Travel in Taiwan Dining

Eating Vegetarian and Eating Well in Taipei

By Paula McEachern, Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung


It goes without saying that vegetarian cuisine holds an important position in Chinese gastronomic culture. In Taipei alone, there are over 300 exclusively vegetarian restaurants, tea houses, and cafeterias, serving up their fare to vegetarians and omnivores alike. Most of these eateries are easily recognized by the backwards swastika that adorns Buddhist establishments in Taiwan. In fact, vegetarian restaurants are so prevalent that Taipei residents and guests can easily satisfy a craving for vegetable edibles in virtually any part of the city.

For some people in the West, the word "vegetarian" may still evoke images of California hippies and passing fads. For Chinese people, however, vege-tarianism is viewed in terms of its long and venerable history, which is rooted in the ancient philosophical and religious beliefs of Taoism and Buddhism.

As early as the sixth century B.C., Taoist theory encouraged people to seek harmony with nature by leading a simple, balanced life, sustained by a predominately vegetarian diet. Buddhist teachings, which reached China in the first century B.C., reinforced much of the Taoist world view, including its preference for the vegetarian regimen. In particular, the Buddhist code of ahimsa (non-injury) prohibited Bud-dhists from killing living creatures for food.


Phoenix Eyes with Dragon Rolls has a tofu base sprinkled with nuts, green peas, and cherries.


Vegetarin dishes which feature as a sample of Japanese cuisine.


Five Item Cold Cuts features assorted tofu textures and colors.

Taipei Vegetarians

There are potentially as many reasons for becoming a vegetarian as there are vegetarians in the world. Religion, compassion for animals, concern about ecological balance, and health are those most frequently cited by Taipei's vegetarian residents.

Young Chinese looking for ways to nurture the spiritual side of their lives are turning to Buddhism in growing numbers. Reuters correspondent James Peng became a devout Buddhist in 1990, left his job, and embarked on a six-month private meditation at home. Today he is a vegetarian. "The Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation is behind the religion's compassion for animals," he explains. "In this life you might be human, but in the next one you could be an animal or a spirit. So the animal you eat may be your mother, your brother, your wife, or your child from a previous incarnation."

Buddhist monks and nuns are vegetarian without exception. Believers, on the other hand, are allowed more flexibility. Cheng Chen Kun, chief chef at the well known Kuan Shih Yin vegetarian restaurant, notes that there are even special terms for those Buddhists who restrict their diet only in the morning, chi tsao chai, and those who avoid meat only on the first and fifteenth of each month, chuyi shihwu. Predictably, he says, Kuan Shih Yin gets quite busy on these dates.


Good Fortune Wheel is made of stuffed hefen, tofu, green peas, and cherries.


Bird's Nest Tofu Shrimp has spicy tofu in a sparrow's nest of noodles.

Many non-Buddhist vegetarians share the Buddhist compassion for animals. Sheron Steele, a counselor at the Taipei American School, became a vegetarian 20 years ago when her six-year-old son came home from school one day and said he was not going to eat anything that suffered, bled, or died anymore. Today she emphasizes the need to have compassion, not only for animals, but also for our "fellow humans" who may be in jeopardy themselves due to overpopulation, depletion of fossil fuels, and potential climatic change. "A vegetarian diet," she urges, "is far more efficient than a meat-based one. It takes many pounds of grain to produce just one pound of beef. And grain and bean combinations can provide better quality protein than you get from meat alone."

In Taiwan, as in the West, more and more people are adopting a vegetarian lifestyle for the healthy effects it can have on their spiritual and physical well-being. Burton Huang of the Chinatrust Commercial Bank studied nutrition at college and finally made the decision to become a vegetarian four years ago, half for religious reasons, half for health reasons. "A vegetarian diet reduces the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure," he notes. Indeed, studies show that vegetarians live longer and suffer fewer diseases than others, thanks in part to the lower levels of saturated animal fat and higher levels of fiber that their diets contain.


First Class Tofu Abalone includes mushrooms, mustard stalk, and cherries.


Noble Ham is tofu with cabbage greens.


Shredded Pigeon includes assorted vegetables and nuts.


Vegetarian steamed stuffed buns are assorted with baked snacks.

Restaurants and Cuisine

According to most accounts, Taipei is a good place to maintain a vegetarian lifestyle, thanks to the city's many vegetarian restaurants and also to the general respect that the Taiwanese accord vegetarians. For foreigners who don't speak Chinese, it can be difficult in the beginning, says Tammy Turner of Pristine Communications. "People tend to offer you the best meat on the table, and not knowing how to refuse is tough. 'Vegetarian' is one of the first words I learned to say. If you can speak Chinese, Taiwan is a very easy place to be one.

Diana Bower, a student at National Taiwan Normal University's Mandarin Training Center, agrees. "When people in Taipei hear that I am a vegetarian, they often say, 'Oh great! Let's go to the vegetarian restaurant that I like.' This wouldn't happen in the United States.

Vegetarians have a wide variety of Chinese restaurants to choose from in Taipei. Buffet-style establishments like the Tian Wei Natural Vegetarian Cafeteria (39 Tienmu E. Road) serve wholesome food in a casual atmosphere. At the other end of the spectrum are more up-scale restaurants like Kuan Shih Yin (29 Minchuan E. Rd., Sec. 2) and Fa Hua (132 Minchuan E. Rd., Sec. 3), which offer patrons a dining experience rivaling the best non-vegetarian Chinese feasts in refinement of both taste and presentation.

Chinese vegetarian chefs adhere to the same principles of cookery governing master chefs in other Chinese cuisines. To maintain the essential yin-yang balance, they are careful to embody in each dish a variety of tastes, textures, colors, and aromas. Just as most Chinese chefs include a meat ingredient even in their "vegetable" dishes, vegetarian chefs often use a "meaty" ingredient--meaty in texture, that is--and, of course, derived from a vegetable source. Tofu is the key in this respect, and chefs use it in a multitude of forms, including regular tofu, pressed tofu, tofu custard, bean whey skin, and others. Keeping this in mind, customers at Taipei's vegetarian restaurants need not be surprised to discover items like Fa Hua's "Shredded Pigeon" and "Spicy Shrimp," or Kuan Shih Yin's "Five Item Cold Cuts" and "Noble Ham."

The Chinese word for vegetarian food, sushih, suggests a cuisine that is "pure, plain, and simple." Despite the name, Taipei's vegetarian cuisine, in all its variety, reflects the many centuries that have gone into developing one of Chinese cooking's most delightful genres, one that can be plain but is often refined and elaborate. Wherever you choose to eat vegetarian in Taipei, you can be sure that the experience will be an enriching one--physically, sensually, and spiritually.


Travel in Taiwan Dining
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.