For the travelling vegetarian, Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, can actually be a great experience – at least if you stay in the capital Taipei. I have last been travelling there for Wikimania in July 2007.
Vegetarianism in popular culture
Vegetarianism in Taiwan is certainly not the same as in western countries, but the concept is well-known in relation to Buddhism. So many locals may not quite understand the intentions of a young western foreigner asking for food without meat. A printed phrase list (see below) helps a lot. Once you convey the idea, you may even meet approval – at least I got surprisingly positive reactions from a hotel employee who was astonished by the fact that I would confine myself to vegetarianism at such a young age already (maybe he was expecting religious motives).
The food of Taiwan is strange and exciting. This is good once you found out what is vegetarian, but it can be tricky when you go unprepared. In particular, you will find it extremely hard to tell whether something is vegetarian or not just by looking or even by tasting (which you may or may not care about in this case …).
As in China, even things like sweet rolls may contain unexpected fillings, and most dishes do not reveal much of their ingredients when looking at them. Stuffed dumplings, for instance, are rather popular. I was in the lucky situation of having many people around me who spoke both Chinese and English. Without such help, one probably has to rely on the phrases below, and maybe have a look at Wikipedia's category on Taiwanese cuisine.
One special dish I encountered in Taipei is the so-called stinky tofu. It is a kind of tofu stew sold in the streets, but its strong, slightly sour odour will rather make you believe that you just hit a very bad corner of the city. I do not know whether the street version is strictly vegetarian, but I tried some in a restaurant and found it quite – well – interesting. At least it does not quite taste like it smells. So, travelling vegetarian, don't fear the stinky tofu!
For breakfast Denny and I both found it most convenient to go to good old Starbucks, instead of having the Chinese savoury breakfast which includes no bread but watery rice, and may even feature whole fishes. Western breakfast in my hotel meant very greasy French toast and fried eggs (using my Chinese phrase sheet, I convinced them to leave away the bacon). Refreshing fruit drinks and the famous Bubble tea are served in local juice bars, though you may have a hard time reading the Chinese menues.
The language of Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, written in traditional letters. Especially younger people in bigger cities will often speak some amount of English, but it is not enough to rely on when ordering food. Here are some phrases I gathered from the web. Showing them when ordering food worked well for me.
I am vegetarian.
- wŏ zhĭ chī sùshí
I cannot eat meat.
- wŏ bù néng chī ròu, yīnwèi wŏ chī sù
I cannot eat seafood.
- wŏ bù néng chī hăixiàn, yīnwèi wŏ chī sù
I can eat eggs.
- wŏ kĕyĭ chī dàn
I can eat dairy products.
- wŏ kĕyĭ chī rŭzhìpĭn
I can eat onions and garlic.
- wŏ kĕyĭ chī cōng hé dàsuàn
- sùshí cāntīng
- hăo chī
Places to eat
The only specifically vegetarian restaurant I have been to was Jendow Vegetarian in Taipei, and it certainly ranks among the best vegetarian restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to dine in. We went there multiple times, together with many non-vegetarians in our group who also enjoyed the experience. The Jendow is an upper-class "all-you-can-eat" buffet restaurant with such a broad selection of dishes that you cannot try all of them on one evening. A great experience to try out a large variety of dishes in the "safety" of a trusted restaurant.
To get there, take a taxi and show them the below address, printed out. Taxis are rather cheap even if they take you through the whole city. If you have a good grasp of Chinese, you can also try to find more details on their website.
Besides this, I have not seen any restaurants during my short stay since Wikimania has catered very well for us. At the base level of 101, you will find a large food court that also offers sufficient vegetarian options.
I got my breakfast at Starbucks, which is a good resource if you long for something close to western coffee.
Tips are not desired and not accepted. Take your change.