Vegan Restaurants which Aren't Vegan

Taiwan is one of the most vegan-friendly countries in the world, however it's not nearly as vegan-friendly as first meets the eye. Besides problems with fake meat, most Taiwanese confuse veganism and vegetarianism, in Chinese (and of course in English) and many owners of non-vegan restaurants do so deliberately.

Aside from vegan restaurants run by vegans (which include most of Taipei's top vegan restaurants) the vast majority of owners and staff of vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan will swear black and blue that fake meat, mayonnaise and other dressings are vegan, when they rarely are. Even the word 'vegan' used on their menu or even in their name is no guarantee. The vegetarian (vegan-unfriendly) restaurant Agarwood inside former dictator Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall (regrettably one of Taipei's most popular tourist attractions, and not just for its dishonest restaurant) boldly claims to be a "vegan restaurant" in English signs all over its entrance, yet it serves barely anything vegan.

Lost in Translation

A part of the problem is that the most common word for vegan, 全素, translates literally to "totally vegetarian". So asking if something is 'vegan' sounds similar to asking a native English speaker if a pizza is "totally vegetarian". I prefer the newer  純素 ("pure vegetarian") but this is less familiar to most of the population, who associate vegetarianism entirely with Buddhism.  (Also see: Vegetarian Food Labelling in Taiwan".) This is also poorly understood, however, and even the Minder Vegetarian Restaurant chain until recently promoted themselves as serving vegan (純素) food on their website, presumably including the cheese pizzas.

Buddhism and Dairy Products

Buddhists in Taiwan have long considered themselves "pure vegetarian", and the closest Chinese word for vegan (全素, see Vegetarian Food Labelling in Taiwan) is almost universally identified with Buddhism. Unfortunately, however, Buddhists have taken in a disturbingly large way to dairy products, given that they're not traditionally a part of the Chinese or North-east Asian diet; many Buddhist-run vegetarian restaurants use so much dairy that they serve little if anything vegan - often less than Western non-vegan restaurants. And to admit any shortcomings in their vegetarian diet which, at least in theory, is based on Ahimsa (the ancient Indian concept of non-violence) would be a loss of face, so it's better to just pretend the bread and mayonnaise and fake meat are all vegan. I estimate that about half of owners / staff at Buddhist restaurants will lie about food containing dairy products, and most of the other half simply don't understand.

I Kuan Tao

The second religious group in Taiwan, and the third largest religion in Taiwan generally, is I Kuan Tao. Its members are strictly vegetarian, but they eat both dairy and egg products, and no effort is made to avoid free-range eggs (some sources say battery eggs are preferable as the hens are less likely to be fertilised). Members of I Kuan Tao own over half of all vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan, and are particularly  for passing off vegetarian food as vegan. This may be in part due to a belief that vegans are misguided (perhaps a reincarnation from an era when dairy and egg products were forbidden) and of course in part being unwilling to turn down a customer and lose money over a little whey in fake meat, or maiyonnaise in sushi.

Solutions

Firstly, try to eat at vegan restaurants as much as possible. Most of Taipei's best restaurants are run by committed vegans, the majority of whom are followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai (all of whom are strictly vegan), animal rights activists or other committed vegans. All restaurants in my guide to Taipei's best vegan restaurants are vegan (except Fruitful Food, as explained).

If you must eat at a non-vegan vegetarian restaurant, it's rarely even worth asking what's vegan, as you'll be assured that everything is vegan 99% of the time. Buffets are best, and I recommend avoiding all fake meat, sushi (mayonnaise) and other milky-looking soups and dressings. This still usually leaves plenty of options.

Use Happycow with Caution

I'm the Happycow "Ambassador" (volunteer contact person) for Taipei, and I (along with the active vegan community here endeavour to keep Happycow up-to-date, and often need to drop down the status of restaurants, which often list themselves as vegan. The problem is that it's often difficult to prove that a restaurant isn't vegan, and we can't remove one until we can be sure that it's indeed not vegan.

NEVER believe somewhere is vegan because of Happycow - at least read the reviews carefully. Anyone is welcome to email me with such questions. A recent reviewer lauded the (now closed) Part Time Su pizza bar in Taipei for their "vegan mozzarella" cheese because the restaurant was originally listed as vegan. And staff at the Cloud Blossom restaurant inside the Zhong Tai Temple (the largest in-use religious building in the world) in Puli, central Taiwan, explained to me that "vegans can eat their cheese" because (they explained when questioned further) it was from a "natural farm", where cows are milked by hand. (The same staff member understood that the cows would "become beef" after they stopped being milked, but didn't have a problem with it, probably because she wouldn't receive the karma for the death of the animal at the end of its milking life.) A vegan took their word for it and interpreted it as soy cheese, and left a positive review about their "vegan cheese" on Happycow.  

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