Buffet Mania

Having traveled, lived, and eaten in so many places, it’s just about impossible for me to avoid the question, “what’s the best place to be a vegetarian?”  Sometimes other people ask me, sometimes I ask myself.  Before I was a seasoned vegetarian, I think my instinctive response would have been a little pragmatic: the the answer must depend on how many Boca products or forms of tofu are in circulation.  Oh, and avocados . I might also have considered climate and geography – what plants grow well? are tropical fruits easily available?  All year round?  Religious factors might have come to mind: how many Buddhsits, Jains, or other vegetarians are around?  I would have been less likely to consider economic ones, such as whether or not the farmers can afford or have access to the fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified crops that make levels of meat consumption like our own possible. I almost certainly wouldn’t have given much thought to the role of culture: How much is eating meat associated with status?  With masculinity? With alcohol? How homogeneous is the culture, and how far can one distance oneself from culinary norms before the culture considers you an outsider?Taiwan has added a new variable to this list.  It may be relevant only to the traveler, but as I doubt very few locals from the places I’m visiting will ever read this, I’ll go ahead and mention it: how does the ordering process work?  In most restaurants, you have to tell somebody what it is that you want to eat.  If the restaurant doesn’t have menus, or if you can’t read them, you’re out of luck. In this way, Korea has broken many a Western vegetarian despite the omnipresence of amazing meat-free options.  Many people warned me that China would do the same to me, though thankfully I’ve managed to learn enough words and characters to get by.  Here in Taiwan, though, there’s only one thing you need to know:

Welcome to the zi4 zhu4 can1!  Literally, “self help meals” the zi zhu can is a sort of buffet where you pick out whatever you like and pay either a flat fee, a fee based on weight, or whatever the lunchlady tells you after running everything through her own unknowable algorithm.  Some are veg only, some have meat and fish, none fail to please.

Here’s a vegetarian one I stopped at in Henchung.  Twenty-five types of food, from my count, from pickled this and that and lightly braised greens stuff for the health-fanatic, to deep-fried doodads for the indulgent, with a range of tastes and textures in between. What did I pick?

Or rather, what didn’t I?!  How about, starting from 12 o’clock: pumpkin boiled with ginger; braised napa cabbage (or some similar leaf) and braised fernish kinda guys; rice vermicelli noodles with soy sause; bean sprouts and seaweed; sauteed green beans (center); a sweet potato stick; a ball of battered dill; mushrooms fried with bread crumbs; eggplants with thai basil; and bitter gourd stewed with pineapple. And a dousing of peanuts on top for good measure.

A closer look at the dill ball.  Really weird – the taste of a pickle, the texture of a french fry.

These restaurants are all over the place (some, like this one in Yilan near  Luke and Tanya’s house, have more ambiance than others), meaning that no matter where the clueless traveler finds himself, he can get a wonderful meal covering the entire color and taxonomic spectrum. Even without knowing the name of a single dish.  Or a single vegetable! Just three characters: one that looks like a window with a cowlick, one that’s got a gravestone and the character for “power,” and one that has a big mess up top and the character for “cuisine” at the bottom.  Indeed, many of the buffets are even open-air, so that without knowing a single character or a single word, you can fill up.  Where else can someone eating solo get so many different kinds of food?

Would you pay $2.50 for this?  Yes, I thought so.

Lordy lordy lordy.

These buffets are also a prime place for food photography.  So many beautiful veggies, sitting there under the heating lamps!

Another variety of zi zhu can, where you point at up to five veggie dishes behind a window and they plop it atop a bowl of rice. A bit like custom-made bibimbap.

Outside of the zi zhu can, though, life here can be a little rough.  Taiwan uses the old style Chinese characters, which are quite a bit more complicated that the ones used on the mainland, many of which were simplified by Mao during the cultural revolution.  Much of my reading ability has therefore gone out the window, leaving me with occasional meal failures such as this one:

Giant radishes, definitely among my least favorite vegetables.  Bitter gourd, which I don’t understand why anybody bothers eating.  Some so-so tofu.  And rice.  It’ll get me through the next fifty km, I suppose.

When in doubt, I just bust out this old gem: shu1cai4 de chao3mian4 chao3fan4 ke3yi3 ma?  wo3 bu2 yao4 ji1dan4 bu2 yao4 rou4.  “Can you do fried veggie fried noodles or rice?  I don’t want any eggs or meat.”  The answer is always: either ke3yi3!  (Can do!).  Well, except when it’s mei2you3 fan4.  No rice!

In the street-food category, we have:

Cong you bing (scallion oil pastry).  Note that I have found yet another way to reduce plastic usage: rather than take a plastic bag that I’ll throw out after scarfing down my snack, I can just set them on the inverted lid of my cooking pot.  Good job, self!

These were common in China too, but here in Taiwan you get to turn them into wraps, adding either some sort of meat, eggs and herbs, or just veggies.

At a dollar a piece, why not eat two?

What’s this I spy?  Something Green Something Something Vegetarian Cuisine!

Oh holy lord god in heaven above, it’s a vegan dumpling shop.  I nearly crapped my lycra cycling shorts with joy.
Let’s start with two veg dumplings, five pot stickers, and a cup of soy milk.

What’s that purple one?  Oh, it’s a sweet one you say?  I think I’ll take that and the sesame one next to it as well.  A little sweet talking about my trip and my efforts not to eat meat or leave behind any trash earned me a free meal.  They even offered to give me dumplings for the road.  Unfortunately my bags were full.

I can’t remember what these little guys are called.  What I do remember is that they come with a variety of fillings.  Pictured here: one peanut, one sweet potato, one sesame.  3 for a buck.  Hot and fluffy and crispy and fresh.  Mouth waters at the memory.

Just like in China, after all the rich sautees and starchy street snacks, my stomach wants a raw meal every once in a while.  Camping is the perfect opportunity, since I can buy the ingredients ahead of time, cram them into my cooking pot, and chop them all up later.  Less than a dollar for this baby: greens, Chinese celery, carrots, cherry tomatoes, chives, and peanuts fried with Thai basil.  Who needs cooking?

As for fruits:

A guava a day keeps depression at bay.  These things are incredible.  And monstrous.

The guava is an interesting fruit.  It doesn’t exactly have layers, and yet it does.  As you near the center, the flesh transitions from kind of bland and airy (like a cheese puff ball almost) to a little more sweet and gooey. As the guavas age, they get softer to the touch and the gooey core expands.  Most people don’t like eating the seeds (though I don’t even notice them), so they buy the guavas when they’re rock hard, eat only the outer section, and throw out the middle.  I, on the other hand, search out the old, bruised, neglected guavas, buy them at half price, and revel in how much smarter I am than everybody else.

New fruit alert: a search for “yellow tropical fruit tastes like tangy roast sweet potato” informs me that this is a Canistel.  Whatever, it’s like eating ice cream off a tree!  I’ve only seen these once, and at the time I didn’t know what they were.  Also, at the time of eating my fingers were too sloppy (and my appetite too ravenous) to operate the camera.  Next time!
Annnnd I’ll close with two photos that I like for purely aesthetic reasons.

Water chestnuts.

Cute little buggers.  I hope nobody eats you.

In case you were wondering, I haven’t left Vipassana early.  I just wrote this post a few days ago and told it to upload later.  At the moment, I’m either sleeping, sitting in silence, or chowing down on some Taiwanese Vipassana food.  See ya in a week!

This entry was posted in Taiwan, The Food. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Buffet Mania

  1. Adam Winner says:

    Great, it’s 8:47 A.M. and now I need a Chinese veggie feast! Awesome post.

  2. Alexa Hart says:

    Looks like pure goodness! Love that you are finding new dishes an food to try.