I didn’t have any dietary restrictions on my previous visits to Taiwan. Surprises were welcome but I almost exclusively ate 蛋餅 (egg crepe), beef noodle, and fried chicken.
With few exceptions, I switched to a vegan diet in October 2019 as a one month challenge that never ended. I had never experienced life with dietary restrictions before then. The experiment helped grow awareness to what foods I consume, where they come from, and stimulated many questions around nutritional science and politics that I had never previously considered.
My first few days out of quarantine were difficult. I had been studying Mandarin intermittently over recent months but I was focused on the language as a whole. I assumed that I could simply look up vegan or vegetarian restaurants online and point to suitable menu items.
I’ve been cautious of falling into the more trendy vegan lifestyle. Vegan chefs are creating beautiful and tasty dishes, but I am coasting off of my life savings and living a relatively frugal lifestyle is a part of what enabled this opportunity to begin with. These are usually the types of restaurants you find on Google Maps, HappyCow, and other review sites. Sometimes more options can be found by searching in Chinese for 全素 (vegan) or 素食 (vegetarian food).
I found myself spending hours per meal to find a place within my dietary and budget constraints and many times they would be closed by the time I got there. It didn’t take long to realize that this mode of living wasn’t sustainable. Time is my greatest currency.
I learned that most people in Taiwan are more familiar with vegetarian food than vegan food. I practiced speaking 有素食嗎 (do you have vegetarian food) a few times in my hostel and then walked around asking as best as I could at every restaurant I stumbled across. Hearing 有 (yes, have), I’d enter. Hearing 沒有 (no, don’t have) or any indication that I wasn’t understood, I’d smile and say 謝謝, 掰掰 (thank you, bye bye). I have found plenty of options for under $4 CAD per meal in every district.
I was getting by quite well with the few phrases I had learned — if the owners didn’t speak English, another customer would run over and help. I value self-sufficiency so I continued to expand my vocabulary. It turned into a rewarding challenge. Milk and eggs are in almost everything — even most breads here. The next addition to my vocabulary was to ask 用牛奶嗎 (do you use milk) and 用雞蛋嗎 (do you use eggs).
The instant feedback was invaluable and the exercise served as good practice to not caring what others think. In most cases, people were appreciative that I was doing my best. Now I have handful of restaurants I cycle through as I continue to explore others.
I ate at one of my favourites just before closing one night in my first two weeks. I returned the next day for another dish but the place was gutted. I thought maybe they had an issue with the building. I was eager to support them when they reopened but it became clear that the restaurant was being refurnished into a foot massage parlour. I rehearsed 麵條店搬了嗎 to ask the new owner if the noodle shop had moved. He went out of his way to find the noodle shop owner and she thanked me for asking but she had since moved on.
I found another tiny vegetarian shop I would have never considered entering under my old mindset that food without meat was a waste of money. The shop is run by senior citizen women. There are just two small tables indoors, and another two small tables outside. I’ll occasionally explore the menu but in most cases the owners know exactly what I want — 紅燒麵 (braised noodles) — a noodle soup with mushrooms braised to perfection and a vegetarian broth that transcends language. This is one of those places where I have to remind myself that all things in life are impermanent. I’ll likely spend the rest of my life trying to recreate this dish but the experience of eating there and the connection with the owners is impossible to replicate.
I thought that this lifestyle choice would be isolating here — and in the first few weeks it was — but I’ve since met a lot of vegetarian, vegan, and vegan-friendly people. Friends and I cook together once a week. It is nice to have a home cooked meal every now and then. Grocery shopping, preparing, cooking, and cleaning feels like a lot of extra time and effort to eat alone at my computer desk. All of that is much more fun with good company. It’s also kind of nice to practice my Mandarin at restaurants and eat with strangers when that isn’t an option.