I had asked a couple of other travellers about vegetarian food in Taiwan and they had said it was available. But I was still sceptical because a lot depends on travel style.
For eg: travellers who may have spent 5 days in Taiwan won’t realize some things which are lacking for people who spend longer here (like me). For eg: vegetarian snacking options. After 15 days here I find a problem of snacking options – I don’t seem to have any filling veggie options and have increased eating chocolate. Either I am drinking packs of rice/soy milk (a lot of that!) Or just munching on chocolate. I am sure there is stuff available but I will have to go on an asking/hunting spree.
So here is the good and the bad of vegetarian food in Taiwan,
Fully Vegetarian Restaurants:
There are quite a few. Usually you will find a vegetarian eating joint in a 20 minute walking radius. Typically it has pure vegetarian cuisine. No onion. No garlic. No egg. It *may* have dairy options but you can easily choose vegan if you like.
These restaurants cater to the Buddhist population mostly who follow this strict vegetarian diet.
How to find them:
1) Google maps: just search ‘vegetarian’ and you see a few options – in Taipei this is fine as there are many such restaurants that show up on GMaps.
In Taipei you can even just walk down a main road and you are likely to see a vegetarian restaurant signboard. This is not the case outside Taipei. Gmaps often doesn’t show any options in towns outside Taipei – probably because these are purely local joints with no web presence.
2) Ask a local like your AirBnb hostess – especially outside Taipei you have to ask a local. Usually they would know at least one because some friend or family would be vegetarian. These are places where there maybe NO English at all. So you pretty much walk in, confirm it is vegetarian through a few bad Chinese sentences & gestures. And point at something in the menu to order. 🙂
Note: to order you can use Google Translate Live app. You can hold it in front of the menu and get an instant translation. It is not accurate but it helps.
3) Have a chit of paper that says “I need vegetarian food” or some such sentence written in Chinese and show it around. Or record someone saying it in Chinese and make people listen to it. Basically just ask around.
4) Learn the (script) symbols – I had different Chinese locals write down the symbols for vegetarian but they all look different to me. ^-^
5) Learning to say “I am vegetarian” in Chinese etc.. This will take time so keep other options open… I am seeing pronounciantion differences between Taipei and Keelung. So until I know better I cannot rely on “Wo shi chu-wen-su” meaning I am a strict vegetarian (vegan).
6) Go to any restaurant with English name and menu – this is a gamble but chances are that if it has English stuff then they want to cater to tourists. And so might have some vegetarian stuff. This worked for me in Ruifang where all other options were closed. I went to a pasta place and thankfully the woman there spoke English. So I was comfortable eating the vegetarian there because I knew she understood.
I am not comfortable eating vegetarian in another non- veg place because,
1) the dishes often are hardcore non veg. So they may not make any veg at all.
2) I am very particular that not a small piece of meat should be there. This means vessels can’t be used to cook meat and then my food. So it is problematic.
3) one needs a grasp of language to be able to do this. So if you can have instructions written in paper or audio recording it may be possible… Maybe for places that serve rice or noodles.
I personally have stopped having food in a place that cooks non-veg even in India because I feel chances of a mix up are high, but you can take your call.
One of the easiest options to ensure pure veg is of course cooking! So you need to be able to navigate the supermarket. Only help here are live translation apps or of course taking a Chinese friend along.
Sometimes you can ask the supermarket person to help check ingredients of one or two products but there is no guarantee that they know English enough to do that.
Fruits, vegetables, noodles, grains, rice and lots of drink options are easily available.
Smaller munchy stuff is where things get tricky – most biscuits seem to have egg in them. Wafers, chocolates also often have egg or even beef in them. Noodles also are often non veg so be sure to check ingredients. Bread is not widely available – there are just couple of brands in 7-11s and there are dedicated bread bakeries.
So for munchies or if you just want a quick snack when outside – there is nothing. Except like chocolate or dry fruits kind of stuff. Or fruit packets with pieces of cut fruit are often available, fresh juices also. All of this stuff is too light for me, I usually want something heavy for snacks. Like say, french fries or an idli plate or sev puri etc… But as of now I don’t know of any option for this. Also vegetarian restaurants being 20 minutes away means I can’t just hop down and have a soup bowl.
Good part: available everywhere. Reliable pure vegetarian food.
Bad part: Searching them out a challenge. Communicating / being able to order specific stuff due to language issue. & Fake meat.
Fake meat: A lot of vegetarian places in Taiwan use fake meat. I don’t know why this is – but possibly because the original cuisine was non-veg centric. And then maybe a minority turned vegetarian. It is not like India where there is an insanely elaborate vegetarian cuisine. So fake meat is a bit of problem for me – cause I don’t want it, I don’t need it, I don’t understand it. Moreover I was checking online and apparently these fake meats aren’t healthy.
So the only option to tackle this is that you order dishes which are vegetable based. For eg: Spinach soup and not Vegetarian Ham soup. For this you need to be able to translate the menu (GTranslate). I also want to have a note saying “I prefer vegetables, no fake meat” but I don’t have it yet.
One restaurateur in Taipei told me that while the older Buddhists relish fake meat, the younger people are opting for vegetarian due to health reasons and they prefer vegetables and no fake meat. So maybe we will see more vegetable based stuff soon. This is of course a problem cause it will not be as filling. What they need is a serious infusion of flour/dough usage to make a whole lot of stuff. Like dumplings and pancakes and so on.
A couple of other things about vegetarian food in Taiwan:
Timings: A lot of these vegetarian restaurants have very specific timing so be sure to check that. Some are open only for lunch. It can be troublesome when you plan to eat dinner there, find it closed and then end up having to cook (or even stay hungry because there is no other option)
This is another interesting matter. The restaurants that show up on GMaps and have English menus etc… tend to be more expensive.. A meal in Taipei can easily cost between $300 – 500 NTD
You can check out the “set” options they have. With an additional $100 you can get a soup / dessert / coffee with the meal. This helps lighten the price.
Start looking deeper into non-English veggie restaurants. Find out from locals the cheaper places. And then mime your way through the order because probably the people there won’t know a word of English. 🙂
Costs here can be $100 – 200 NTD for a full meal.
Outside Taipei: non-English places $40 – 80 NTD ; English places: $120 – 200 NTD.
So places outside Taipei do get more reasonable for sure. But language problems increase.
The best part is that the people are usually everywhere friendly and take care of customer. Usually after a meal they will tell me Xiexie with a smile, I say xiexie back and then when leaving I wave them goodbye and they again repeat Xiexie. So it is a pleasant experience, just not much of talking.
Hope this helps you with your vegetarian food requirements in Taiwan! There is lots to do here, the country can be a treasure trove of pleasant surprises.