Meatless Markets on the Rise in Taiwan

Vegan diets tend to have lower carbon and ecological footprints and use less water than those of meat-eaters. With an increasing number of options to accommodate this diet in Taiwan, veganism could become progressively more mainstream.

Several regular festivals and markets selling unique plant-based foods have been popping up around the island, attracting a new generation of non-meat-eaters, as well as omnivores eager to explore this growing trend.

Even though I am usually a business reporter and my friend, Hung Fu-wei, a school counselor, once in a while we get together to sling rice balls at some of Taipei’s many street fairs under our plant-based onigiri brand, Shan Sushi. It was far from our first rodeo when we turned up at Taipei Vegan Frenzy’s Banqiao market in 2020. As the “Chief Rice-ball Officer,” I started cooking our first batch of rice and prepping the “kitchen” area while Fu-wei decorated the stand and set up the till.

Although a journalist by day, Angelica Oung’s passion for vegan food prompts her and friend Hung Fu-wei to participate in meat-free markets selling vegan onigiri. Photo: Angelica Oung

Usually, we would expect a leisurely hour before punters started strolling by, but as soon as the festival opened – before the first batch of rice was even cooked – we had attracted a small crowd of polite yet insistent customers clutching reusable food containers and waiting to be fed. Fu-wei taped their orders to their containers and lined them up in front of me. Two grilled eggplant rice balls; one mushroom; Thai-style omnipork with a side of grilled mushrooms; “one of everything.” The list went on. I sighed. This was going to be a “Lucy-at-the-chocolate-factory” kind of day.

As soon as the rice cooker popped open, we were off to the races. The crowd thronged, and it was not just for us. All the stalls selling a diverse range of vegan specialties, from nut-milk boba drinks to octopus-free takoyaki and dairy-free ice cream, had long lines of customers. By mid-afternoon – long before the end of the fair – we had sold out. Fu-wei did the count on the way back home. It had been our best day until that point.

“What the hell just happened?” I asked.

Shan Sushi’s stall at Taiwan Vegan Frenzy. In addition to vegan food, visitors to the market can also find vegan fashion, makeup, and other accessories. Photo: Angelica Oung

Taiwan has always had an unusually high proportion of vegetarians – as high as 13% of the population by some estimates – due to Buddhist and Daoist religious traditions that encourage a vegetarian diet. Some of the devout stick to the routine all year round, while others go meatless on the first and fifteenth days of the lunar calendar each month – or when they want to gather good karma to fulfill a wish, such as for a family member to recover from an illness. As a result, there are serviceable but unexciting vegetarian buffet canteens on just about every other block in most metropolitan areas.

However, popular vegan YouTuber Bai Long of the channel Go Vegan (168,000 subscribers and counting) says that there is now a different tribe of plant-eaters on the scene in Taiwan. They are younger, hipper, and more concerned with animal rights and the environment than with religious edicts. To cater to this market, a number of vegetarian and vegan food festivals have risen up, including the Taiwan Vegan Frenzy that Fu-wei and I participated in.

“I myself went vegan eight years ago after watching a video on YouTube by Gary Yourofsky,” says Bai, referring to an American animal rights activist and prolific lecturer on the subject of veganism. “After that, I realized that there was no reason to keep eating animals anymore, and I became a vegan on the spot.”

With an already large vegetarian population, Taiwan is experiencing a new wave of enthusiasm for plant-based food. Photo: Angelica Oung

These newly-minted vegans and vegetarians are not confined by religious traditions and have no problem with eating garlic and onions – a no-no for traditional Buddhist and Daoist vegetarians. They hunger instead for exotic innovations, such as creative plant-based substitutes for fashionable snacks like macarons and will pay more (as well as wait in line) for artisanal products made with love – perfect for traveling markets where they can try the latest novelties close to home.

Taiwan Vegan Frenzy is the market that is most connected to veganism as a lifestyle, with vegan fashion, makeup, and other accessories very well represented. The No Meat Festival is mostly focused on offering the widest selection of food and beverages. The Little Vegetarian Night Market, meanwhile, recreates the typical Taiwanese night market experience with a traveling troupe of vendor stalls that tour the country selling vegan and vegetarian versions of traditional, pocket-friendly fare, rather than more artisanal offerings like gluten-free pastries and coconut yogurt.

“Hopefully these festivals will take plant-based food out of our little vegan and vegetarian bubbles and into the mainstream,” Bai says. “I remember that before I turned vegan, I used to avoid any kind of vegetarian food. I never thought too much about it, just that it was somehow not for me.”

Bai says that the various festivals and night markets give those who have yet to make the leap into vegetarianism or veganism a chance to experience the diets. “I’d like to think when people try eating veg once in a while and become familiarized with it, they’ll realize it’s not such a big deal to go without animal products,” he says.

As an enthusiastic plant-based eater in the U.S. who turned fully vegan after moving to Taiwan, I frequently surprise friends in Taiwan when I tell them I’ve never seen the likes of these vegan and vegetarian street markets in America – or elsewhere around the world, for that matter. They seem to be a unique phenomenon that arose from Taiwan’s existing street food culture, the new-found fashionableness of plant-based eating in recent years, and the savvy use of social media marketing. The Little Vegetarian Night Market group has more than 111,000 members on Facebook, Taiwan Vegan Frenzy has more than 22,000 followers on its FB page, and the No Meat Festival has 22,400 followers on its Instagram.

Of the three, the Little Vegetarian Night Market is the only “full-time” market. Centered around George Burger, a popular veggie burger stand run by an American and co-founder of the market, the regular troupe of vegan and vegetarian vendors hardly rests, constantly making stops up and down the island. It could be in Yunlin on a Wednesday, Taichung on Thursday, Taipei on Friday, and down in Changhua by Saturday.

It’s a grueling schedule for the vendors, but also highly rewarding. By being a traveling novelty, the market always brings out the crowds. I last caught up with them in New Taipei’s Xindian District, where they set up shop next to a traditional permanent market. For me and my roommate Charlie (also a vegan), it was a delightful experience to wander around a night market and find that we could eat most of the foods there. Even standing in line was part of the experience.

There were about a dozen vendors. We sampled vegan xiaolongbao, Malaysian satay, stinky tofu, and of course a famous George Burger.

“We’ll be handing out the next round of numbered tickets in 15 minutes, so don’t go too far,” said the vendor at George Burger, which uses a ticket system to allow customers to stroll freely while they wait for their number to be called instead of having to stand in line.

I couldn’t remember the last time since becoming vegan that I was able to just wander around a night market. I had enough time to play a game of Taiko No Tatsujin, the Japanese drumming game, while we waited for our burgers. My rhythm was good enough that night that I received applause from a few elderly onlookers.

“We should come again the next time,” I said to Charlie later, while enjoying my burger. She agreed.

Reducing waste

Chelsea, Founder of Taiwan’s No Meat Festival. Photo: Angelica Oung

The No Meat Festival is the biggest of Taiwan’s plant-based gatherings. Although it happens only a few times a year, each one is enormous, with hundreds of stalls, a constant slate of entertainers and, most impressively, a dedication to get as close to zero waste as possible. While both the Taiwan Vegan Frenzy and the Little Vegetarian Night Market encouraged people to bring their own containers, the No Meat Festival has a ban on all single-use serving ware, instead loaning reusable plates, cups, and cutlery to unprepared festivalgoers.

I caught up with Chelsea (who preferred to go only by her first name), the founder of the No Meat Festival, at their Christmas Market in Taichung in mid-December. The first festival was held in 2019, and the ball got rolling quickly thereafter within Chelsea’s tight-knit community of vegan friends, many of whom were food entrepreneurs.

“We didn’t think too much about it; we just did it,” she says. But when the first festival was done, Chelsea was dismayed to find that it had generated a large amount of waste. “We created all these bags of trash, something which I didn’t think about before,” she says. “I talked to my co-founder and told him we had to do it differently the next time.”

Chelsea and her team not only ensured that the serving ware was reusable, they also worked with the vendors to reduce single-use plastic in food prep and transportation as well. “Most of them are happy to learn if they’re given the support,” says Chelsea. “I believe before you can convince your customers of your values, first you must convince your vendors.”

I spoke to several people while standing in line at the festival, which was held this time at Taichung’s Wen-Xin Forest Park. About half of those I surveyed were omnivores, with the rest vegetarians. Only around 10-20% were vegan. I ask Chelsea if she was aware of this ratio.

“Isn’t it fantastic?” she says. “This is exactly what I want to see.” She expresses disdain for the strict boundaries that sometimes exist between vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. “I’m not a better person because I’m a vegan. And a lot of people might be eating animal products not because they want to, but because they don’t know how easy and fun it can be to eat less” of such products.

While vegans are often stereotyped for being judgmental of non-vegans, Chelsea believes that it’s only through mutual empathy that plant-based eating can become progressively more mainstream.

“Most of the judgmental vegans never forgave themselves for eating animals before they turned vegan; that’s why they project that anger outwards at omnivores,” she says. “You forgive yourself for yesterday, so why not choose to forgive others for today, and maybe tomorrow they will make different choices? Give respect and empathy to your fellow humans first, and in turn maybe it will be extended to the animals.”

Even though the festival is strictly vegan-only, Chelsea makes a point of inviting vegetarian and omnivore food businesses to exhibit, on the condition that their wares are free of all animal products.

“It’s a great way to share ideas and techniques,” she says. “Omnivore vendors get exposed to a new market while vegan vendors might pick up new ideas. I want to put together a market where there is no repetition, and people are constantly delighted by the variety and taste that can be achieved with food made with just plants.”

When you bite into a Madarka Authentic Desserts Macaron, it explodes in your mouth just like a macaron should. Yet instead of egg whites, these little confections are made with aquafaba, or the protein-rich fluid extracted from boiled chickpeas, as well as bespoke flavors and fillings such as lavender, pistachio, rose, and cacao.

I tell the owner, a Taiwanese who created the brand with his Hungarian wife, that Chelsea has recommended his stall as a “must-try.” He refuses my money, stating that “Chelsea helped us too much.” Although I can see from the thick stack of bills in a clear plastic zipped wallet that the stall did well that day, the real value of coming to the fair, he explains, is in its marketing potential.

“We do most of our business online using the Black Cat delivery service,” he says. “These markets are a great way to get people to try our product.”

I tell Chelsea that one day I hope to sell my rice balls at the No Meat Festival, too. “That would be awesome,” she says, although she also notes that she is very selective when it comes to choosing her vendors.

“I have Madarka, so I won’t have another macaron stall,” she explains. “I also don’t want anyone who just wants a quick payday to join.”

Above all, she says, “I want vendors with the right attitude, and a desire to share a unique product they’re passionate about that just so happens to contain no animal products.”