, a cauliflower almond ricotta burger, and curried lentils on a French roll with bell peppers and tomato.
The drinks are good too, especially the Body Boost, which is billed as beneficial for the immune system. Even if the white blood cell boost is perhaps too subtle to detect, the drink tastes extraordinary – thirst quenching, tropical, and just a bit spicy. Bach and her team have scored a win with a set of eclectic ingredients for a smoothie: pineapple, ginger, kiwi, apple, and chia seed.
Many people who get into the habit of eating plant-based food consider giving up meat or even animal products altogether, Bach says. “They discover how tasty plant-based food has become. It’s no longer just cold tofu and uncooked vegetables.”
But those on a plant-based diet must be sure they are getting the right combination of nutrients, she cautions. When she first began abstaining from animal products, she ended up eating too many high-calorie, carbohydrate-heavy staples like pasta and rice and not enough fruits and vegetables. “After a year, I felt awful and looked malnourished,” she says.
Over time Bach added a wider variety of vegan foods to her diet and regained her good health. She learned how nuts, lentils, quinoa, and chickpeas can serve as vital sources of protein. She became stringent about sourcing food, keeping in mind the food scandals that have rocked Taiwan in recent years.
“If you want to make a vegan diet healthy, eat a good balance of plant-based foods and be knowledgeable about where the food comes from,” she says. “And don’t jump into it without knowing how to replace the nutrients you get from animal products.”
Where to Go
Herban Kitchen (二本餐廳)
No. 27, Lane 101, ZhongXiao E. Rd., Sec. 4,Taipei 10691
Ooh Cha Cha
207 NanChang Rd., Sec. 2, Taipei City, 100
Mayur Indian Kitchen – 3
No. 38, XinSheng N. Rd., Sec. 1, Taipei City, 10491
No. 10, Lane 253, FuXing S. Rd., Sec. 1, Taipei City, 106