Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Taiwanese Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. In today’s column, she is taking a closer look at vegan Taiwanese cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine

Taiwan’s cuisine is a melting pot of the cooking style of various countries and provinces and that of the indigenous/aboriginal people. The greatest influence comes from the Guangdong, Fujian, and Hakka people of China who settled in Taiwan. However, despite the style and flavor adoptions from those provinces, Taiwanese cuisine uses the ingredients that are freshly available within the island nation to make cultural dishes. The next dominant influence comes from Japan as a result of Taiwan’s historical occupation and rule by the Japanese. The Japanese introduce foods and condiments such as seaweed, tempura, miso. Due to political regimes and history, accessibility to a variety of resources was sometimes hard. Therefore, the cuisine had to evolve as the people had to develop new ways to use ingredients and various parts of plants to make a range of dishes that look and taste different despite containing the same, or similar, ingredients.

Taiwanese bao buns and dim sum. Image credit: @vege.nora_. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

During the colonial periods, the general cuisine of Taiwan was somewhat split in two. The diet of the wealthy, especially, those who were Japanese officials, involved a lot of animal products and byproducts. However, that of the civilians, or those under colonial rule, was more plant-based and included foods such as rice, millet, fresh root vegetables (tubers and leaves), wild greens, and pickled vegetables. Cooking oils were also rather scarce and unaffordable amongst civilians. They were reserved for special occasions where one might want to splurge on the quality and variety of foods. Therefore, the everyday diet contained fewer fried foods than that of the present cuisine.

There have been other plant-based segments of Taiwanese cuisine throughout history and in present times. These have been visible mostly amongst certain religious groups, but now, also amongst people who abstain from eating meat for non-religious reasons (e.g. animal welfare, health, or environmental concerns). 

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Taiwanese Cuisine
Sweet and sour cucumbers. Image credit: @choochoocachew. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The religious plant-based tendencies are linked to Buddhism and I-Kuan Tao (Yiguandao). Vegetarianism and veganism are recommended by the I-Kuan Tao religion for their health benefits as well as both practices/lifestyles also being considered as acts of compassion toward animals. On the other hand, Buddhism teaches, and prescribes, that people ought to abstain from harming living beings, taking what is not freely given, harming sentient beings emotionally, physically, or spiritually, and making their living in manners, or through means that are not peaceful. 

The diet of the wealthy, especially, those who were Japanese officials, involved a lot of animal products and byproducts. However, that of the civilians, or those under colonial rule, was more plant-based

The rise in plant-based lifestyles for religious reasons (and later, non-religious ones) lead to the existence of a significant amount of meat-containing traditional dishes also being available as plant-based versions as well as the creation and various cooking styles involving high protein ingredients now commonly known as, ‘meat substitutes.’ These include tofu, tempeh, and vital wheat gluten.

(It should be noted that although this article describes the plant-based recommendations and requirements as, ‘vegetarian,’ and ‘vegan,’ these were not terms used in Taiwan until more recent times as both religions and plant-based practices predate the formation of those terms and their Western surge in popularity)

Xiao Long Bao

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine
Vegan dumplings. Image credit: @traveggo. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Xiao long bao are soup dumplings that originated in China. However, the Taiwanese people have adopted the dish and made it theirs using locally sourced ingredients and cultural condiments.

These dumplings are characterized by their thin skins encasing a broth/soup as well as, a protein (tofu, for a lot of vegan versions) and vegetable filling To eat the dumpling, it is placed on a soup spoon and the shell is broken with chopsticks to an extent that just lets the soup deep out onto the spoon. Condiments such as ginger and black vinegar are used to add more flavor and warmth to the dumplings before they are eaten by first, drinking the soup, then eating the dumpling.

Dan Bing

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine
Plant-based Taiwanese “Egg” Crepe. Image credit: @enen_cuisine. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Dan bing is a Taiwanese egg pancake. However, vegans have developed various recipes for this that exclude eggs. It is made by layering, or filling, thin crêpe-like pancakes with an egg substitute (and, possibly, spring onions/scallions) then rolling the topped pancakes into a somewhat cylindrical shape which can be sliced into smaller dan bing pieces. Common egg substitutes used include chickpea flour, beancurd/tofu skins, tofu, and commercial vegan omelet mixes. All flavored with black salt for an eggy taste and smell.

Dipping sauces for dan bing are soy sauce-based and could contain other ingredients such as condiment pastes, sesame oil, sesame seeds, rice vinegar, garlic, and/or sugar.

Lu Rou Fan and Lo Bah Png

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine
Plant-based Braised Pork Rice. Image credit: @enen_cuisine. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Depending on the region, lu rou fan and lo bah png refer to different dishes. In the south, lu rou fan refers to braised pork rice while in the north, and central Taiwan, it refers to minced pork rice. However, in the south, minced pork rice is, ‘lo bah png,’ or ‘rou sao fan.’ Both often have the pork substituted with tempeh or TVP by plant-based cooks.

Although lu rou fan refers to either dish, depending on the region in Taiwan, these dishes have more differences than similarities. These differences are in the cooking style, cooking time, and complementary ingredients. Rou sao fan/Lo bah png (with ‘pork substitute’ replacing ‘pork’) is made by stir-frying a pork substitute with soy sauce, and red/purple onions. On the other hand, to make lu rou fan, when referring to the braised dish, more liquid is added to the pork substitute as it cooks. It is cooked for a significantly longer period of time than the rou sao fan resulting in a more tender/softer dish with a deeper flavor. Lu rou fan also has more seasoning ingredients than rou sao fan.

The rise in plant-based lifestyles for religious reasons (and later, non-religious ones) lead to the existence of a significant amount of meat-containing traditional dishes also being available as plant-based versions

As the name suggests, lu rou fan is cooked using a Chinese cooking method known as ‘lu,’ which is a type of red stewing/braising. The aim of this braising method is to give the food a dark reddish-brown color as well as a richer, and deeper, flavor.

Lu is done by submerging the main ingredient which, in this case, would be a pork substitute, in a braising liquid often containing a combination of soy sauce (light and dark), sugar, a fermented bean paste (such as doubanjiang), rice wine (Shaoxing wine), star anise, bay leaf, and aromatic vegetables (such as garlic, ginger and onions/shallots). When following this process with meats, it could take several hours. However, for plant-based versions, it could take a total of as little as 20-40mins and the thickened concentrated braising liquid can be served as part of the final dish (in this case, lu rou fan) or reused to add flavor to other dishes.

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine
Vegan Taiwanese Braised Tempeh. Image credit: Chez Jorge. Click on the photo to see the full post on chezjorge.com.

Gua Bao

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine
Vegan Taiwanese Gua Bao. Image credit: Chez Jorge. Click on the photo to see the full post on chezjorge.com.

Gua bao is a pork bun dish. However, plant-based cooks have developed recipes for this dish using pork substitutes such as jackfruit. It is believed that the gua bao was introduced to Taiwan by migrants from the Fujian province of China. 

Gua bao is made by filling a lotus leaf bun with stewed pork (substitute). The lotus leaf buns are steamed yeasted buns which were flattened into ~1cm thick disks and folded in half prior to steaming to create a central area for a filling. These buns are fluffy, chewy, and appear whiter than the average Western bun.

The filling for the gua bao is in three parts – the pork (substitute), pickled mustard greens, and peanuts. The first is made by cooking the pork substitute with garlic, ginger, rice wine, sugar, soy sauce, and five-spice (flavor combination varying with cook) for a dish with a balance of sweet, savory, and sour notes. The pickled mustard greens can be used as is, or elevated by stir-frying them with chillies, garlic, sugar, and sesame seeds while the peanuts can just be crushed and sprinkled over the other fillings in the bao.

Stinky Tofu

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Taiwanese Cuisine
Vegan Stinky Tofu. Image credit: @theveganstruggleisreal. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Stinky tofu, also known as, ‘chou doufu,’ is a very pungent, yet delicious, food made by soaking tofu for hours or days in a fermented brine/mixture of fresh vegetables (it should be noted that some cooks might include animal products and/or byproducts in their brine mixture). The brine is left to ferment for as long as 2 years resulting in a dark thickened liquid containing wilted and, by then, somewhat decomposed vegetables with a very strong smell.

In Taiwanese cuisine, stinky tofu can be found in fried, steamed, stewed, and barbecued forms. Fried stinky tofu is the least pungent and most common version. The stewed version (which is like a spicy soup or thick sauce with cubes of stinky tofu) is also not very pungent. The aroma and flavoring of the broth can be used to mask the smell of stinky tofu. Barbecued tofu is also not particularly pungent due to its heavy seasoning and cooking over fiery charcoal. The most pungent of these is the steamed version. It is softer and less flavored than the other versions of the dish. Apart from the stewed version, stink tofu is usually served with pickled cabbage, garlic sauce, and/or chili sauce.

Recipe from Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine – You Fan (Taiwanese sticky rice) by Chez Jorge

Vegan Taiwanese Cuisine

You fan is a flavorsome Taiwanese sticky rice dish made by steaming sticky/glutinous rice in a bamboo steamer then frying it with vegetables, aromatics, spicy fermented bean paste (not used by all cooks), rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, fried shallots, and (vegan) oyster sauce. It usually contains meat which can be substituted with vegan alternatives such as bean curd sticks, tofu, seitan, TVP, or commercial prepared/ready-to-eat vegan meats.

In this recipe, George Lee of Chez Jorge (@chez.jorje) shows you how to make his delectable version of you fan.

Click here for the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

If you loved this article on vegan Taiwanese cuisine, you might also like…

Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Japanese Cuisine

21 Sweet & Savory Vegan Peanut Recipes You Need to Try Now

25+ Delicious Vegan Dumpling Recipes to Celebrate Asian Culture

Vegan Taiwanese Three Cup Tofu (San Bei ‘三杯’) Bowl with Herbs and Veggies

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