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Defying old habits with Taiwanese faux-meat

by Ananda Jacobs

I happen to be one of those vegetarians who has never developed even an inkling of a taste for meat. It was thus one of the most bizarre culinary experiences I could have imagined to bite into a juicy, steaming dumpling of flesh — albeit fake flesh — during a recent dining experiment.

I was out for Taiwanese. With roots in Buddhism, Taiwanese food can be divided neatly, if you like, into two categories: vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Unlike Japanese shojin ryōri (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine reserved for special occasions), plant-based fare in Taiwan has trickled comfortably into mainstream culture. As such, the creative use of soy products is astounding, and the variety of dishes truly impressive.

I stumbled upon Roran (2-39-8 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-3984-4981), a casual Chinese/Taiwanese restaurant, while searching online for a vegetarian place near Ikebukuro one night.

The menu at Roran has options for both real meat as well as their soy counterparts for several dishes. Tell the staff you’d like everything vegetarian, and they’ll prepare the meal accordingly. The portions here are generally very filling: Gomoku chāhan (fried rice) for ¥700 and a huge bowl of creamed corn and egg soup for ¥500 was easily enough for two.

At first made nervous by the strange pink hue of the fake pork in the fried rice — I’ve been trained to pick around this stuff for years — I did muster the courage to try it. A slightly salty, chewy little slab later, and I thought, this fake-meat thing maybe isn’t as off-putting as I’d imagined.

After my admittedly modest sampling of soy pork at Roran, I was more prepared for my next foray into mock-meat territory at Ling Ling Saikan in Kinshicho (4-1-9 Kinshi, Sumida-ku, Tokyo; 03-3625-1245).

This Taiwanese restaurant, happily proclaiming “It’s Vegetable!” on a green sign out front, is not only 100 percent vegetarian, but is also almost entirely vegan. The array of imitation meat dishes as well as “pure” tofu dishes was truly mind-blowing, especially for someone used to having only two or three options on any given menu.

Hungry and having made up my mind to try a variety of items, I ordered the spring rolls, shūmai (“pork” dumplings), sweet-and-sour “pork,” fried “fish,” tanmen noodles and gyōza. Once past my initial reactions to the strange textures, and while constantly repeating in my head the mantra “This is tofu… This is tofu… It’s only tofu,” I actually found most of it quite palatable.

Though I think I still prefer soy in a more honest-looking form, the quality of food prepared at Ling Ling Saikan was so refined that even my meat-eating dining partner couldn’t stop raving about it. And not because the dishes resembled meat, but because they were just plain delicious. I’ll definitely be going back there again, with a sense of adventure — but also completely relaxed knowing it’s all veggie-friendly.

Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.anandajacobs.com