"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Monday, August 16, 2010

Vegan and Vegetarian Cuisine in Taiwan (Part 1 of 4)

As a die-hard omnivore, I have an inbred suspicion toward the word, “vegan.” Although my brain understands that some of my favorite foods can be quite easily vegan – chocolates, baguette, salads… Well, I have to admit that my imagination dries up there: if I started counting mango, papaya, dragon fruits, etc., it would be kind of cheating, wouldn’t it? However, what little did I know about the world of Taiwanese veganism! I am not talking about soy milk, tapioca pearls, grass jelly, taro pearls, sweet soft tofu and the endless variations of shaved ice, although on which I will happily substitute for three months, or longer, if you will allow me to include dairy products so that I can have my naisu bread (奶酥麺包 – an addictive concoction of butter and powdered milk, used as filling of bread, such as “the bomb,” in its most glorious form) as well. I digress. Here, I am talking about real and actual dishes, cuisines, creations or whatever you may call them, some of which are more real than Madame Tussauds’ wax figures (well, they are tacky anyway).

My first cognizant encounter of vegetarian food in Taiwan was at 佰菇園 (baiguyuen – a garden of hundred mushrooms – but please do not rely on my pinying): I went there to humor my vegetarian hosts who were graceful enough to suffer my free board for two weeks and also to bolster my vegetable intake as my body was getting worried to live on mostly carbohydrate. This restaurant was a part of a hot pot chain focused on literally a hundred kinds of mushrooms domestic to Taiwan and foreign. Of course, I had to pick the most enticing mushroom on the menu – the monkey head – among other kinds which my memory just could not retain. The key to a good hot pot, if you do not know, is the soup base: The ingredients otherwise can be mediocre (of course, the better the ingredients, the better the end product, what do you expect?) but the hot pot will still come out fine. Their soup was made of Chinese herbs and mushrooms, yet it did not have the typical medicinal and bitter taste of such herbs; in fact, it was quite delicious. Into this soup, we dumped in mushrooms, vegetables, konnyaku (a kind of jelly-like food, with no calories but lots of fiber, made from an indigenous root in Japan), tofu, and various vegan balls.* These vegan balls would have fooled me if we had not ordered a vegetarian course. Nevertheless, the hurdle of this first round seemed too low because, after all, we were having a hot pot of mushrooms, not exactly a full course vegan extravaganza. I have to mention, just in case you are vegan, the hot-pot vegetarian course comes with hand-made, freshly steamed mini buns, to be dipped into sweet, condensed milk. I am sorry if you are truly vegan because it was good. On the other hand, this is cheating, isn’t it?: How can anything to do with condensed milk be bad?

*A common ingredient in a hot pot is “fish cakes,” as translated on restaurant menus in the U.S. I think this translation is erroneous. These are not cakes: These are more correctly translated as “balls.” The main ingredient of these balls is usually fish (although sometimes shrimp), pounded into a paste and rolled into balls. Therefore, as you now know, they have nothing to do with “cakes.”

My Quest in Taiwan will continue tomorrow... Stay tuned.

Restaurant Info:

佰菇園:  台北市仁愛路4段71巷17號 (02-8773-3160)

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