Fenqihu (奮起湖) train lunch box served in a bamboo box.

Fenqihu (奮起湖) train lunch served in a bamboo box.

This guest post was written by Seattle vegan and frequent Taiwan backpacker, Brett Boynton. Brett’s tea blog, which currently contains over 30 of his own Taiwan travel stories, can be found at blackdragonteabar.blogspot.com

Taiwan is a vibrant and beautiful island filled with great people, incredible tea, and abundant delicious vegan food. It is not difficult to find all of the above even if your Guoyu (Taiwan’s word for Mandarin) (國語) is limited to Xiexie (謝謝) (thank you) and Ni Hao (你好) (hello). The key is to have a few phrases written in Chinese before you travel.

Veggie Dim sum (素的點心)!

Veggie Dim sum (素的點心)!

Lucky for us, Taiwan is home to many practicing vegans and countless vegetarians, some of whom regularly update websites and blogs with vegan tips and restaurant reviews. Before you go, search the web, and your guidebooks, for restaurants that sound intriguing. Write down, or print out, their names and addresses in Chinese as well as English.

Hotel breakfast with congee (粥), toast, veggies and tofu (豆腐)

Hotel breakfast with congee (粥), toast, veggies and tofu (豆腐)

As a vegan in Taiwan, the Chinese word Su (素) will quickly become your best friend. It means “simple” but is commonly used to mean “vegetarian.” If you see it on a sign or a menu, the chances that you can eat something are pretty good (though not 100%). When ordering food at a new restaurant try opening with wǒ chī sù (我吃素), meaning “I eat vegetarian.” If they can’t understand you, show them the printed Chinese. Things will only get easier as your Mandarin skills improve and probably after a few days in Taiwan you’ll master several more advanced phrases such as wǒ bù chī jīdàn (我不吃雞蛋) meaning “I don’t eat eggs” and wǒ xǐhuan dàsuàn (我喜歡大蒜) meaning “I like garlic” (which, along with onion, is not considered Su).

Steamed taro bread (饅頭) and fresh soy milk (豆漿) for breakfast

Steamed taro bread (饅頭) and fresh soy milk (豆漿) for breakfast

For the most part, vegan foods in Taiwan will seem really cheap. You can self-cater with lots of fresh exotic fruits, tasty snacks and street foods, from numerous grocery stores, night markets and convenience stores. There is a popular breakfast chain called Yong He Doujiang Wang (Eternal Peace Soymilk King) (永和豆漿王) and while they aren’t exclusively vegetarian, they do make fresh soy milk every day. At Yong He, you can order a cup of soy milk and a vegetarian steamed bun (sùcàibāo 素菜包) for about $1 US.

A quick lunch from a Buddhist buffet

A quick lunch from a Buddhist buffet

Another great option for vegan backpackers in Taiwan are the Buddhist buffets (素食自助餐) which you’ll find all over the island. Upon entering these restaurants you will see greens, rice, faux meats, soup, buns, and noodles presented on large tables. It’s all vegetarian, but some dishes may contain mayonnaise (these are easy to spot) and some of the dessert cakes may contain eggs or cream. Best to avoid them if you’re not sure. After you’ve got the lay of the land, find a paper tray and a pair of metal tongs and then go to town grabbing tasty bites. Be careful that your eyes are not bigger than your stomach, but don’t worry too much about the cost. After you get all the food you need, they will weigh your plate and give you a total. They may then ask you if you want a bowl of rice which usually adds an extra $0.30. Your whole meal will probably end up costing less than $3.00 US. Wash down your meal with a bowl of thin, nourishing soup which is included in the price of you meal, so help yourself.

Best fried tofu ever

Best fried tofu ever

If you feel like treating yourself to a truly innovative and delectable meal, most of Taiwan’s major cities do have a handful of fancy vegetarian restaurants including the world’s only totally-vegan international chain restaurant, Loving Hut (愛家). The total cost will certainly be comparable to or cheaper than Western vegetarian restaurants. I have had wonderful experiences at Taipei’s Kuan Xin Yuan (寬心園) restaurant and Lavender Garden Restaurant (天母古道森林花園).

Fresh fruit

Fresh fruit

During my time in Taiwan I have really come to love the island and it’s amazing vegan-friendly food culture. This post barely scratches the surface of all the culinary and cultural treasures Taiwan has to offer vegan backpackers.