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.
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
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
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
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
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."