I have to admit, I was terrified before moving to Taiwan. Not especially because I would be away from family and friends, or because I was starting a completely new life and career, or even really because I wouldn’t be able to communicate as easily. I was mostly terrified that I would be consistently presented with plates of steaming intestines and god knows what other animal products, swimming in questionable broths and sauces with no escape route.
Before leaving the US, I had been a vegetarian for over 6 years. I made this choice for a couple of reasons. It was not because of any PETA-related hysteria, but because I had never really enjoyed eating meat. Pair that disinterest with an understanding of meat production in the United States, you will likely end up with a vegetarian. However, I wasn’t really sure what Taiwan’s food culture had in store for me, and I never wanted to be the snooty American, snubbing a generously offered meal cooked by a tiny, adorable Taiwanese grandmother (yes, this is the image I had in my head) because it had meat in it. I wanted to be able to be gracious and accepting of whatever was put in front of me, to be fully immersed in my new home and culture. I felt that the only way to do this was to give up vegetarianism.
About two or three months before leaving, I began toying with the idea of crossing back over into the world of meat eating. It made me want to crawl under the covers. Finally I decided I was ready. We went to the food co-op in town and bought free-range, Oregon raised chicken. Tim marinated it with care and love. We had a barbeque. It was all so perfect, but when I really started to think about it, I couldn’t do it. I had spent 6 years abstaining from meat. I just did NOT eat meat. Was this really the right choice? Did I really want to eat that chicken? I contemplated over a few beers and then…went for it. It was not so bad! I thought, maybe I can actually do this.
I was going to have to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the co-op and choose a nicely packaged chicken breast with a label from the farm two towns over, but at least I was on my way to being accustomed to eating meat and I probably wouldn’t get horribly sick from eating some noodles with a few chunks meat mixed in.
I think that my decision to start eating meat again has definitely given me the opportunity to experience a huge part of Taiwanese culture that I would have missed out on otherwise. Had I continued to be a vegetarian, I wouldn’t have been able to partake in the odd but favored Taiwanese pastime of eating pork. I never would have tried Taiwan’s national dish, beef noodles. Despite all of this I still cook almost exclusively vegetarian at home, and have found that it is actually really easy to find vegetarian restaurants all over Taiwan.
Because of the large Buddhist population, you wont turn any heads if you decline to eat meat. You may, however, need to keep an open mind. The Taiwanese are really into crafting realistic artificial meat; they make fake bones. Also, expect that if you don’t speak Chinese, you might attempt to order veg fried rice and end up with a greasy mess of gristly pork, mushy peas, and white rice. A phrase that might help you avoid any such mishaps is “Bùyào ròu” (不要肉), meaning “don’t want meat.” That being said, the best way to be sure your meal will be free of animal products is to look for the backwards swastika, the Buddhist symbol, on the front of restaurants.
In any case, whether you are a carnivore through and through, or you can’t even stand the idea of scrambled eggs, you will not go hungry in this food-loving country.