This is a post on finding vegan food in Taiwan, with some context on the history of vegetarian food here. It’s not a list of vegan restaurants. Instead, it’s a meta-post about navigating Taiwan as a vegan.
I’ve been vegan since late 1996, so over 27 years at the time of this post (December, 2023). I’m currently starting my eleventh visit to Taiwan since 2000, and I’ve spent about 9 months here total across those visits. While I’m not fluent in Mandarin, I can speak and read a little bit. My wife is Taiwanese, so when I need to ask more complex questions I have a translator to help me. But I also go out to eat by myself here without my wife, so I have some sense of what it’s like to eat as a vegan who’s not fluent in the local language.
This post assumes you don’t speak Mandarin or read any Chinese characters. If that’s not true, then some of this advice won’t be necessary, because you can just ask food vendors questions in Mandarin.
Tourists in Taiwan
People in Taiwan are generally quite friendly with visitors. If you learn even a little Mandarin,
people will make an effort to communicate with you.
Sometimes they’ll even try English, but the
average worker in a restaurant or store probably speaks little to no English (or if they do they’re
not comfortable speaking it, though they may understand some of what you say).
Edit February, 2024: I’ve realized that there’s very much a generational divide here in regards to English. Many younger people (< 40 or so) I’ve encounted in stores are willing to try speaking English than on my first trips to Taiwan. Older people still do not speak English. That said, you’re still going to have a better experience as a vegan if you don’t rely on English.
Do You Need to Speak Mandarin to Eat Vegan in Taiwan?
This is complicated, and I’ll get into this more below. The short answer is “no”, but depending on how strict you want to be as a vegan, you may end up with a fairly limited set of food options.
Learn Some Mandarin
Learning a few phrases in Mandarin will go a long way. You can also have these written down on paper or in an easy to access place on your phone to show people. Learn to read and pronounce Pinyin so you can say these phrases with the proper tones. Without the tones people may not understand you.
- “I am vegan” - 我吃純素 - Wǒ chī chún sù (literally “I eat pure vegetarian”)
- Note that this doesn’t exactly mean vegan as we use the term. You should follow up with the phrases below to tell them you don’t eat eggs or dairy.
- “I don’t eat eggs” - 我不吃蛋 - Wǒ bù chī dàn
- “I don’t eat milk, butter, cheese” - 我不吃牛奶、奶油起司 - Wǒ bù chī niúnǎi, nǎiyóu qǐ sī
- “I eat garlic and onions”1 - 我吃大蒜和洋蔥 - Wǒ chī dàsuàn hé yángcōng
- “English menu” - 英文菜單 - Yīngwén càidān (you can just say this to ask if they have one)
You should also learn things like “thank you”, “excuse me”, and so on. But this isn’t a general “Mandarin for tourists” post, which I’m sure you can find elsewhere.
Learn to Read Two Characters
The two most useful characters you can learn to recognize look like this: 素食
This means “vegetarian food”. Many vegetarian restaurants and food carts use these characters in their signage.
The Swastika (卍)
You may also see this symbol - 卍. Note that it’s the mirror image of the version the Nazis used. Don’t freak out! This is a Buddhist symbol, and any food vendor with this symbol will probably be vegetarian.
Tools You Need
Install the Google Translate Chrome extension. If you’re using Firefox, there is an unofficial extension for Google Translate. Learn how to use this on your laptop browser! It’s incredibly useful for translating websites.
If you’re on Android, the Chrome browser already has this built in. If you’re on an iPhone, translation is built into Safari. I’ve never owned an iPhone so I don’t know how well this works, but I imagine it’s decent.
Install the Google Translate Android app or iPhone app. This app is fantastic! You can point your camera at written text to get a translation, and in my recent experience this reasonably well on menus. I’m able to “read” a Chinese menu using the app, though see below for more detail on understanding menus.
The Google Translate app also does real time (ish) audio translation, so you can have (slow) conversations with people in Chinese. That said, if a restaurant is very busy the staff may not be willing to do this.
More upscale restaurants or restaurants that are part of a chain will often have menus with both English and Chinese. Sometimes they’ll have a separate English menu. Smaller mom and pop shops and food carts often don’t, though in touristy areas (like the most popular night markets) they might. But don’t assume you’ll find one. Be prepared to use Google Translate on your phone.
If you don’t look East Asian they may just give you the English menu or point you to where it’s posted. If you look East Asian you’ll probably have to ask for it.
Vegetarian Food in Taiwan
Taiwan has always had a lot of vegetarian food, at least since I first visited in 2000. There are many restaurants, food carts, and options in grocery stores. Historically, this is because Taiwan has a lot of Buddhists (35% according to Wikipedia), and Taiwanese Buddhism emphasizes vegetarianism.
However, Taiwanese Buddhism does allow animal products, as long as the animals aren’t directly killed to make the product. This means dairy has always been allowed. In the past, many Buddhist food vendors would not use eggs, because they might have been fertilized, which means eating one would kill the fetus. But ironically, the advent of factory farming means that eggs are more acceptable to Buddhists, since they cannot be fertilized when the hens live in confinement separate from roosters2.
Buddhist practice in Taiwan also forbids garlic, onions, and anything else in the Allium genus, like leeks and chives. If you go into a non-veg restaurant and tell them you’re vegetarian in Chinese, you may end up with food that doesn’t have any garlic or onions.
Dairy and Eggs in Practice
Vegetarian food vendors serving Asian food mostly don’t use dairy, except in some desserts. That’s simply because it’s not part of the cuisine. They do often use eggs.
Vendors selling Western food often use dairy, and it’s common to see things like pasta with cheese in vegetarian restaurants. It’s relatively uncommon to find a vegetarian (as opposed to vegan) place which offers the same items with dairy alternatives. However, there are some vegan restaurants that do offer things like burgers or pizza with vegan cheese.
At many restaurants, the menu is very minimal, containing only a title for each item without any indication of ingredients, how it’s prepared, etc.
To make matters even more confusing, when you use Google Translate, you sometimes get an unhelpful translation. This is often because it’s a common dish with an idiomatic name that translates to something like “soup, winter pink pigment”. Taiwanese people know what this is, but you won’t.
There’s not much to be done about this. If you’re adventurous and not picky like me3 then go ahead and order it.
The one thing I’d note is that if the translation includes the word “egg” or “omelet” then you should assume that it contains eggs!
Menu Markers for Ingredients
Some restaurants that use dairy and eggs mark items which contain them on the menu. Often, this is done with graphics that look like a bottle of milk or eggs, but it’s not uncommon to see text instead. The commonly used characters are:
- Has dairy - 奶食 (more literally translated as “milk vegetarian”)
- Has eggs - 蛋食 (more literally translated as “egg vegetarian”)
- Vegan - 純素 (more literally translated as “pure vegetarian”)
- Contains ingredients from the garlic/onion family - 植物五辛素
- A dish with this marker may also contain eggs or dairy.
You may also see the word “vegan” written in English. In my experience this is generally accurate on menus. However, on food packaging this may not be correct. See this blog post on Taiwanese food labeling for much more detail.
Some fancier non-veg restaurants label vegetarian items with a green leaf or some other green icon. But most non-veg restaurants have no such labels. The only way to find out if they have vegan food is to ask.
Non-Vegan Mock Meat
The mock meats used in many Taiwanese vegetarian places may not be vegan, as some mock meats are made with eggs (or whey, I believe). However, it’s quite possible that the vendor won’t know what’s in the them. I typically don’t worry about this too much, but if you are stricter than I am, you should be safe by only eating tofu and mock meats made with soy or wheat gluten (aka mock duck in the US). Avoid things like mock ham, chicken nuggets, etc.
That said, the menu items often don’t make it clear what the mock meat is. It’s very common to see a dish like “rice with meat sauce” at a vegetarian restaurant. Typically, this sauce will be made with a soy product or wheat gluten and some chopped mushrooms. But it could be made with some other mock meat.
Also, the menu may not indicate that an item contains mock meat at all, instead the menu might just say “fried rice” (in Chinese), but that fried rice might contain chopped mock ham.
There’s really no good way to handle this except with a more detailed conversation in Chinese (using Google Translate) or by only eating at 100% vegan places.
Finding Places to Eat
In my experience, the best tool for finding places to eat is Google Maps. Simply searching for “vegan food near me” or “vegan food Taipei” finds a ton of places, including both vegan and vegetarian options. You can also search for “素食”.
However, I would note that Google’s categorization of places as either “vegan restaurant” or “vegetarian restaurant” is quite random. It’s wrong in both ways, marking vegan places as vegetarian and vegetarian places as vegan. I’m trying to fix this a bit as I see it, but just assume it’s wrong.
Google Maps is used widely by Taiwanese people, so there’s a lot of reviews for most places. It’s also the most accurate resource I’ve found for determining whether a business in still in operation.
You may want to use Happy Cow. From what I can tell, Happy Cow is mostly updated by English-speaking people who don’t live here long, so it’s often out of date, with many listings for places that are closed, while missing many great options. I would recommend that you always look a place up on Google Maps to confirm that it still exists before going there. Happy Cow is also often wrong about vegetarian versus vegan.
If you Google for “vegan food in Taiwan” you’ll find a lot of blog posts. Again, these are often quite out of date. Confirm that the places mentioned still exist before going there!
There are also some directory/map sites in Chinese:
- https://food.suiis.com/ - In my experience this one is sometimes out of date and it will show you places that are closed, but it can help you find places that don’t show up with an English language search.
- https://vegemap.merit-times.com/restaurant_list - I have no idea how up to date this is. I haven’t used it much.
- https://ifoodie.tw/ - You can search for “素食” in various cities. I have no idea how up to date or complete this site is. I haven’t used it much.
Again, I recommend you double check any listing you find against Google Maps, which is the most up to date resource I’ve found for whether a business is closed or not.
Note that Google Maps is often wrong about the hours of operation. If you can, it’s good to call first.
Unlike in the US, convenience stores here in Taiwan actually have good food! A lot of them have vegan items. That said, from what I’ve read online, even if an item has English “vegan” or “plant-based” on the label, it may not actually be vegan. You can use Google Translate on the ingredients to double check.
Advice About Specific Food Items
- Stinky tofu - This may not be vegan. Animal products are often used to start the fermentation process, including animal blood or dairy, so even a “vegetarian stinky tofu” vendor may not be vegan. You’ll have to ask.
- Scallion pancakes - Some of these are made with lard instead of vegetable shortening.
- Anything deep fried or boiled. This may be cooked in the same oil or water as non-vegan food if the vendor serves non-vegan items.
- Bubble tea - Even though oat milk is common at coffee shops it’s rarely found at bubble tea shops, sadly. But bubble tea shops in Taiwan have many milk-free options.
Check out Nick Kembel’s post on the same topic as this one. It covers some things I don’t, like how to order using paper menus as well as more information on vegetarian (but not vegan) options.
The Absolute Best Way to Find Vegan Food in Taiwan
The absolute best way to find vegan food in Taiwan is with a Taiwanese person! I went so far as to marry one. That’s pretty extreme but you may want to consider this option if you struggle with finding vegan food in Taiwan.