Greens Are Good For You
The many tasty desserts featured in Taiwan's all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet can satisfy even the choosiest of taste buds. (Photo by Huang Chung-hsin)
By ZOE CHENG
As people become more health-conscious, vegetarianism is no longer confined to the strictly religious but is becoming a fashionable cuisine style.
Many vegetarians think that Taiwan is a culinary paradise. Hsieh Kuo-cheng has been a vegetarian for 17 years and has lived in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore and Hong Kong.
But for the vegetarian lifestyle there is no place like home. "In comparison, Taiwan has higher density of vegetarians. Vegetarian foods available here are much more diversified, fresher, and also very creative," Hsieh says.
According to the 2007 Almanac of Food Consumption Survey in Taiwan (AFCST) by the Council of Agriculture, occasional and committed vegetarians account for 14 percent of Taiwan's population, up 2 percentage points from two years ago. Including upstream suppliers, manufacturers, restaurants and retailers, the total production value of this sector is now worth NT$ 4 billion (US$120 million), 60 percent of which is exported. The high density of vegetarians not only gives rise to a sizable food industry catering to them, even kindergartens and nursery schools see offering meat-free meals as a selling point.
Vegetarianism is not new to Taiwan but historically it was practiced mainly at ceremonial occasions. The General History of Taiwan, written by Lien Heng, and first published in 1920, recorded that the diet in Taiwan mostly followed that of Fujian and Guangdong provinces in China, from whence the ancestors of most Taiwanese originated.
These areas had well-stocked fisheries along the coast and herds of deer in the mountains so, not surprisingly, people were all meat-eaters. Usually at religious ceremonies people would abstain from meat. Vegetarianism in Taiwan probably derives from the religious practices of Buddhism and Taoism.
The Art of Imitation
Taiwan is an immigrant society and religious beliefs, such as Buddhism or Taoism among immigrants were very widespread. Whenever people held religious ceremonies, particularly ones to worship the highest gods in the pantheons, such as Yuhuangdadih, they had to present rich offerings, including either five or three kinds of animals, such as a whole pig or a whole ram. Vegetarians would have to present the same offerings, but could make them out of flour, only imitating meat. The skills needed for this kind of preparation may well be the origin of the local dexterity with vegetarian cuisine.
Strict Buddhists in Taiwan don't consume meat, eggs and foods they regard as stimulating or desire-enhancing such as leeks, scallions, onions, garlic and alcoholic beverages. Apart from eggs, Ikuan-Taoists follow a similar dietary regime. Dairy products are not excluded because they are not regarded as violating the religious code of ahimsa--the principle of non-violence toward living things. Other believers may abstain from meat for only short periods of time, often between six and 10 days, or on the first and the 15th day of each lunar month for religious purposes. Today the bulk of vegetarians in Taiwan still choose to be so for religious reasons.
Over the past five decades, vegetarian foods have become increasingly elaborate. The food styles are mostly inspired by the gastronomic culture of China, which stresses culinary skills and the balance between taste, texture, color and aroma. To make a meat-free and onion or garlic-free yet tasty dish requires creativity.
Traditional to the Chinese vegetarian way is the production of meat substitutes. Using only flour, soybeans, mushrooms and konjac extract, almost any meat dish, be it meatballs, shark fin soup, mutton pot soup or "Buddha Jumps over the Wall," can be reproduced in an authentic-tasting vegetarian version. Such imitation meat dishes are usually deemed a necessity at a formal meal to demonstrate the host's hospitality, because their meat counterparts used to be consumed mainly by royalty or the rich. It is perhaps ironic that the quality of a vegetarian feast is, therefore, usually assessed according to how similar it duplicates its meat equivalent. From this idea of imitation, a variety of products, going way beyond the familiar tofu or vegetarian sausage or ham, have been commercially developed.
Ten-In Food Co. is a recipient of an ISO 22000 international standard in food safety and a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-certified food manufacturer. It is also a good example of the development of Taiwan's vegetarian food industry. Ten-In started business in 1985 as a banquet caterer, cooking Chinese-style vegetarian food for festive occasions. To cater for a banquet involving 3,000 round tables--around 30,000 guests--is not uncommon for Ten-In. Its solid reputation has won the company some rare business opportunities, including an invitation to cook for monks at a ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the king of Thailand's ascension to the throne last year. The company has a reputation for making a vegetarian lifestyle easier and healthier without sacrificing any of the pleasures of the table.
Creating New Styles
"People used to be under the impression that vegetarian foods were strongly flavored and tasted bad. In fact, those problems were solved long ago. We use no monosodium glutamate, artificial coloring or genetically modified soybeans. Experience has taught us how to combine various materials in order to make fine-tasting dishes," says Arwin Yu, special assistant to Ten-In's general manager.
To meet the growing demand for vegetarian produce, Ten-In set up a manufacturing facility in 1999. The company now produces more than 200 kinds of vacuumed-packed foods, ranging from vegetarian steak to Chinese-style soups, hot pot ingredients and meatballs.
Ten-In is a typical manufacturer with traditional ideas about what a vegetarian diet should be, and which develops products accordingly. On the other end of the innovation spectrum is Jen Dow Vegetarian (JDV) buffet, the first European-style vegan buffet to open in Taiwan in 1982, which has inspired a number of imitators. JDV offers all-you-can-eat buffets of some 200 meatless, egg-free dishes in a variety of styles, such as Hong Kong dim sum, Japanese sashimi, spicy Thai-style food, Italian pasta and pizza and, of course, Taiwanese-style dishes. At NT$600 (US$18) per head, JDV's buffets are, in fact, charging customers the same as other buffets in other restaurants serving meat. Since vegetarian food has traditionally been thought of as cheaper than those with meat, JDV's is certainly a new business model. "In the beginning, people in this business thought it was impossible to get diners to pay more for vegetarian food," says Kuo Fang-liang, president of JDV. "But in the end our model has proved so successful that a lot of restaurants in central and southern Taiwan started to copy us. But they can only copy the hardware. Some of them use cheap materials and as a result their food is of low quality and often ends up being thrown out."
To draw in a larger and more diverse range of customers, Kuo doesn't particularly target religious vegetarians, nor do his restaurants try to cultivate a religious atmosphere. "Eating should be an enjoyable experience. So we don't play religious music or create that kind of atmosphere. Rather, we emphasize health consciousness and adhere to the dietary principle of low fat, low calories and high fiber," he says. As well as a chain of restaurants in Taiwan, JDV has now expanded to China. The company shows that vegetarian food can be a style of cuisine all of its own, and can be a trendy alternative even among regular meat eaters.
Seeking New Customers
If JDV is a little expensive for some pockets, other restaurants aim lower down the market. Easy House Vegetarian Cuisine for example, can still satisfy customers craving for a new eating experience. The restaurant style is light on the soybean products commonly used in vegetarian meals, instead its dishes are based on vegetables and fruit. Easy House, therefore, use a variety of plants accompanied with many kinds of grains, nuts and mushrooms to produce what it calls a "cuisine without borders."
Easy House wants to educate customers about food appreciation and expand their understanding of what food is about. The restaurant serves set meals revolving around one of 18 main courses such as "milk and vegetable clay pot," "truffle fried rice," "vanilla and rosemary vegetable" and "wild mushroom Taiwanese noodle." All these dishes are invented by Sam Hsu, a master chef formerly working for a highly prestigious restaurant and now the vice president of Easy House. Hsu intentionally avoids the traditional way of cooking which favors thickening, strong seasoning and is usually very oily. "Customers can eat at least 40 kinds of vegetables, nuts or fruits by having just one set menu," says Howard Hu, a co-owner of Easy House.
"People can usually identify two smells at Taiwan's traditional vegetarian cafeterias, soybeans and Chinese herbs. But our meals are a totally new experience for customers," Hsu says with confidence. Originally Hu thought no one would be willing to spend NT$300-450 (US$9-14) for a vegetarian set meal. But close observation of the market showed that vegetarian caterers in Taiwan came in three types: the western style buffet, small canteens serving a simple Chinese buffet, and feasts commonly held on festive occasions or for religious celebrations. He decided there was room for medium-priced yet high-toned restaurants to grow and with Huang Chiong-Ying opened Easy House four years ago, the seventh branch of which has just opened.
"Eighty percent of our customers are not permanent vegetarians," Hu says. "I think the market potential for vegetarian food is big, as long as it goes beyond the religious in its target marketing. With more businesses joining in, consumers will gradually develop a new way of thinking about vegetarian food." He thinks that vegetarian food is really just a dietary choice and should not be loaded with ethical or religious significance. If it tastes good, people will choose to eat it.
Health Consciousness Counts
Hu has also found that he has far more younger customers than he originally expected. "To my surprise, some customers who you would think more likely to patronize Burger King or TGI Friday show up at Easy House," says Hu, who previously spent many years in the fast food business.
For teenagers, giving a new style of vegetarian food a try is considered fashionable or "cool." This might only be a current fad, but Hu thinks growing health consciousness means that a vegetarian diet will not go out of fashion.
Waves of immigrants coming to Taiwan during the last four centuries have all made their own contributions to the diversified diet in Taiwan today. "Some people from India and the United States, who were searching for Chinese vegetarian cuisines, have approached us for overseas franchise rights," Hu says. The flavors of the dishes will naturally be localized once they expand into overseas markets, and of course, "we won't forget to tell customers, particularly Americans, to mind the hard beans when chewing," says Hu, pointing to the specially baked beans mixed within salads to enhance the chewing texture of the food.
The abundant and convenient supplies of a great variety of seasonal vegetables and fruit also contribute to the freshness and diversity of vegetarian foods in Taiwan, though supplies are sometimes affected by natural disasters such as typhoons. Increasing public awareness of health and environmental protection issues, especially dietary concerns, means that ever-larger quantities of these foodstuffs are grown organically, to woo health-conscious consumers. Corporate Taiwan has stood up and taken notice. Even groups not previously associate with health food such as Formosa Plastics Corp., are moving into the organic vegetable business. Eyeing the new food trend, the Council of Agriculture is making efforts to increase the proportion of Taiwan's amount of produce grown organically, currently only about 1 percent.
To some extent, the growing vegetarian population in Taiwan mirrors the global trend of health consciousness.
When the vegetarian lifestyle starts to appeal to people for reasons other than religious piety, people are freer to experiment with new kinds of food and this, in turn, will influence the kinds of food available. Currently, creativity and quality have played major roles in winning over more dinners to vegetarian fare. But being delicious is always the prerequisite.