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Why Vegetarian Food In Taiwan And Hong Kong Is Great - And Why The West Should Learn From It

Dougan, a type of dried bean curd (by Bryan
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)
While I was living in Taiwan and Hong Kong, vegetarian food became a fundamental part of my diet. When I returned to Europe after six amazing years in East Asia, I suddenly realized how difficult it was for me to readjust to a diet where most of the protein intake comes from meat and dairy products.

In most of Europe it is hard to find suitable and affordable vegetarian alternatives to meat and fish. Of course, one can eat eggs and pulses. However, eggs  contain a lot of cholesterol. Generally speaking, eating one egg a day is considered safe for most people. One large egg has only about 6-7 grams of protein. But the body needs about 1 gram of protein per 1 kg of body weight (0.75 grams for people who have a sedentary lifestyle). I personally found that eating more than one egg per day negatively affected me. Pulses are healthy and cheap, but, honestly, I find them quite boring on a daily basis. 

One of the greatest things about Asian vegetarianism is tofu. Tofu is an amazing source of vegetable protein. 126 grams of tofu have 10 grams of protein. Tofu itself is tasteless, and that's why many people in the West don't like it. Tofu - which is nothing but a coagulated block of soy milk - needs to be seasoned or marinated. If cooked properly, tofu can be delicious. And it is extremely versatile. Chinese vegetarian restaurants have dozens of tofu dishes with different shapes and flavours. 

Tofu is definitely one of the things that Europe should learn from East Asia (although the rising nationalist movements want to impose their "tradition and identity"-based policies that make it so difficult for people like me to explain why we should be open-minded enough to change and learn from other parts of the world). 

In this post, I would like to briefly talk about vegetarian cuisine in the Chinese-speaking world and why I think the West should learn from it. 


The Vegetarian/Vegan Tradition in the Chinese-speaking World


Vegetarianism/Veganism is a "practical philosophy oriented toward living without directly or indirectly harming or exploiting animals" (Puskar-Pasewicz 2010, p. 239).

The most basic form of vegetarianism is the practice of avoiding to eat meat and fish. Vegetarians, however, consume eggs and dairy products. Vegans, by contrast, have a more restrictive diet: they avoid all animal food, including eggs, honey and dairy products.

The Chinese-speaking world has a long history of vegetarianism/veganism, which goes back to Taoism, Confucianism, and, most importantly, Buddhism (ibid. pp. 38, 242).

The simple reason why vegetarian cuisine is so widespread in the Chinese-speaking world is the number of Buddhists and the resulting demand for vegetarian products and restaurants. 

According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 245 million Buddhists in mainland China, around 18% of the population, while 21% of Chinese practice folk religions that often incorporate elements of Buddhism. Due to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which promotes state atheism, Buddhism is culturally less prominent than in Taiwan, which has maintained its traditional Chinese heritage. 

According to 2005 estimates, Buddhist make up 35.3% of the Taiwanese population, followed by Taoists (33.2%), and Christians (3.9%). In Hong Kong, about 15% of the population are Buddhist, while 15% are Taoist. Because of its British colonial past as well as immigration from the Philippines, 12.5% of the population are Christian.

The Chinese character for vegetarian food is 素 (sù). Remember this character if you are looking for a vegetarian restaurant.  

Advantages of Vegetarianism


In 2014 for a number of personal reasons I stayed in Europe for several months. During that period I put on quite a lot of weight. When I returned to Taiwan, I decided to go on a diet.

I would go twice a day to a vegetarian buffet in Taipei Main Station or Taipei City Hall. I'd eat as many tofu and vegetable dishes as I wanted, but I wouldn't order any rice. After every meal, I would walk for two hours. I lost all of the excess weight in just two weeks, and I felt great. That's when I first became aware of how good vegetarian food was for me.

One big advantage of vegetarian food, and especially of tofu, is that it's cheap, healthy, and easy to digest. 

When I lived in Hong Kong, I used to buy "five spices tofu", a type of firm seasoned bean curd. I loved the taste and the texture of it. Four pieces of five spices tofu cost about 1 euro. Two pieces contain 35 grams of protein, no fat, and no carbs! When I ate tofu, vegetables, and rice, I felt really energetic, light, and "clean".

By comparison, if you want to eat 70 grams of protein in Europe, you have to spend at least 5 euros to buy cheap tuna or meat.

Another huge advantage of vegetarian food is its environmental sustainability.

The meat industry has a huge negative impact on the planet and is highly inefficient. It takes 25 kg of grain and 15,000 litres of water to produce one kg of beef. According to a recent study, meat and dairy products provide only 18% of calories and 37% of protein, but require 83% of the world's farmland.

Technological progress might make us much less dependent on actual land for agriculture in the future. In many countries people are experimenting with vertical farming, the cultivation of crops in high-rise buildings so as to optimize land use, grow vegetables and fruit faster, and reduce the number of people needed to work in farms. In land-scarce Singapore, vertical farms are now selling produce such as strawberries.

Of course, tofu is available in Europe, too. However, it is way more expensive than in Asia, and in many cases it costs more than meat or fish. Tofu in Europe is considered a premium product for a wealthy extravagant elite.

If more people in the West began to replace at least part of their animal protein intake with vegetarian protein, the price of tofu could be reduced and thus make food cheaper for everyone.

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