The first time I came to Taiwan, I lived in Taipei for two months during the summer while I took Chinese classes at a local university. I was only here for a short time, so I never really developed any close friendships and spent much of the summer exploring Taipei by myself. As someone who has been a vegetarian for most of my life and does not generally enjoy cooking, I spent a great deal of my free time that summer hunting down vegetarian restaurants.
One day I was trying out a particularly interesting restaurant: a multi-level Taiwanese-style vegetarian buffet. The price was a bit expensive, but it was all-you-can-eat, which I was excited about, because like all vegetarians I have ever met and contrary to stereotypes, I really love to eat and can put away quite a large amount of food in one sitting. As a single white female, I stood out in the sea of hungry Taiwanese people at the buffet. Still, I was not treated like an outsider. People kept pushing me out of the way to get to the food, just as they did with everyone else. At one point, a pile of fresh mock-seafood kabobs was put onto the buffet, and just as I reached for one, I was firmly pushed out of the way by a person who grabbed the kabob I wanted. When I looked to see who had pushed me, I was surprised to see a female Buddhist monk, complete with a shaved head and gray robes. You might think this would make me angry, but it actually made me feel a deep sense of commonality. An obsessive zeal for vegetarian food is something with which I deeply identify.
As a vegetarian, I have often found my diet to be a bit alienating. At least until very recently, none of my friends were vegetarians. Food is such a central part of social interactions; a side effect of a diet like mine is that you are often unintentionally excluded during group activities. But in Taiwan, vegetarianism is widely accepted and vegetarian food is readily available. In fact, nowhere else in the world have I ever encountered so many people as enthusiastic about vegetarian cuisine as I have in Taiwan. So when the monk at the buffet pushed me out of the way, my immediate reaction was to look at her and think that maybe we could be friends. We clearly had a lot in common.
Why Are You a Vegetarian?
Everywhere in the world I have traveled, when I tell people that I am a vegetarian, the response I most often get is “why did you decide to become a vegetarian?” The answer to this question is simple. I am a vegetarian because since a very young age, I have been troubled by the thought of animal suffering, which means I find myself particularly troubled by the conditions that animals endure in industrialized food production around the world. I am not a vegetarian for health reasons, although that is a nice benefit as well. I did not grow up in a vegetarian family. This was a decision I made for myself. That being said, I do not judge other people for eating meat. There are myriad issues worthy of ethically motivated action, and different issues resonate with different people.
While people often think of an ethically motivated vegetarian lifestyle as restrictive, I would argue that it opens your life up to the enjoyment of a whole range of products, activities, and cuisine that other people never appreciate or experience. When I came back to Taiwan for my Fulbright year, I could not wait to return to my favorite vegetarian restaurants and to encounter more of Taiwan’s version of a vegetarian lifestyle.
The Best Vegetarian Food in the World
To anyone who will listen, I argue emphatically that Taiwan is the best place in the world for vegetarian food. No, I have not been to India. Call me biased, but I do not think I need to travel to India to know that Taiwan’s vegetarian food is the best. I eat like a queen in Taipei, and no other place on earth could top the vegetarian food here, especially considering the wide range of options available to vegetarians.
Taiwan is covered with vegetarian buffets. For everyday eating, it is hard to beat the pay-by-weight establishments that are sprinkled across every neighborhood. Not generally designed to cater to foreigners, these restaurants are austere, functional, and recognizable by the 素character in their names. Whenever people tell me that they do not like tofu, I think of a place like this, where tofu and other forms of soy protein take on a wide range of textures and flavors. You have not eaten tofu until you have eaten it in its many forms. These buffets are masters at leveraging tofu’s transformative abilities. I promise that I am not exaggerating when I say that after eating at these buffets, I immediately feel healthier and more invigorated. I also feel smart for getting such a healthy and satisfying meal at such a cheap price.
Another example of Taiwan’s range of vegetarian food is the more mid-range restaurants, which I like to think of as the ‘ladies-who-lunch’ style of vegetarian restaurant. These places are reasonably priced, have lunch sets, and are filled with comfortable tables and chairs with embroidered cushions. The vast majority of customers are middle-aged to elderly women, and they spend their afternoons there gossiping, drinking tea, and eating vegetarian food.
Taiwan’s vegetarian restaurant scene really has too much diversity to adequately address, but one of my notable recent finds was a vegan bar called About Animals. When I was there, I tried their vegan wasabi burger—which was delicious—while I marveled at what was definitely the cutest bar I have ever seen in my life. A black cat acted as if he owned the place, and the girls running the restaurant were also dressed all in black with big hair and an air of indifference. Vegetarians come in all forms in Taipei.
My quest for vegetarian food has always brought me into contact with locals in Taiwan. When I find myself in another Taiwanese city or an unfamiliar neighborhood in Taipei, I take out my phone and use my Happy Cow app to find a new vegetarian restaurant to try. When I walk into a new one, I often engage in a similar dialogue with the shop owner, which resembles something like the following (in Chinese):
The owner sees me. “This is a vegetarian restaurant.”
“I know. I am a vegetarian,” I say.
He or she smiles in surprise. “You are a vegetarian?”
“Yes, I am a vegetarian.”
“I am also a vegetarian!” he or she says.
After such a conversation, restaurant owners and I are great friends.
Taiwan’s Vegetarians and Animal Rights Activists
Even without seeking out Taiwan’s vegetarians, I find that evidence of activities promoting animal welfare is prevalent. Soon after I arrived in Taiwan, the independent movie theater by my house began prominently displaying large yellow movie posters for Twelve Nights (十二夜), a documentary that was filmed in an animal shelter. It tells the story of what happens to stray dogs picked up by animal control. I personally chose not to see the movie because I already make monthly donations to animal shelters and did not think the movie would do anything but upset me. One of my best friends in Taiwan did see the movie and she told me that it depicted a dog’s twelve nights in a shelter. Dogs that remain unclaimed after twelve days are put to sleep.
For a while it seemed that everyone in Taipei was seeing the movie and talking about how awful conditions are for stray animals in Taiwan. Although the movie’s popularity created a somber mood, I could not help but think that it made me happy as well. It was exciting to hear people talk passionately about animal welfare, because I do not remember a time in my life when it was not a concern of mine.
Advocacy for animal rights in Taipei is not just talk. One day, after trying out a new vegetarian restaurant in Ximen, I came across a massive protest. Marching down the street in a long line, people stretched as far as I could see in either direction. The group was chanting and pumping their fists in the air. Organizers riding on the roofs of trucks shouted through bullhorns. Together they yelled: “我們要TNR, 我們支持TNR.”(We want TNR. We support TNR.) The pamphlet that was quickly handed to me indicated that TNR stood for trap, neuter, and release. Perhaps six months after Twelve Nights’ release, a concern for stray animals was not dying down in Taipei, and again, I could not help but feel excited.
Taiwan has a knack for cuteness that is amazingly pervasive and often juxtaposed with the serious. While much of the group was clearly very solemn, one of the people shouting through a bullhorn from the top of a truck was wearing furry cat ears. Many protesters shouted slogans and pumped their fists, but others wore giant animal costumes and danced along to the chanting. Face paint and animal masks were plentiful. Hundreds of dogs were also part of the crowd, with costumes ranging from the cardboard signs with protest slogans that I saw hanging from the necks of Shiba Inus to the pack of Chihuahuas that I saw decked out in motorcycle jackets and helmets. All the dogs at least looked like they were having a great time.
While I stood and watched the crowd, a person came up and gave me a Christian tract. I had not noticed at first, but a Christian protest was also taking place at the edges of the TNR demonstration. When I looked up again, I realized that across the street was a separate, third demonstration for Taiwanese independence. Taking in the whole scene made me laugh out loud. Taiwan is such a fantastic place, full of people who care about so many issues. I know many of my Taiwanese friends dislike [o1] all the protesting, but I think it feels good to be in the company of so many people who care.
Kimberly Wilson is a doctoral student studying international relations and comparative politics at the University of Maryland-College Park. She specializes in territorial conflict and East Asian politics, having lived in Asia for a total of four years.