Monday, 26 December 2011

Restaurant Review: the Minder chain

Many people complain that vegetarian self-serve (buffet-style) restaurants often sell low-quality, oily, cold, unappetizing fare. Minder Vegetarian (明德素食園; “Míng-de”; is here to correct that view at more than a dozen locations in northern Taiwan (here).

Most are in Taipei’s middle-class Da’an, Xinyi and Beitou districts, but there are branches in the high-density commuter suburbs of Xindian and Luzhou of New Taipei City, and a couple in Hsinchu as well. Today’s NOMM review is of the convenient (for travelers and central government workers) Taipei Main Station branch, upstairs at the northeast corner so one doesn’t even need to leave the building when changing between mainline, high-speed or MRT trains.

At NT$25 (ca. US$0.80) per 100g, the food is more expensive than at many similar establishments, but the quality is higher than most too, the taste of each vegetable is clear and different. A plate of vegetables with a side of rice usually costs between NT$75 and NT$150; that in the photograph (left) costs NT$125 (ca. US$4). Soups cost NT$20~60 and canned/bottled drinks NT$20~35.

 Beyond this, different branches of Minder sell different extras. The Taipei Station branch has shuijiao dumplings (NT$60), various dry noodles (NT$60~70) and soupy noodles (NT$80~109), baked noodles or rice (NT$160), and slightly strange pizzas such as Thai style soy-bacon pizza (NT$110~230).

During the peak 12~ lunchtime rush, seats can be hard to get, but things quieten down after that.

Address: 2F,
No. 3 Beiping West Road
(not that this will help much, just go upstairs at the northeast corner of the station)
Tel. 02-2361 3566
Hours: ~
NOMM fake meat index: 2 (low)

Monday, 19 December 2011

News Brief: Health warning issued on hotpot foods

Hotpots can contain many harmful substances, including agrichemicals, preservatives and food additives, as well as toxic chemicals released from containers, the Homemakers’ Union and Foundation said, as reported by the Taipei Times today (full article here).

The foundation’s Taichung division director Yang Shu-hui (楊淑慧) said there are many easily  overlooked risks that come with eating hotpots, such as ractopamine or antibiotics contained in meat, pesticides or nitrates in vegetables, preservatives in a number of hotpot ingredients and sauces, melamine in disposable containers and the excess amount of electromagnetic waves from induction cookers.

Restaurant Review: When ONLY 7-Eleven is available

When needs must, such as when suck in a typhoon or in the mountains, there is something microwaveable and edible and vegetarian in 7-Eleven. When needs must. Look in the freezers for a square plastic box with a yellow-and-blue label, titled 素三杯炒飯 (su sanbei chaofan; “vegetarian three cups fried rice”), made by Guiguan (桂冠) and costing NT$56 (ca. US$2). It is cheaper in supermarkets, but if there are supermarkets open, you probably don’t need to eat processed food.

Sanbei (“three cups”) is a classic Chinese cooking method, in which ingredients are slow-cooked in a sauce composed of one cup of soy sauce, one cup of sesame oil, and one cup of rice wine (sherry is usually suggested for Westerners without access to an Asian victualer). Since  , usually translated as “vegetarian” really means something like “accords to Buddhist dietary rules”, the wine is omitted from this product.

Otherwise, the roll-call of ingredients sounds impressive: rice, brown rice, purple sticky rice, wheat, oats, buckwheat, tofu "wheels" (豆輪丁), vegetarian ham, mushroom, soy sauce, canola oil, basil, sesame oil and chili.

It is probably the presence of the basil and sesame oil that make this product worthy of an NOMM review, or at least of eating when there is ONLY 7-Eleven available.

On the downside, while the words  無防腐劑 (“no preservatives”) offer some comfort, its 575 calories (slightly hidden in the 210 calories per 100g formula) and 8.2 percent fat are not encouraging.

But, when needs must ....

Text and photos © Jiyue Publications 2011

Feature: Interview with Meat-free Monday founder, Alex Su

Alex Su, Meat-free Monday Founder, at home.

NOMM met today with Alex Su (蘇小歡), founder of Taiwan’s Meat-free Monday (周一無肉日) campaign group. 
[Interview was undertaken in mixture of English and Chinese, the following is a translated/edited version.]

NOMM:  Briefly, about yourself, what was the cause of your conversion to vegetarianism and what led you to launch the Meat-free Monday group in Taiwan?
Alex Su: I chose vegetarianism about 15 years ago out of a desire not to kill or hurt animals unnecessarily. I gave up working fulltime about a decade ago, and withdrew to my home here [between Xindian and Wulai in New Taipei City]. My wife calls me a hermit. But as global warming has become more urgent, I decided to re-engage with the world, and so with a few others established the Meat-free Monday group.

NOMM: I remember hearing of Meat-free Monday being launched in Taipei in 2009, what has it been up to since then?
AS:  Over the last two years we have undertaken a three-stage evolution.
That would have been the press conference we held to announce establishment of our association in September 2009. Our main purpose at that time was to raise public understanding that reducing meat consumption is a major environmental contribution through reduction in climate-change emissions.
In November 2009 we held a street parade, which as well as environmentalism, also focused on the health benefits to be gained from vegetarianism.
In October 2010 we promoted vegetarianism as a tasty option, since many people held the misconception that meat is both necessary to diet and also tastier.

NOMM: And over the last year?
AS: We are like a duck floating on water. On the surface little seems to be happening, but beneath we are paddling away with determination. We have little money, and have no wish to apply for government grants or sponsorship by commercial companies. This means that when we speak, people know what we say is said with sincerity. Our main activities are lobbying and a twice-monthly (formerly weekly) newsletter to disseminate information.

NOMM: Who do you lobby?
AS: We continually contact government agencies and members of the legislature to keep vegetarianism on their agendas, our members and supporters in organizations like the Rotary Clubs raise the issue of vegetarianism whenever possible, and I use my contacts from my former occupation in the media to keep the issue in the public eye.

NOMM: What response have you received and, in particular, has there been any noticeable increase in vegetarian numbers in Taiwan?
AS: Before the activities of groups including ours, the number of vegetarians in Taiwan had been stable at around 8 percent for a couple of decades (equivalent to around 2 million people). These figures came from government and academic organizations such as the Ethnology Institute at the Academia Sinica. Although there are no exact new figures, it is apparent that there are more vegetarians, more vegetarian restaurants, as well as more people having meat-free days or meat-free meals.
        If seven people follow the idea of a meat-free Monday, that is equivalent to one extra fulltime vegetarian; if 21 people only follow the meat-free idea for one meal per week, that too is equivalent to one extra fulltime vegetarian.

NOMM: Has there been any change in the reasons people are vegetarian, if only for a day or a meal?
AS: Vegetarianism in Taiwan was originally a religious matter, promoted primarily by Buddhist organizations such as Tzu Chi (慈濟) and Foguangshan (佛光山), but also unbeknownst to most people, [the syncretic religion] Yiguandao (一貫道), whose followers operate around 60 percent of Taiwan’s vegetarian restaurants.
       Recent converts to vegetarianism, especially young people, tend to be more motivated by environmental concerns. Also, traditional organizations such as Tzu Chi, whereas they previously advocated vegetarianism, are now pushing it much more strongly among their followers. There is also the Loving Hut (愛家) chain of 28 restaurants run by the Supreme Master Ching Hai organization, promoting a strongly environmentalist veganism, even though it started as a religious organization.

NOMM: What is the role of celebrity vegetarians in this rise?
AS: As I said, our organization is not rich, in fact we are an association (協會) not even a foundation (基金會), which needs a substantial “fund,” so we have to make a little money go a long way. The media and high-profile figures can be important in the process of disseminating ideas and practices, therefore.
        Having said that, I would like to mention one government official whose influence is probably greater than others’ but whose contribution largely passes below the radar. This is Vice Minister of Education Lin Tsong-ming ( 林聰明), himself a vegetarian and former school teacher, who has promoted meat-free days in public schools throughout Taiwan. Around 70 percent of schools now have meat-free days, mostly Mondays but sometimes Fridays.

NOMM: What is next for Meat-free Monday (Taiwan) and for Alex Su?
AS: Having set up the group and got it started, I hope now to pass the running of it to others and return somewhat to my “hermit” life. Having said that, three recent developments will come to fruition early next year.
First, is the launch of “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (2)” (飲食男女二), with which I am involved. The first Oscar-nominated film, made by Ang Lee (李安), dealt with meat dishes, this second one is about vegetarian food.
Second, is a Chinese translation by my wife Caddy Lung and myself of Will Tuttle’s book “A World Peace Diet.”
And third, will be publication of a book of a selection of the information provided in our newsletter over the last two years.

NOMM: Doesn’t sound like much of a return to being a hermit! Good luck with your projects.

Text and photos © Jiyue Publications 2011

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Feature: Confucius says "bu shi, bu shi"

([if it] is not in season, do not eat [it])

Analects of Confucius (X, viii)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Restaurant Reivew: One-person banquet (Yilan City)

 Lucky is the traveller outside Taipei’s main cities who can find more on offer then rice and noodle dishes, or the ubiquitous buffet. Occasionally one might come across a banquet-style restaurant selling 合菜 (he-cai; “combination dishes”), but these are suited to groups not solo diners.

The 10-year-old Lianxin Vegetarian Restaurant (蓮心素食餐坊; lit. “Lotus Heart” but no English name) just outside Yilan City’s (宜蘭市) old north gate (北門) has rice and noodle dishes, and offers a variety of classic Chinese-style banquet dishes, according with Buddhist vegetarianism, of course.

But it also offers “individual combination dishes” (個人合菜; NT$150), consisting of one vegetable dish, two portions from the main list of banquet dishes, one soup (rather more fancy than the usual boiled leftovers) and a little fruit.  

The dishes include such classics as sweet and sour ribs, three cups chicken; sizzling-plate king oyster mushroom, sweet and sour shrimp balls, lotus leaf steamed tofu, meigan kourou (pork), fish in sauce &c. These are available as full dishes for NT$150-350, meaning four people ordering 4 or 5 dishes plus a soup would spend about NT$1000. The only downside of the “individual combo”, apart from the unavoidable fake meats, is that diners cannot choose their dishes.

For those that want control, there are still a wide range of rice (NT$120) and noodle (NT$70) dishes, plates of vegetables (NT$70) and soups (NT$60). Biandang (NT$60) are available for those without time to sit. Elegant Buddhist art is there for those who do.

price: ca. NT$150
429 Zhongshan Rd.
(中山路) Sec.3, Yilan City,
tel. 03-9320706;
NOMM fake meat index: 6 (high)

For those finding themselves at the other (south) end of the old city, QianQian (千千素食館; “One Thousand Thousands Vegetarian Restaurant” but no English name) in the shadow of Carrefour offers a reasonable selection of vegetables, tofus, (fake meats), rice and noodles for NT$85 all-you-can-eat buffet style.
No.7 Minquan Rd. Sec.2 (民權路二段); (03)932 8311; `11-14:00 and 17~; 7 days/week

Text and photos copyright Jiyue Publications

Thursday, 8 December 2011

News Brief: Unscrupulous businessman forges “best-before” dates to sell out-of-date products

Having received reports in early November of some low-life businessman changing expiry dates on foods and drinks, the Tainan District Prosecutors Office (台南地檢署) combined forces with its counterpart in Changhua (彰化地檢署) to conduct a sting operation, secretly monitoring suspicious activities, buying and testing items, the Liberty Times reports today (full Chinese-language article here, or wait and see if its sister paper the Taipei Times reports in English tomorrow). 

Prosecutors discovered that Heya Company (荷亞商行) of Xiushui Township (秀水鄉) in Changhua County, owned by Chen Cheng-li (陳政利), is suspected in collecting out-of-date food and drinks, forging new expiry dates, then selling them for 10-50 percent of market prices to middlemen throughout the country, making more than NT$1 billion in one month.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

News Brief: dog food contains preservatives &c.

Dog-lovers often want to give their pets the same protection as a son or daughter, but 40 percent of dog foods surveyed contained preservatives, the Consumers’ Foundation (消基會) discovered, the China Times reports today (full Chinese-language article here).

Eight of 20 canned and dried products tested by the foundation were found to contain the preservative sorbic acid (己二烯酸).

In addition, Carrefour’s own-brand dog food labeled “beef favor” on the can was found to include only chicken and tuna. Carrefour responded that this was due to beef import sources having been previously categorized as “quarantine zones”. Should there be a change in the law, Carrefour said it would accord with future regulations.

                                                                              Text © Jiyue Publications 2011

News Brief: Beans, beans, they make you fart … but some kinds are better (worse) than others

Many people think that eating beans makes them cut vintage cheese, and so maintain a respectful culinary distance from legumes. But in reality, not all beans lead to flatulence, the Xinsheng Daily reports (Chinese-language article here). 

Moreover, not just does the degree of bottom bugling vary from bean to bean, but individual diners physiques also influence the timbre of ones trouser tuba.

The US researchers also stressed legume consumptions benefits for the human heart, and recommended that they form a part of everyones daily diet along with fresh fruit and vegetables. People worried about stormy weather followed by strong winds and thunder should try a variety of beans, one at a time and in small doses, and keep an eye on physiological changes until they find one that measures low on the rectum scale.

                                                 Text and photos © Jiyue Publications 2011

News Brief: Danger of sugar substitutes

Many people wanting to diet without giving up sweet foods switch to sugar substitutes, but this can still lead to increased weight, the China Times reports today (Chinese-language article here)

New research from the US suggests eating foods containing sugar substitutes can cause people to consume more calories, causing their weight to go up. The John Tung Foundation reminded consumers that many products on sale marked “low sugar” (低糖) or “low calorie”(低熱量) could, if they have a sweet flavour, contain sugar substitutes, and people should not assume that they could eat as much as they wanted without repercussion.

Director of the foundation's nutrition group,Hsu Hui-yu, said there are many kinds of sugar substitutes, used in many drinks, chewing gum, candies and biscuits etc. According to research done on mice at Purdue University in the US, weight gain by mice eating sugar substitutes was greatest, possibly due to interference in biological appetite regulation mechanisms, causing them to eat even more.

(In fact this is not entirely new news, Purdue University research was reported earlier this year (English-language news here) and even earlier research has made Time Magazine in 2008 (here).

News Brief: Snack in the p.m., not a.m. to lose weight

People wanting to lose weight should not eat snacks between breakfast and lunch, US researchers have found, the United Daily News reports today (Chinese-langauge article here).

Those on a diet who snack in the morning lost just 7 percent of their body weight, compared to 11 percent by those who did not. (English article c/o Huffingtonpost here).

Monday, 5 December 2011

Restaurant Review; veg food in the mall

Just as hypermarkets and shopping malls are poor places to buy vegetables and non-processed foods, so too their dining areas have few vegetarian options.
To its credit, the menu at the Skylark (加洲風洋食) chain, mostly centered around steak, hamburgers and seafood platters (accompanied by bacon-topped salads and meat-stock-based soups) does have four vegetarian main courses, with a salad (two dressings) and soup choice to accompany it.
As a rare exception, therefore, NOMM this Monday reviews a non-vegetarian restaurant.

The 4 mains include 2 rice and 2 noodles:
a) Italian Porcini Doria,
b) Vegetable Pilaff - Oyster Sauce Flavour,
c) Spaghetti with Vegetable Asian Flavour,
d) Spaghetti with Italian Porcini
The soup is Vegetarian Mushroom Broth and the salad has either yoghurt or curry olive dressing.
NOMM chose the doria (baked rice) dish, but no, we couldn’t switch for the vegetable soup on the regular menu, it wasn’t vegetarian, nor for the vegetables instead of salad, even without the bacon bits (suggesting, perhaps, the veg are fried in lard).
The doria was adequate but dominated by a thick layer of cheese (so definitely not vegan), and the soup was rather tasteless and oily. The absence of fake meat, was a pleasant surprise, however.
All meals come with two bits of bread and a drink; NOMM had hot cocoa, which perfectly hit the spot on this wet wintry day. It was like a drink and dessert combined.

Vegetarian mains cost around NT$180, a combination meal around NT$300 (significantly cheaper than most of the meat meals, which is often a bone of contention). Optional desserts are NT$50 extra, beers NT100 and wine NT$360 a half bottle.

Skylark gets extra marks for
i)                    listing the calories of each item in its menu,
ii)                   the size and crispness of the salad portion (single price: NT$50),
iii)                  the spacious layout of the restaurant: being closer to one’s dining partner than a neihbouring stranger greatly improves one’s experience.
iv)                 once infamous for bringing each course before diners had finished the previous one, Skylark seems to have listened to complaints. It was actually difficult to get staff to bring all NOMM’s dishes at once in order to take a photograph.
v)                  although we sat, chatted, wrote and read for 2 hours at a peak time (Saturday ) while customers queued outside, we were never given any pressure to eat up and get going.