Three pioneers of sustainable dining show that green food can be delicious, innovative, and elegant.
Pan Tong-chen worked as an account officer at a bank before he made the unexpected decision to become an organic farmer.
“It wasn’t my plan,” he says. “But when my wife fell ill, we decided to choose a life of health.”
Over the past few years, Pan and his wife have transformed an aging nashi pear orchard in Miaoli’s Zhuolan township into a pesticide-free paradise. There they grow more than 40 kinds of fruits and vegetables, from arugula to strawberries. Clouds roll in from the mountains, covering the farm in the ethereal morning mist. Rare visitors, such as the occasional owl, accompany Pan as he toils his hectare-sized farm at the crack of dawn.
Pan’s path to the sustainable food industry is only one of the many unique origin stories I find among vendors at the third Sustainable Market Fair, organized by the Taipei Cultural Exploration Association. More than 160 farmers, food vendors, and craftspeople have gathered at the Hakka Cultural Park to bring locally grown organic and vegan food to city folks drawn to the concept of “green food.”
What is green food? Definitions vary. According to Ho Chia-ying, co-founder of the Green Dining Guide, it can be boiled down to the Guide’s six-point Green Food Manifesto: prioritizing the purchase of organic foods, buying local, following sustainable principles, decreasing the amount of additives, providing a vegetarian choice, and reducing wasted resources.
“The goal is to grow food in such a way that we can co-exist long-term with our environment, as well as helping the small family farmers of Taiwan,” says Ho.
The Taipei Cultural Exploration Association, of which Ho is a member, started out by operating farmers’ markets such as the Sustainable Market Fair and the regular Water Garden Organic Farmers’ Market. In 2019 the association also launched the Green Dining Guide to promote sustainability and help farmers find good outlets for their wares.
Participating restaurants sign the Green Food Manifesto and source some ingredients from participating farmers. In the first year, 32 restaurants participated. This year that number has grown to over 200. Pan says interest in green dining is noticeably increasing in terms of both quantity and quality.
“We are starting to see a lot of participating restaurants in the gourmet category,” she says. “Our farmers supply restaurants ranging from simple breakfast shops to five-star hotels.”
Rather than a strict and inflexible edict, the manifesto is a gentle encouragement and statement of intention. Ho says that while restaurants are encouraged to source their animal products responsibly, it’s up to the establishments to decide what that entails. However, they do need to provide some vegetarian options.
“Taiwan is a small and diverse country, and our farms tend to be small and diverse too,” says Ho. “In general, we don’t have the big monoculture farms where only one crop is grown. This is good for the environment, but we need to help the farmers find a market for their crops.”
Green gourmet by Leo Tsai
Chef Leo Tsai’s food career began in his childhood, when his uncle took him to Taipei for a meal. Used to the simple preparations of his hometown in Yunlin County, Tsai was entranced by the sophisticated flavors and techniques used by the chefs of Taipei.
“It’s the same fish and the same vegetables, but why does it taste so different?” he recalls asking himself.
Tsai left Yunlin as a young man to work in fine-dining restaurants. He would later be approached by the organic food group Yuen Foong Yu Biotech Co. with a request to fulfill a mission: educate the public that organic food can be gourmet, too.
“Fourteen years ago, the term ‘organic’ was just starting to become more widely known,” says Tsai. “People equated it with healthy but not delicious.”
Yuen Foong Yu’s core business was organic produce and products, giving Tsai access to a steady supply of organic ingredients from all over Taiwan. The first restaurant he spearheaded was Qimin Market (齊民市集有機鍋物, No. 158, Xinyi Rd., Section 2, Daan District, Taipei), an organic hotpot restaurant that quickly gained popularity.
Eight years ago Tsai was part of creating an even more ambitious concept melding gourmet dining, Taiwanese cuisine, and green food. The result was the restaurant Mountain and Sea House (山海樓, No. 94, Ren-ai Rd., Section 2, Zhongzheng District, Taipei).
“We wanted to go back to the original flavors of pre-World War II Taiwanese cuisine while using local and organic ingredients,” says Tsai. “I had to throw away so much of what I had learned and start again like an apprentice.”
All old chefs who remember this opulent historical style are now in their 80s. Grand dishes like the “Gold and Silver roasted pork” (金銀燒豬, jinyin shao zhu) can no longer be found in Taiwanese restaurants.
“I went to an old chef in Beitou to learn this dish,” says Tsai. “He told me to start with an open fire in the courtyard.” Tsai was able to recreate the classic dish using a convection oven instead. He is just as insistent about using sustainable and local ingredients as he is about the authenticity of his cuisine.
The chicken used by Mountain and Sea House is an indigenous Taiwanese variety that’s already adapted to the subtropical climate and naturally requires fewer antibiotics. Unlike conventional chickens, which can be harvested at 45 days, Taiwanese chickens take as long as four months to grow to maturity. The result, says Tsai, is a bird with firmer, more flavorful meat. The fish Tsai uses are line–caught, not dredged. This method ensures a quality catch while mitigating damage to the habitat.
“If I want to use something, I go to our procurement team and ask them if they can find something that reaches our standards of being local, organic, and sustainable,” says Tsai. “If they cannot find it, I will cook something else.”
Mountain and Sea House’s authentic and sustainable concept received validation in the form of a Michelin Star in 2019, which the restaurant has kept since. In 2021 it was joined by a Michelin Green Star, an award that recognizes restaurants at the forefront of sustainable practices.
Tsai says the awards were a welcome surprise. “The Michelin people are very low-key, and we don’t even know they’ve been here until the award announcement.”
When a dish is served at Mountain and Sea House, the server will tell diners the “story” of the dish and its ingredients. “It’s all about the land,” says Tsai. “In the end, if you have real whole food, you can cook it simply. It will taste the best. It will taste like home.”
Sustainable sweets by Isabelle Tsao
Self-taught pastry chef Isabelle Tsao was an early adopter of green dining. She decided to bet on the concept a decade ago when she founded Green Bakery (綠帶純植物烘焙, No. 64, Lane 36, Minsheng East Rd., Section 5, Songshan District), a vegan patisserie café in Taipei’s leafy Minsheng neighborhood.
Tsao says that global trends generally start in Europe and the U.S. before they reach Asian countries and, finally, Taiwan. “This was indeed the progression I saw in my store,” she adds. When Tsao first opened, many of her customers were from Europe and the U.S. After a few years they were joined by customers from Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong. But local Taiwanese visitors are on the rise.
People are attracted to the umbrella concept of green dining for a variety of reasons, Tsao says. “For one person, it could be concern for the animals. For another, it might be reducing carbon emissions.”
While Leo Tsai found alignment between vintage Taiwanese cuisine and sustainable ingredients, Isabelle Tsao found inspiration from her mission to be green, which to her includes looking for local ingredients with as few “food miles” as possible.
“In my opinion, there’s no reason to be restricted to the known flavor combinations,” she says, citing her best-selling Chestnut and Tieguanyin Cake (栗子愛觀音旦糕) as an example. The cake is flavored with Taiwanese Tieguanyin tea and the chestnuts are locally grown. Taiwanese chestnuts have unique qualities that distinguish them from other varieties, says Tsao.
Big businesses are also starting to pay attention to the green dining trend. Green Bakery won first prize in a food entrepreneurship competition organized by Taiwanese food and beverage conglomerate Wowprime Group, which awarded it a NT$10 million investment. “They are looking to bring a little bit of green dining into their corporate DNA,” says Tsao.
Although the concept of green dining carries different meanings for different people, its champions are driven by a desire to live more sustainably without sacrificing style or sophistication. This is the case also for Tsao.
“I knew to capture the interest of all kinds of customers,” she says. “I have to present them with a tempting product that does not taste like they have compromised on taste for green dining.”