Is it hard to be vegetarian in Taiwan? That depends. It can be vegetarian heaven, or a nightmare depending on the day and how religious you are about your food. Before you come, know that:
1. Cross-contamination is not a thing. At most buffets you take a set of tongs and dish out what you want. When you go to a buffet with meaty items, assume that everything has touched everything.
2. Depending where you are, English translations are not reliable, and vegetarian can be a flexible term. The “garden vegetable” dumplings at my corner shop contain chicken, my favorite “vegetarian” soup place sells pig blood cakes, and I’ve noticed that a good few veggie brunches include ham.
3. The variety of textured tofu is crazy and will make you question everything. I’ve thought I made a tactical error any number of times only to find I’m eating something soy-ish. Probably. Hopefully.
4. Learning some Mandarin (or making Taiwanese friends) is a good idea. If you can’t ask, you won’t know for sure. Many restaurants have picture menus, but there’s a lot of grey area when you get into soup stocks and sauces.
5. Options abound if you know where to look. The Minder Vegetarian chain is great (get the vegetarian braising meats on your rice for an extra NT$30!) and Mia Cucina just became my new favorite digs in Taipei. Also look into less glossy, but more local, Buddhist-oriented buffets. Most sell by weight, so stay away from the sticky rice and dumplings and you can get piles of sprouts and greens for affordable prices.
If you’re a strict vegan and you don’t speak Mandarin, you’ll be cooking for yourself again. If you don’t mind picking the occasional slice of hidden ham from your food, you’ll enjoy it here, and your patience will be rewarded when you find Taiwan’s amazing vegetarian flavors!