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EATING VEGETARIAN IN TAINAN: Stinky Tofu's Rivals
By Jennifer Reeder

As a vegetarian, the first Chinese phrases I learned in Taiwan were wo su shure ("I'm a vegetarian") and bu yao rho ("I don't want meat."). I was thrilled to find that it's not considered subversive or even weird to be a vegetarian here, despite the Taiwanese affinity for meat dishes like pig knuckles and fried chicken claws. It's easy to find vegetarian restaurants by looking for the backwards swastika denoting Buddhist-friendly food (though a drawback is that a Buddhist diet also omits the flavorful aphrodisiacs garlic and onion). But these small restaurants come and go overnight, and the cold, congealed food served at vegetarian buffets wears thin after awhile.

Luckily, there are other options. The following are two of the best vegetarian restaurants in Tainan.

Vonny's Garden

To many foreigners in southern Taiwan, Vonny's Garden needs no introduction. The English menu offers great Western and Chinese food at reasonable prices, and namesake Vonny makes a mean green tea. My blood pressure invariably drops every time I walk in the door and hear the chorus of "Shae gwoning" from the welcoming staff.

As Buddhist vegetarians, Sifen and Lishen Chen grew frustrated that they didn't have many appealing places to eat. Their options "didn't taste good and didn't look nice," so they opened Vonny's Garden on April 1, 1999. Lishen, who learned to cook from his Beijing-born grandparents, became the head chef and works alongside his son Brian in the kitchen. Sifen runs the floor, and daughter Vonny mans the new tea bar.

When asked why she is the family member for whom the restaurant is named, Vonny grinned. "I thought more foreigners would come to the restaurant if it had an English name on the sign, so I used my name." The Chinese sign doesn't mention that the restaurant is strictly vegetarian, so locals don't always know what's in store for them. But meat-eaters are never disappointed. As Sifen proclaims, "Our food is very good so everybody likes it."

She's right. When I leave Taiwan, Vonny's sway chow (dumplings) will be the food I'll miss the most. The legendary dumplings are so popular that frozen ones are available for take-out (NT$90 for 30) and in two kinds of soup (NT$60-80). The most popular menu item is reportedly curry and rice, which is mild but savory (NT$80 includes corn soup).

Fans of fondue should order one of the 13 kinds of hot pot offered (NT$180-200; serves two). A bubbling cauldron of goodies like tofu and vegetables is accompanied by a side salad of similar goodies, to be added to the pot as the need arises. Other popular items include noodle dishes (NT$50-80), fried pork chop with rice (NT$80), pita sandwiches (NT$150), and baked macaroni (NT$120).

Since I'm not a vegetarian for health reasons, I'm also partial to the savory deep fried noodle soup (NT$55-specify "no egg" if you're a vegan). And in the summer heat, the mango slurpee (NT$90) hits the spot, though some friends prefer the Oreo milk shake (NT$100) or herbal teas (NT$120).

Vonny's Garden is open daily from 10:30am-10:30pm at #95 Linsen Road, Section 2. If you're not already a regular, give it a try - you won't be disappointed.

Fork and Dish

Less well known to foreigners is Fork and Dish Restaurant - probably because the menu and sign are in Chinese. (An English menu is in the works.) But this restaurant shouldn't be overlooked. It has great traditional Chinese dishes (ironically, there are no forks here) and even better ambiance. It's ideal for vegetarians who miss the taste of meat, or carnivores dating vegetarians.

There are myriad reasons to become a vegetarian; religion, ecology, compassion for animals, and health are all compelling concerns. But I became a vegetarian simply because the taste of meat, especially seafood, repulses me. This caused a very embarrassing moment at Fork and Dish when Sundrii, the chef and co-owner of the restaurant, triumphantly placed a special plate bearing two kinds of replicated fish before me. Sundrii, whose aim is to create vegetarian dishes that are identical to meat, achieved her goal perfectly; the taste of fish flooded my mouth. After apologetically admitting that I loathe fish, I was much happier sampling the delicious non-fish dishes, such as peanuts with sweet shredded tofu and other appetizers.

One appealing vegetable dish, gon tsai, used to be reserved for Chinese emperors. The expensive greens are reputedly good for improving virility, something the rulers undoubtedly needed to satisfy their numerous concubines. Other appetizers such as deep fried tofu, shrimp rolls, chicken nuggets, and hash browns are priced at just NT$50. Salads, served with 1000 Island or yogurt dressing, start at NT$80. Hearty noodle soups are NT$80-90, and Sundrii's husband Shiva makes outstanding pork fried rice (as well as garlic or ketchup fried rice, I'm told). NT$130 includes soup and coffee, tea or juice. Large set meals for people who do enjoy the taste of meat are a bargain at NT$160-180, and include faux meat, rice, soup, drink, dessert (like tea jelly), and a few side dishes.

Some meals, like the hot pot and "Bamboo Special," are cooked with Chinese medicine "to make it smell good." The Bamboo Special-steamed mushrooms, bamboo, and veggie meat-is so good that one local couple ate it every day for lunch and dinner for two months straight. "That's the record here. I don't know how they did it!" Sundrii recalled with a laugh.

When she isn't busy in the kitchen, Sundrii retreats upstairs to make the intricate Buddhist jewelry that adorns the walls of the Fork and Dish. Her jade necklaces, bracelets and other ornaments are of professional quality and prices, ranging from NT$200 to (gulp!) NT$100,000. Her goods are varied; she even produced a lovely cell phone bangle (NT$450). Her museum-like workspace doubles as a meeting room for groups, and features a large tea set on a wooden table perfect for pao cha sessions. You can reserve the room at: 06/222-8286, or just stop by the restaurant (#71 Jinnan Road between Jinhua Road, Sec. 2 and Shialin Road).

Downstairs, traditional Chinese music - no vocals - soothes and delicious incense burns. Delicate pamphlets on each table, written by Shiva, explain "how to train yourself to be a nicer vegetarian person." I felt like a nicer vegetarian person just sitting there. In addition to Sundrii's handiwork, the walls are covered with artifacts collected during her travels in Indonesia, Thailand, China, and Nepal. Also, she is a friend to numerous Buddhist nuns, who travel to temples and bring back ornaments for her. In fact, many of her friends are loyal customers who followed Fork and Dish when it moved to its current location a year and an half ago. (The former restaurant operated for seven years in the University district.)

You can taste what created such loyalty to the Fork and Dish from 10am-11pm every day of the week. The restaurant's sign is in Chinese, so look for the picture of a fork and dish across from Er Suey Ping Wun Park. And be sure to meet Sundrii and Shiva, who as one patron explained, "look young because they're vegetarians."