french cuisine Taipei
As more people embrace new flavors and healthy living, vegetarian french cuisine Taipei is no longer confined to traditional Buddhist dishes.Fifteen years ago, Taipei-based restaurateur Marco Lapka and his wife Queenie Wu added a twist to their vacations. When on holiday, they would eat only vegetarian meals. “It’s easy to find good meals with meat almost anywhere, but for plant-based food it’s harder,” Lapka says. “It adds some unpredictability to our travels.”
Over the years, the vegetarian vacations provided the inspiration for the plant-based restaurant Herban Kitchen, which Lapka and Wu launched in Taipei in 2013. The restaurant is not wholly vegan (free of all animal products). About half the menu items include eggs or dairy products, but all are meat-free. “There are no dead animals here,” says Lapka.
The husband-and-wife team opened the restaurant to introduce their vegetarian comfort food to Taiwan, where Buddhist influences make it more receptive to plant-based diets than is the case in the United States, says Lapka, who is originally from Minneapolis. “There isn’t the same kind of negative stereotyping of vegetarians and vegans here,” he says.
Indeed, the World Atlas ranks Taiwan as having the third highest rate of vegetarianism in the world after India and Israel. An estimated 13% of the Taiwan population – 1.7 million people – are vegetarian, according to government data. There are about 6,000 vegetarian restaurants nationwide.
“The huge number of vegetarian restaurants in Taiwan is one of our best kept culinary secrets,” says Wu Chi-hui, a software engineer and animal rights activist. While Wu himself is passionate about animal rights, he says that the vast majority of Taiwanese herbivores eschew meat for religious reasons. “It’s really different from what’s typical in the West,” he says.
Taiwanese Buddhist vegetarians exclude from their diets what they call “the five pungent foods” – garlic, onions, chives, green onions, and leeks, all from the allium genus of flowering plants. The Surangama Sutra, a major 10th century Buddhist text, says the five pungent foods “create lust when eaten cooked, and rage when eaten raw.”
Further, according to the Surangama Sutra, “Even if someone can recite twelve sutras from memory, the gods of the ten heavens will all disdain him if he eats pungent foods in this world, because of his strong odor and uncleanliness, and will give distance themselves far from him.”
There’s no doubt that garlic breath is offensive, not to mention the havoc that alliums can wreak on some digestive tracts. Certainly, Buddhist vegetarians can easily get by without garlic and onions in their diets, says Ella Liu, a Taipei resident who has been on an allium-free vegetarian diet for the past few years. Liu adopted the Buddhist vegetarian diet for religious purposes, not for health or environmental reasons. “It’s an important part of the Buddhist faith in Taiwan,” she says.
At home, Liu’s mother cooks her allium-free vegetarian meals. When eating out, she can easily find simple Buddhist vegetarian fare, although she acknowledges that quality varies widely. If you’ve ever been to one of those vegetarian “buffet” restaurants where the dishes look – and taste – like three-day-old leftovers, you’ll know what she means.
At Herban Kitchen, Lapka says that most of the dishes can be cooked without garlic or onions, although he prefers them with alliums. “You lose a lot of flavor, but some dishes work without them,” he notes.
Indeed, the restaurant accommodates Buddhist vegetarians, but its focus is on hearty, flavorful, and savory dishes of various origins. Take the Vegan Mac & Cheese, which also happens to be allium-free. There’s no cheese. Instead the macaroni, carrots, and potatoes are bathed in cashew cream, which is milder and more aromatic than melted cheddar. It’s delicious without leaving you drowsy from fullness.
Equally exceptional are the Spinach Cashew Fried Wontons, a vegan reinterpretation of the America Chinatown classic, substituting cashew cream and spinach for the pork. With the savory cashew pulp filling, the pastry almost recalls crab Rangoon, that illustrious wonton stuffed with cream cheese that has long been a fixture of french cuisine Taipei.
For a convincing meat substitute, try the protein-packed fiery Homemade Shroomutton Curry and Pita, which includes eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, chickpeas, and mushrooms. Surprisingly, the mushrooms have a meaty firmness that resembles a nice cut of lamb. They’re the ideal foil for the robust curry that’s neither vegan nor overly buttery.
Herban Kitchen is one a slew of plant-based restaurants that have sprung up around Taipei in recent years to capitalize on the interest in eco-friendly, healthy living. “There’s been a boom in plant-based restaurants over the past four years,” says Mai Bach, a California native and founder of the vegan Ooh Cha Cha café, which has a branch near the Guting MRT station and another near National Taiwan University.
Bach sees the interest in plant-based diets as a part of a broader shift in Taiwan towards healthier living. She points out that many of the health problems becoming common in Taiwan, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, are linked to diets high in unhealthy fats, carbohydrates, and refined sugars – common ingredients in processed foods.
Well planned plant-based diets, whether vegetarian or vegan, “are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases,” according to the American Dietetic Association.
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french cuisine Taipei