Taiwan: Veggie Heaven
With rising health-consciousness, vegetarian restaurants are enjoying a boom. And predominantly Buddhist Taiwan is riding the crest of the veggie wave, with innovative gourmet restaurants that even carnivores adore.
Taiwan: Veggie HeavenBy Hsu Yue-ru
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 464 )
"I didn't expect to find a place in the world where vegetarian food is even more abundant than in India, but in Taiwan you can find vegetarian food on every street corner," exclaims Pradeep Rawat, director general of the India-Taipei Association. Forty percent of India's population is vegetarian, because many Indian religions forbid meat consumption. Therefore, India is home to more vegetarians than any other country in the world. There, even the hamburger chain McDonalds offers several vegetarian burger choices.
When Rawat arrived for his posting in Taiwan three years ago, he was surprised to find vegetarian cuisine for every palate and every budget, always close at hand. For Rawat, whose three-generation family is strictly vegetarian, this was a major relief.
Any traditional food market in Taiwan will have at least one stall that sells vegetarian noodle dishes, and virtually every restaurant has vegetarian items on the menu. Low-priced vegetarian cafeterias can be found on every street corner. There are also a growing number of upscale vegetarian restaurants, some with stylish interior designs, others able to host formal banquets. The convenience stores that can be found in every neighborhood always save some space on their shelves for vegetarian products. And even wedding banquets will have at least one table with vegetarian food.
Unofficial statistics suggest that about 10 percent of Taiwan's population sticks to a vegetarian diet on a daily basis, which is worldwide the second highest percentage behind India. But as society increasingly focuses on health and fitness, more and more people have become "flexible vegetarians," only occasionally eating meat, and Taiwan's vegetarian food market is becoming more sophisticated and enticing.
Sufood – A Beautiful Surprise
When Shen Yao-hua quit her job as PR manager for the Test Rite Group at the end of 2010 to work for international accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong, her friends wanted to give her a farewell dinner. Shen, notorious for her discerning palate, gave them a hard nut to crack: "Surprise me."
When the appetizer appeared – Japanese yams drizzled with blueberry coulis, red and yellow bellpepper tightly bundled with stalky greens, and cherry tomatoes in transparent konjac jelly, served on a rectangular, white ceramic plate – Shen's eyes lit up, and she gushed, "How beautiful."
The place her friends took her was Sufood, a new vegetarian restaurant in downtown Taipei that opened less than half a year ago. A look around the restaurant shows that its patrons are mostly fashionably dressed women in their middle years.
Ironically, Sufood became a commercial success quite against the expectations of its owner, the Wowprime Group, which operates the largest number of chain restaurants in Taiwan, including the popular Wang Steak House chain.
"Last year, when there was all this talk about global warming and they said that cattle causes the most carbon dioxide emissions, the reporters all asked our chairman what Wang Steak, as the largest beef consumer in Taiwan, could do to help the planet," recalls Wowprime vice chairman Endy Wang.
Wowprime chairman Steve Day's response was to open Sufood, as a single vegetarian restaurant, not a chain. He saw Sufood more as a philanthropic venture to support a good cause and was ready to take a loss.
Yet Sufood turned profits sooner than any other brand under the Wowprime Group. Within two months the restaurant broke even, and from the third month on it turned a profit. "I think there's potential for opening 30 restaurants within five years," predicts Endy Wang with enthusiasm.
The culinary creations at Sufood give full play to vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains. Vegetarian chicken and other meat substitutes widely featured in Taiwanese vegetarian cooking are not on the menu. Sufood has proven such a resounding success because its refined cuisine and food presentation appeal to yuppies who are health-conscious but not necessarily strictly vegetarian.
"When we try out new menus, we ask heavy meat eaters to taste our food. Our goal is that when they are finished with their meal, they will have completely forgotten they didn't eat any meat," says Endy Wang.
"In the beginning the other Wowprime brands didn't think we had much of a chance," Wang admits. Given that only 10 percent of Taiwan's population are vegetarians, there does not seem to be much market potential for vegetarian eateries at first sight. Wowprime Group brands such as the Tasty steak house chain and Japanese-style Taoban Wu have vegetarian options on their menus, but sell no more than four or five such meals a day per outlet.
"Our goal is not that 10 percent. We're going for the entire 100 percent, targeting meat eaters and vegetarians alike," Wang declares. "We position ourselves exactly the same way as a restaurant catering to meat eaters."
Only 20 percent of Sufood's regular customers are strict vegetarians. "I have been laughing at other brands, because they can only go for 90 percent of the market, whereas we can go for 100 percent," says Wang with satisfaction.
Another success story is the medium-priced vegetarian restaurant chain Easy House, which posted 30-percent revenue growth in 2009. Launched seven years ago, the chain has grown to ten outlets in Taiwan and is planning to enter the China market this year with a restaurant in Shanghai.
"About 85 percent of our guests usually eat meat. Since they get to eat a lot of meat, they don't need to eat vegetarian chicken or vegetarian meat substitutes when they come here," notes Easy House general manager Wu Chia-hao. "Vegetarian cuisine is not much different from ordinary cooking, it only uses different ingredients. A steak house uses beef, whereas we use veggies and fruit, which can equally be turned into very tasty dishes."
From Minority Market to Niche
"Flexible vegetarians have turned vegetarian food from a minority market into a niche," observes Chen Li-ting, a researcher at the Food Industry Research and Development Institute (FIRDI).
Flexible vegetarians cut back on meat consumption for health, environmental or ethical reasons, or because it's the latest trend, but they do not completely eliminate meat from their diet. For example 48.6 percent of consumers in Taiwan are ready to follow "Meatless Monday" appeals, having one meatless day per week.
Taiwan is veggie heaven – the world's number 1 when it comes to convenience. From the typical streetside cafeterias, where meals cost less than NT$100, to chic establishments where a set menu can cost more than NT$1,000, Taiwan's vegetarian choices are many and omnipresent.
"From streetside vegetarian noodle stalls, to cheap cafeterias, to European-style buffets, to high-end vegetarian banquets, Taiwan has it all," proclaims Yu Ya-wen, assistant to the general manager of Ten-in Vegetarian Food, a leading maker of vegetarian foodstuffs.
Walk into any convenience store, and you'll find a wide array of meat-free selections, from microwave veggie dishes to vegetarian instant noodles with their own spice packets. As the Lunar New Year draws closer, many people preorder traditional New Year's dishes from caterers. At a recent tasting of vegetarian New Year's dishes, many of the judges exclaimed with surprise, "That's even tastier than the meat version."
Indeed, many Taiwanese vegetarians have been spoiled by the convenience of Taiwan. They only realize how good they have it when they travel abroad.
"Traveling to Japan as a vegetarian is really inconvenient. You always need to make preparations in advance, or you'll be forced to eat steamed buns with canned food," Yu laments.
Compared to other countries, Taiwan has quite a high ratio of people who regularly eat out. As a result, there is also a high number of restaurants that cater exclusively to vegetarian diners. Even the exclusive Silks Palace restaurant at the National Palace Museum offers vegetarian set menus.
The high-end Yu Shan Ge, which serves traditional Japanese multi-course dinners, opened in Taipei and Kaohsiung in 2003. "We wanted to take vegetarian food to another plane," notes Yu Shan Ge chairman Chen Chien-chih.
"The wealthy wives who are active in the (Buddhist) Tzu Chi Foundation need a place to entertain guests. You can't tell them to eat at a cheap cafeteria," notes Ho Li, a former reporter with the foundation's TV station Da-Ai Television.
Taiwan's vegetarian cuisine is also unrivalled when it comes to culinary creativity and mouthwatering taste.
Before launching a new brand, the Wowprime Group usually does thorough fact-finding overseas. But when launching Sufood, "we couldn't find a suitable place abroad," reveals Endy Wang. So they toured veggie food heaven Taiwan instead.
"At Easy House a multi-course meal can contain up to 45 different kinds of vegetables. In other countries, that's a tough act to follow," declares Easy House chairwoman Huang Chiung-ying. She prides herself on the fact that Soji Hiraide, founder of the Kanpai Yakiniku restaurants, visits Easy House on each trip to Taiwan. "He says he can't get that kind of vegetarian food in Japan," Huang recalls. In Japan as well, some 10 percent of the population is strictly vegetarian. But as Hiraide admits, tastewise, Taiwan's vegetarian food comes out on top.
Riding on the health and fitness wave and boosted by efforts to rein in global warming, vegetarian cuisine has developed from a minority market into a flourishing niche market. And thanks to Taiwan's innovative potential in the culinary arts and its abundant and varied supply of fresh, high-quality produce, vegetarian cuisine has become a new bright spot in the island's food landscape.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz