Is this vegetarian food? Yes, it is.
These vegetarian restaurants don’t base their appeal on health or sustainability, but rather try to stimulate and dazzle the taste buds, so that patrons are bowled over by the delicious flavors of their fare.
We are visiting the bistro BaganHood, near the Songshan Cultural and Creative Park in eastern Taipei. A bistro—also known as a dining pub or gastropub—is a bar that serves both alcohol and food, and to visit this one at weekends or holidays you will need to make a reservation two weeks in advance. Pushing open the solid wood door, we see a bar lined with alcoholic beverages and mixers, wooden tables with blue-upholstered chairs, and metal ceiling lamps. The atmosphere is low-key and fashionable, and it sure feels like a bistro in here.
Flipping open the voluminous menu, under “Appetizers” there is a dish called “cheese Bolognese fries” made with chili Bolognese sauce and Daiya cheese; under “Salads” you can find one made with Italian sausage, roasted tomato, sweet chili, arugula, lemon oil, and Mediterranean-style cheese; under “Bowls” there is the “mala chilli pot” whose ingredients include OmniPork balls, potato, Sichuan pepper, sesame, and brown rice. From the menu alone you definitely can’t tell that this is Taipei’s first vegan bistro.
Non-traditional vegetarian restaurants
The person in charge, Carrie, wearing a satin shirt, holds her beloved dog Chocolate as she says: “There really are customers who, from the time they come in until they pay their bill and leave, keep saying how delicious the food is, without ever realizing that what they just ate was completely vegan.”
When Carrie and her partner, Eric, whose background is as a chef, opened BaganHood, they deliberately adopted a strategy of combining obscurity with imitation, from the venue’s name and decor to the dishes on the menu. They chose not to emphasize that this is a vegan eatery, and hoped to simply serve good food that would change customers’ attitudes to veganism. The “Bagan” in the bistro’s name is a combination of “bacon” and “vegan,” while the suffix “hood” suggests the process of transitioning from a meat-based diet to a vegan one.
Breaking down barriers
Starting from the strongly flavored foods made to accompany alcohol, BaganHood overturns stereotypical ideas about vegan food. Crisp deep-fried cauliflower is matched with their homemade mala (spicy and numbing) sauce, then topped with cool, refreshing lemon cashew sauce to take the edge off the spiciness, and finally sprinkled with Sichuan peppers and quinoa. Not only does it look like meat, it amazes from the first bite.
The mala sauce, made by the same methods as the broth for mala hotpot, can be used not only as a topping for appetizers, but also to make OmniPork “hot chili pot,” which is wonderfully flavorsome despite containing no actual meat. Can people tell that the “spicy meat sauce,” which is cooked up from a concentrated paste that includes deep-fried minced tofu and spices like parsley, sage, and basil, is vegetarian food? “There is virtually nothing that gives it away,” says Eric with confidence.
Carrie and Eric plan next to open a vegetarian Taiwan-style stir-fry restaurant. Quick-fried dishes like bean curd with crab roe and pork fillet with black pepper sauce will be on the menu, and of course there will be beer!
Seafood and vegetarian crossover
Another restaurant that uses ingenious creations to get people connected to vegetarian food is Gorou Fine Japanese Cuisine.
To get there you must head south to Zuoying District in Kaohsiung. Standing behind the counter at Gorou, chef Jiang Yuwei, who sports a short goatee beard, playfully asks customers seated in front of him: “Can you tell from the taste what species of conger eel this is?” He also asks: “This oyster is very rare; can you tell whether it comes from Australia, or Hokkaido?”
Gorou is in fact a Japanese restaurant that serves vegetarian food. When customers find out that the imitation oyster is made from thickly textured white king oyster mushroom, that the soft-shelled crab is made from maitake mushroom, and that the soft, chewy conger eel sushi in fact is made using eggplant, they reply with admiration, “They’re just like the real thing!”
One of those taken in by this persuasive cuisine is the boss of an eel farm who has refused to eat eggplant for the last 68 years, and who, when eating out with friends, will even leave the table if eggplant is served. Yet at Gorou he actually ate two eggplant dishes.
Consumers who eat vegetarian tuna with avocado sushi, broiled spicy billfish sushi, and geoduck with caviar sushi all react the same way: “Just like the real thing!”
Tricking the taste buds
Gorou opened in March 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in Taiwan, when restaurants islandwide saw their footfall tumble by 50-70%. But Gorou was opened with the aim of winning customers over to vegetarian food one by one, and with the intention of staying in business for as long as they could manage to hang on. As it turned out, the restaurant has succeeded in changing the ideas of many gourmands about vegetarian cuisine, and these days you need to reserve four weeks in advance if you want to get a table on a weekend or holiday.
Gorou was opened by chef Hu Tsai-pin, who has 27 years of experience with Japanese cuisine. Yoshi-rou, the Japanese eatery that he opened 15 years ago in Tainan, has a stable clientele.
In 2018, documentary filmmaker Dylan Yang asked Hu, “Have you ever thought about opening a vegetarian restaurant?” This question motivated Hu to wonder whether Japanese seafood cuisine could be presented in a vegetarian style.
“We were already very familiar with the taste and texture of seafood, and we could make very authentic Japanese seafood cuisine. So now we used vegetables to simulate the texture, appearance, and flavor of seafood, turning billfish sushi and grilled scallops into vegetarian food.” Taking scallops for example, Hu Tsai-pin’s team found king oyster mushrooms with a similar taste to scallops, and used a special technique to give them a seafood flavor; they then had to create a mouthfeel similar to that of scallops. “Scallops are fibrous. A three-centimeter king oyster mushroom has to be cut 40 times on each side, making a total of 120 incisions, which adds up to 6000 cuts for 50 scallops. That’s a lot of knife work just to create the texture of scallops.”
But how could he achieve that seafood flavor? Hu looked through a great deal of information, but in the end got his inspiration from some miso soup prepared for his staff by a lazy chef who didn’t add fish broth. Hu soaks vegetables like eggplant and sweet pepper in a large volume of broth prepared with Japanese kelp buds to reduce the mushroom flavor and create the impression of seafood flavor, so as to produce realistic conger eel, tuna, and billfish sushi.
The chef also employs some clever ideas to enrich the taste of the dishes. One example is to serve “tuna” with avocado salad, using the fat in the avocado to compensate for the lack of it in the red pepper. Another is to strengthen the aroma of “billfish” by broiling it. Meanwhile, perilla leaf is added to pan-fried “scallop meat” to dispel the oiliness of the scallop, and then truffle powder is added to increase the seafood fragrance and compensate for the absence of a browning aroma in plant-based ingredients.
Customer Chen Meixue, who has been a vegetarian for 40 years, praises Hu’s efforts by saying that every dish has a great sense of depth, especially the “foie gras” (goose liver). Hu explains: “Our foie gras is made by quickly stir-frying sliced button mushrooms with pungent Italian-style spices like sage. The granular texture comes from using a paste made from green lentils, with roasted walnuts added to increase the fat content. But even with so much effort, we can only produce a pale-colored imitation foie gras, so we need to add beetroot juice to mimic the color of real foie gras.”
Hu says that he wants to continue to promote the vegetarian diet, and that after all vegetarian sea urchin and scallops can be used in Japanese, French, and Italian cuisine, becoming a seafood version of “beyond meat” in Taiwan.
Exquisite vegan desserts
Emma Lan, who is the first blogger in Taiwan specializing in veganism, focuses on desserts as a way to change the popular impression that “a vegetarian diet is really sad.” In particular, she has altered the notion that desserts must be made with eggs and milk (or cream) as has been done in the West for hundreds of years, making it possible for vegans to enjoy desserts such as tiramisu and chestnut Mont Blanc.
To give vegans the option of drinking latte, milk tea, and café au lait rather than being limited to black coffee, in 2015 Lan opened a vegan coffee shop called the Veganday Café, using soybean milk imported from Japan as a substitute for milk or cream.
In fact, a decade or so ago Emma Lan was living a “sad and difficult life” as a vegetarian. While classmates ate steak, she could only eat salad. There were no vegetarian restaurants near her university, and for a whole semester she ate nothing but bagels and mung bean soup from 7-Eleven. When she dined with any of her erstwhile boyfriends, because they all ate meat, she was often left ignored and hungry. This carried on until she made the decision that her last boyfriend would have to be vegetarian. That person is now her husband, and he has been a vegetarian since primary school. He has been by her side in opening the Veganday Café (originally called Bluesomeone’s Vegan Café) and the Veganday Cuisine restaurant.
On the restaurant’s menu are dishes like cauliflower wings, fried spinach-cheese wontons, and Veganday ratatouille, putting into practice the concepts that “eating vegetarian can be exciting, and eating vegetarian is more kindhearted.” There is also Lan’s favorite, vegan boeuf bourguignon without wine. Using lion’s mane mushrooms that are fried until aromatic and soft in place of beef, and cabbage juice and balsamic vinegar in place of Burgundy wine, she can still produce a dish with a rich flavor and texture, that is “really similar to boeuf bourguignon.”
Vegan pastries and desserts are ones in which no animal products are used, including eggs, milk, cream, gelatin, honey, and carmine. Lan, who always has a sweet smile on her face, says: “In fact, aromatic ingredients, like pumpkin and grain flour, not to mention vanilla and chocolate, all come from plants. All of these have rich fragrances.”
For example, to make chestnut Mont Blanc, fresh chestnuts (never canned) are steamed into a paste, then high-quality grapeseed and safflower seed oils are added to increase the smoothness and bring out the aroma of the chestnuts. Mousse made with organic soft tofu for texture and multi-grain soy milk powder for fragrance, with non-dairy cream added, retains the silky mouthfeel and flavor of conventional mousse. “One can avoid unnecessary cruelty to animals, and still have a beautiful life,” says Emma Lan.
Fine food has always been mankind’s most engaging source of pleasure. Leaving aside the merits of a meat diet versus a vegetarian diet and focusing only on taste, why not feast on some fantastic vegan food in the new year?