This blog-post needs to start with a disclaimer: This article is not for those hoping to read all about the fantastic cuisine found in Taiwan. Rather, it’s an account of the foodie adventures of two travellers with VERY specific diets and the comical situations which ensue as they try to find things they can actually eat…
This blog-post also needs something of a warning. A food warning, perhaps. If you’re one of the many people who despise pictures of food, or strange folk who take photos of their meals, you might find this article irritating. I’ve no idea when I started thinking it acceptable to photograph my food. I used to be in the camp of people who thought it very odd that anyone would want to take a picture of what they were about to eat, and even odder that others might actually want to see it.
But whilst travelling over the last year or so I’ve actually found something quite satisfying in sharing my food experiences. Maybe it’s that feeling of needing to share a joyous moment on social media. Food is usually a social experience, after all. And maybe the pictures garner interest because people are curious about what other people eat. It’s the same sort of curiosity I have at the supermarket, watching (and silently judging) other people’s purchases on the conveyor belt.
If instagram #foodporn ain’t your bag, I’d stop reading now if I were you…
Incidentally, if you are curious about the whole food-photography phenomenon, you can read an interesting article here: What does instagramming our food say about modern eaters?
Before I take you on a journey through the culinary delights and food oddities of Taiwan experienced so far, I really should explain a little bit about me and my partner’s specific eating habits.
We’re both on the hippy side of the table when it comes to food. We like our nosh fresh, organic and unadulterated, with as little negative environmental impact as possible. The more sustainably we can eat the better, which entails forgoing most processed rubbish and fastfood places. Sustainable eating also means we prefer to eat a mostly meat-free diet. I still like to treat myself to fish and even the odd venison steak here and there (with the justification that venison can’t be commercially farmed in the same intense way as other animals), but for the most part we both exclude living creatures from our meals.
Our avoidance of industrially-farmed animal products also includes everything dairy. This was a huge leap for me last year. I had always struggled to justify being a vegetarian while still consuming dairy products. If you’re against the treatment of animals as commodities, then you can’t carry on supporting an industry that abuses cows and goats in the way the dairy industry does. It just felt like a contradiction to my beliefs.
I’ve now done without milk, cheese or butter for about three months. This means more than just pouring oat milk on my cornflakes instead of the regular white stuff. This has meant giving up cake, biscuits and ice cream, as well as a whole range of other foods that contain milk or butter. Now, for anyone who knows me well, the thought of Mark without cake is akin to Homer Simpson without his donuts. Or Patsy Stone without alcohol. The challenge of finding vegan-friendly (palatable!) cake has been a tough one, but not impossible.
Nevertheless, I’m still going along with this diet and oddly don’t miss the sweet stuff as much as I thought I would. Even cheese has lost its appeal, which has left me wondering whether, like sugar, there’s something in it that makes you crave it while you’re consuming it most days of the week. I can now do beans on toast without handfuls of cheddar. Pizzas are a thing of the past. Jacket potatoes are devoid of sprinklings of red Leicester. Okay, so all of this initially sounds fairly appetising to me, but then I only have to visualise the stress and trauma endured by the cow to produce bucket after bucket of milk, not to mention the gunk that is actually in milk before it’s processed (think pus, blood and hair) and that wedge of brie suddenly seems very different.
My partner has much the same attitude towards the meat and dairy industry, but his diet is also affected by an intolerance to dairy products that leaves him feeling fairly crap after eating it. Add to that a gluten-intolerance too, and you can say goodbye to enjoying anything involving noodles, bread or pasta made from wheat.
So this leaves you with two bumbling travellers who are trying to find sustenance in a country that doesn’t speak their language (much) while avoiding meat, dairy and wheat. Fun times. What follows is an account of some of our experiences of food while in Taiwan.
If you’re a pescatarian in Taiwan, the options are fantastic. An island culture with a strong Japanese influence is bound to have a rich menu of seafood. Likewise if you love meat, there are countless dishes involving pork, beef, duck or chicken. Chinese and Taiwanese people endured long periods of poverty in the past, when meat was truly a luxury only the rich and powerful could afford. Now in modern times with a rising middle class, meat is eaten at every opportunity.
While finding meals made mostly of meat is a breeze, finding food from a sustainable, organic provenance is not. This wasn’t a huge surprise to us to be fair, but it makes it no less frustrating.
The Taiwanese generally have a very different idea about nutrition, which results in confusion and amusement whenever they realise you don’t/can’t eat meat, dairy produce or wheat. Even the words gluten, vegetarian and dairy appear to have different connotations here in Taiwan. For example, when one of our Taiwanese friends helpfully gave us the symbol for “vegetarian” we used it enthusiastically, pleased that finally we might have food we were happy to eat. Imagine our surprise and mild horror when things still turned up with pork or beef floating in them. It turns out that the word “vegetarian” is used far more loosely and actually refers more to the Buddhist avoidance of onion and garlic, which are pungent aliums both reputed to encourage heated desires (!) This explains why in one restaurant we tried to add slices of onion and spoonfuls of garlic sauce to our meal from the buffet, only to be stopped by the servers who frantically indicated that as vegetarians, this food really wasn’t meant for us!!
Meat and fish are handled very openly here in Taiwan, with stalls displaying severed heads and piles of body parts that most shops in the UK would never reveal. Our culture of meat consumption is so divorced from the source that seeing staring eyes and bloody entrails would shock most Westerners. Here it’s not unusual to see and even choose your meal while it’s still alive and kicking.
I kind of have a strange respect for people who are still happy to eat another being after seeing it living and breathing just before they eat it. I sort of think it shows they’re being real about where their food came from. It also makes me wonder if they have slight sociopathic tendencies, but I still admire them somewhat if they can tuck into something that stares back, in the same way most blokes admire Bear Grylls spearing something edible on a desert island. People who say “aaaw, little piggies, so cute” and balk at the sight of a pig’s head on a plate (“eewww, that’s awful!”) only to then start tucking into a bacon sandwich, are the sort of deluded idiots I’d happily punch in the face. (#justsayin)
In order to provide food for so many carnivores, there can be no doubt that animals raised in Taiwan are done so on a huge scale, with little regard for their welfare. Taiwan claims to have the cleanest pork, but I doubt any of those pigs see daylight while they’re being sanitised and sterilised on a cocktail of antibiotics before we consume them (incidentally, China is named as the biggest consumer of antibiotics in the world, with more than half the world’s pigs kept in this country alone. As a result scientists have recently raised concerns about drug-resistant antibiotics and warn that unless things change, we could be facing a global catastrophe where even a simple operation could kill you. Less meat, anyone?) I’d like to add that I’m not having a dig at Taiwan in particular in this post – the problem is global. Taiwan is just a current frame of reference and one of many examples.
Check out these articles if you’re interested in reading more about the escalating use of antibiotics and the future implications for human health: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/854711,
My point is that even if Nate and I were happy to consume meat, we’d have no idea where it was from or how the animal was treated before it reached our plates. My taste for fish has waned considerably since being here, especially after seeing huge vats and reservoirs out in the countryside of Taiwan, where hundreds of thousands of fish are raised for the table. I can’t help but wonder how cramped they are and what they are fed on, or how contaminated with metals their flesh is before I consume it.
The same goes for eggs. At no point have we encountered any labels or symbols indicating free-range. At present we’re both eating eggs to keep up our protein (and because they just taste so bloody good!), but after seeing huge poultry farms out in the fields, with thousands of birds crowded in small, brown pens, my desire to buy and eat eggs out here is also diminishing. Thoughts like this really kill my appetite for anything!
An aspect of Taiwanese food culture we’ve really enjoyed are the renowned night markets. Food is such an important part of Taiwanese daily life and people gather together to enjoy meals as a social event. The Western culture of sitting quietly in a peaceful restaurant is fairly alien here; Food is meant to be enjoyed with gusto, loudly and excitedly! The markets are riots of colour, sounds and smells, with so many strange and wonderful things on offer. If you’re the sort of person who turns their nose up at establishments that look about as clean as a public toilet in Peckham, you’d be missing out in Taiwan. Some of the tastiest food we’ve had has been wolfed down in these dirty, run-down places.
Some of our favourite snacks here have been little green onion pancakes, also called scallion pancakes. Another breakfast favourite has been Dan Bing, which are pancake-like wraps smothered in a sweet brown sauce. You can check out a video of them being made here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQ7iieZaQWE
For most of our meals, we’ve found lots of vegetarian buffets throughout Taiwan. For the discerning vegan/veggie, these joints are perfect as they offer a wide selection of different vegetables, tofu and mushrooms, while being astonishly cheap. We have found most of them using an app called HappyCow (http://www.happycow.net/), which locates and rates places that serve vegan and vegetarian food. Among the gems we’ve found using this app are chain buffets like Minder Vegetarian and Loving Hut, as well as little independent places like Vegan Heaven cafe in Jiaoxi (perfect for soy lattes and CAKE) and Ming Yuan Vegetarian in Hualien, where we ate some of the best veggie food we’ve ever had. If you log into the HappyCow website or app and search for the above, you’ll find them easily.
Taiwanese dessert is also a strange experience, as they tend to use beans for sweet things rather than savoury. There are loads of colourful little shops devoted to this bean and sweet tofu dessert, where you can tuck into tapioca balls and jelly in an odd sweet soup.
Another dessert is shaved ice, usually flavoured with mango or other fruit. At one place Nate had peanut-flavoured ice with spoonfuls of beans to go with it!
Our experiences of finding and then ordering food have been consistently fun-filled and hilarious. The language barrier has made things predictably challenging, but details about how much we wanted or what we wanted or what we were prepared to eat have always caused huge complications for everyone involved. Nevertheless, the wonderful people here are immensely patient and ever-smiling throughout all of the proceedings and I’m genuinely touched by how accommodating the Taiwanese are (a good thing too, seeing as they’re dealing with two extremely fastidious eaters!)
No doubt there will be many more ludicrous and entertaining food adventures to come here in Taiwan. Our next mission is to successfully prepare dairy-free, meat-free meals at home using ingredients bought at the markets. Chances are the results will be uploaded to a social media feed near you soon…