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Taiwan: The Vegetarian's Paradise

From soy milk broth to show-stopping mushrooms, Taiwan's vegetarian scene is simmering with pure homegrown flavours.

Mountain temples on the road to Jiufen

Mountain temples on the road to Jiufen, a mining town near New Taipei City.

It’s just before 11 p.m., but I can still feel the last pulses ofthe day’s heat when I step out from the Xingtian Temple subway station in downtown Taipei. My Taiwanese friend Grey leads me off the main drag into a laneway. (He’s been showing me around this volcano-ringed city of 2.7 million people, forested boulevards, cellphone-enabled subways and more restaurants per block than I’ve ever seen.) “It’s on these narrow secondary streets that Taipei really lives,” he tells me as we make our way between buildings that are rarely taller than 10 storeys high and often under five. We pass breakfast nooks, scooter repair shops and foot massage parlours before we hit Tender Land. The restaurant is typical of Taipei not only for being in a laneway but also for serving vegetarian food that could convert even the most committed carnivore.

 

 

Earthenware Pots of Lilies in the Spring

A waitress sets the table at the indigenous-owned Earthenware Pots of Lilies in the Spring, in the south of Taiwan.

We sit down at the 16-seat horseshoe-shaped bar, which wraps around an open kitchen. Some 150 whiskies hang from overhead hooks, and the two bartenders never stop reaching and unhooking, pouring, stirring and shaking. But the real show goes on behind them. Grey and I have ordered the baby corn, and after roasting the cobs in their husk, chef Wyatt scores them diagonally to let a liquid seasoning seep into them. I take a bite. The cobs are as crunchy and springy as properly cooked calamari, the inner husk and the silk adding velum and capellini to the play of textures. This is the first Grey’s heard of Tender Land, but as we are leaving – after adding a sweet and tender kimchi and a few glasses of Taiwanese Omar whisky to the tab – he vows to come back with friends very soon.

Morning calisthenics in the courtyard of the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall

Stretch and shine with morning calisthenics in the courtyard of the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei.

It doesn’t take long to discover that Taipei is a city of culinary evangelists. People will lead friends from one end of town to the other to try to convince them that their favourite beef noodle soup, soft dan bing egg crepes or stinky tofu is truly the best. There’s traditional and fusion, Japanese and (one of the city’s specialties) Italian. But a combination of Buddhism and tradition has created more vegetarians in Taiwan than you’d find in most other countries on earth. (Some are full-time vegetarians; some are part-time, as when someone’s sick or after a funeral or in a sort of New Year’s version of Lent.) As a result, the best dishes I sample here are meatless.

Hot pot at the Guangfu Loving Hut

Digging (into) the soy-milk-based vegetable hot pot at the Guangfu Loving Hut in Taipei.

A case in point is Loving Hut. It’s the favourite restaurant of Jesse Duffield, a New Zealander who is the author of Taiwan: A Travel Guide for Vegans. Vegans may recognize the name of the international chain, started by Supreme Master Ching Hai, a Vietnamese spiritual leader who founded her form of meditation in Taiwan in the 1980s. But when I meet up with Duffield, the wiry thirtysomething physics teacher stresses that we aren’t going to just any Loving Hut. (There are 16 in Taiwan and six in Taipei.) We’re going to the Guangfu Loving Hut. “When the chain started,” Duffield says, “the restaurants were mostly run by people who were followers of Ching Hai but who were not necessarily cooks or chefs.” Guangfu is the exception, and it shows. I never had soy-milk broth before, but when I tuck into the hot pot, a house specialty, the flavours of the vegetables that suffuse it, alongside lime leaves and a chili-oil float, make me wonder why broths are ever made of anything else. It’s delicate enough not to mask the slight fruitiness of the enoki mushrooms and to suspend the flavours of the broccoli, corn, sweet potato and sweet cabbage – all before anything gets soggy or the oyster mushrooms lose their velvety texture.

Capital city laneways; jackfruit pizzas

Left to right: The capital city lives in its laneways, which are shared by pedestrians, bikes, scooters and cars; Tiny jackfruit pizzas, served on leaves, are the highlight of the indigenous feast at Earthenware Pots of Lilies in the Spring.

In the tiny village of Ca’wi, or Jingpu in Chinese, outside Taitung, a lush area wedged between the precipitous east-coast mountains and the Pacific Ocean, chef Chen Yao-Zhong, a member of the indigenous Amis tribe, tells me that hot pots are the original Taiwanese food. His people have always put everything they’ve foraged – from vegetables to mushrooms to fish – into a single pot and simply cooked it with water and salt. He invites me along as he casts his weighted net out into the Xiuguluan River, where it runs into the sea just across the street from his restaurant, whose name translates as Earthenware Pots of Lilies in the Spring. Chen hauls in mullet and crayfish from the muddy nimbus that smears the junction of fresh and salt water created by recent rains, before we amble out back to the side of one of the intensely green foothills. He pries a root out of the ground, wild taro, and knocks a couple of knobs off before replanting it. We pick up some bitter melon, snails, a bird’s nest fern and some leaves that taste strongly of Sprite – ingredients often used in traditional tribal cooking. The chef doesn’t get many foreign visitors, so he lays out a fish and vegetable feast instead of one of his everyday hot pots. But the seasoning, the flavours, are the same subtle umami of the little corn cobs I had at Tender Land.

Seven Stars Bay; Taipei’s laneways are so homey

Left to right: Selfie fulfillment: Day-trippers snap at the opportunity in Seven Stars Bay, a popular stop on the way to Taroko Gorge; Some of Taipei’s laneways are so homey they can feel like your living room, decorated with houseplants, dangling mobiles and even easy chairs.

I taste it again at Vege Creek back in Taipei, another Duffield recommendation in another laneway – Lane 129 this time, in Da’an, the densest and ritziest of the city’s neighbourhoods. Vege Creek is decked out like a bunker, all polished concrete floors and walls, the food displayed to create a living wall. You get a shopping basket and do a mini-forage, picking loofah, bok choy, winter melon, beet leaves and whatnot from where they’re hanging. You hand it over to the cooks behind the counter, who add your noodle of choice and whip it up into a dish using something they call “Chinese medicine soup.” The liquid involves dried plum and a few other things not easily described in English. The Australian sitting next to me asks Duffield if he can find her some salt, but seasoning this food is missing the point. Saltiness and fat are the hallmarks of mainland Chinese food; the flavours I enjoyed in the corn, the soy-milk broth, Chen’s fish and veggie spread and now here at Vege Creek are subtle but distinct. They dance on the boundaries between sweet and bitter, woodsy and citric, pungent and fragrant. This is better than smack-your-lips food. It is close-your-eyes-and-stop-talking-because-I-can’t-believe-how-good-this-is food.

Vege Creek

At Vege Creek, you pick the vegetables while the chefs cook them, adding artistic flair along with your choice of carb.

In trying to figure out what’s in the Chinese medicine soup, Duffield finally lets me in on the secret of the seasoning I’ve been tasting since Tender Land: vegetable broth, the vegetables chosen to suit the chefs’ various needs, reduced and lightly salted, sometimes with a little black pepper. In a country where Buddhist-born vegetarianism often means no garlic and no five-spice, these reductions are what butter is to the French, the simple but profound je ne sais quoi behind practically every extraordinary dish.

But Taiwan has one more revelation in store for me before I leave, at the bottom of a grey apartment block near Shandao, the largest Buddhist temple in Taipei. In the middle of a meal that would have stood out for its presentation alone – orange peels turned into little lamps to illuminate the appetizers served on slabs of wood and slate in darkened private rooms – I am served a single mushroom. If you are a seasoned mycologist, you might already be familiar with this heart-shaped bundle of wonder, sometimes called a lion’s mane or a bearded tooth. I was not. Yu Shan Ge is a high-end vegetarian restaurant founded by Chen Chien-Ji, whose mother made a promise to the Buddha when Chen was 12 that if his father survived a nearly fatal trolley accident, the family would remain vegetarian forever. His father survived, and Chen has made his living out of keeping his mother’s promise.

Central Mountain Range

Temples sprout up in the unlikeliest of places, including here in the rugged Central Mountain Range, some 200 kilometres south of Taipei.

The mushroom is served as part of a meal inspired by Japanese kaiseki – small, elegant morsels served with tea and, in this case, a meticulously wrapped cube of cream cheese whipped with sweet potato. The fungus, also known as a hericium, is braised in a black-pepper-infused broth. It’s as close as I’ve come in a long time to an entirely new form of food. More substantial than a portobello, more delicate than meat, the closest textural comparison is lightly grilled black cod. Made up of what seems like hundreds of strands of tiny enoki-like mushrooms compressed into one chunk, this formidable fungus is presented rather than served, like a roast goose at Christmas, then carved and savoured in wordless contemplation.


Where to Eat Your Greens

Earthenware Pots of Flowers in the Spring, No. 138, Jingpu, Fengbin Township, Hualien

Loving Hut, No. 30, Lane 280, Guangfu St., Da’an District, lovinghut.com

Tender Land, No. 22, Lane 175, Jinzhou St., Zhongshan District, Taipei, 886-2-2563-6303

Vege Creek, No. 2, Lane 129, Yanji St., Da’an District

Yu Shan Ge, 1F, No. 14, Beiping E. Rd., Taipei, 886-2-2394-5155, yu-shan-ge.com.tw

Tags

FOOD & DRINK     TAIPEI     TAIWAN     VEGETARIAN    

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