Short Order: Monkey-heads and lotus fruit in Taiwan

A kashrut observer is faced with a bewildering array of Buddhist vegetarian dishes.

greenbeans88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Back from several days in Taiwan, where I was a guest of the Taiwanese Tourist Office, I'm still resonating with the sights, sounds and smells of a fascinating world very different from our own despite some superficial westernization. Our Israeli group of 11 was given VIP treatment, including in the restaurants, and as a kashrut observer I could only observe with awe the artfully arranged meat, fish and abundant seafood platters that seemed to arrive in endless procession. (One tureen of steaming chicken soup, I recall, had two large yellow and purple flower-heads floating on its surface.) But I couldn't observe for too long; I had my own problems. While my companions could pick and choose from the serving dishes crowded onto giant wooden lazy Susans in the middle of every table, taking one morsel or 10 as their appetites dictated, my position was different. The Taiwanese had been informed in advance that I would eat only Buddhist vegetarian food (which is prepared in different pots), and in every place where we stopped for a meal, bowls of steamed rice, tofu, vegetables and soup - enough for three diners at least - would pile up around me, accompanied by the distinct impression that I was expected to eat it all. (When I once tried to sneak a bowl of soup into the common area, a waitress leapt forward and plonked it back down next to me with an admonition.) Buddhist vegetarian I had requested, and Buddhist vegetarian I would have, to the last drop. Thus did I manage, more or less, in the places we visited. BUT THE culinary highlight of my trip came on the Sunday of our stay, when I had a guide, car and driver all to myself, the rest of the group still being away in the distant parts they had been touring over Shabbat. When my affable guide suggested lunch, I asked if we could eat in a restaurant that catered exclusively to Buddhists. He readily agreed, and we eventually alighted at the Jyh Ren Tang Vegetarian Restaurant in downtown Taipei. The exterior, complete with welcoming red dragon, resembled a Buddhist temple. Things got off to an uncertain start when the guide, a Taiwanese Catholic clearly not a whole lot more familiar with the menu than I was, suddenly asked: "Have you tried Stinky Bean Curd? It is a national delicacy." Something in my expression must have struck him, because he immediately followed up with "No! No! We'll skip that!" He then decided to rely on the recommendations of the owner, a rotund and smiling woman - and an amazing meal ensued. It began with some finely chopped vegetables in a delicate wheat wrap; what made this starter mouthwatering was the bunch of very thin, very crispy sticks that formed the center. Picking up the neat package and biting into it was a memorable sensual experience, and I could have made my whole meal out of half a dozen more of the same. (My guide told me this is a very popular snack in Taiwan; so if any reader recognizes it and can tell me what it is called, I'll be grateful. When he pronounced the name, it sounded like "sampi.") After this came a bowl of monkey-head mushrooms cooked with red dates - I thought they were black olives - bamboo shoots and lotus fruit, which looks, and tastes, like a large pale nut. My guide explained that it sits at the base of the lotus flower and is a quite expensive delicacy. This was followed by a lovely dish of green beans cooked with what looked like slender, dark-pink raisins and sprinkled with crispy bean curd. THEN CAME the piece de resistance: a covered dish so hot that its bearer was hidden in clouds of steam. "Steak!" exclaimed my guide and our driver, when the cover was removed. Seeing my reaction, they quickly explained that these chunks of "meat" in a rich and sizzling brown sauce that looked every inch as if they had once walked on four legs were actually made of the ubiquitous soybean curd. When I had calmed down enough to try them, I found them unbelievably good. Together with this came a dish of large-capped dark mushrooms cooked with big pieces of bamboo shoot, on a bed of wilted greens. Everything we ate was superbly sauced and seasoned, with herbs and spices I couldn't identify but which turned my taste buds into friends for life. My new pals continued to ply me with food, but I had room only for dessert: ice-cream, self-service, from a choice of flavors that included jasmine or rose (I couldn't be sure which). Throughout, we drank a warm herbal tea that, I was told, "is good for the eyes and kidneys." When we had finished, I asked my guide to tell the owner that it had been the best vegetarian meal I had eaten in Taiwan. "I'll tell her after I've paid," he replied, eyes twinkling. "Otherwise she will raise the price." Full disclosure: I ate every meal in Taiwan, except breakfast, with chopsticks. MANY RECIPES enjoyed in the West are inspired by Chinese cuisine. The first one, says Jolinda Hackett (, "is great on its own, or dipped in just about any kind of sauce. You can also use it in a vegetable stir-fry, fried rice or noodle dish." The second is from The Compassionate Cook Cookbook. CRISPY FRIED TOFU 1 block firm or extra-firm tofu (organic is best, from a health-food store) 3 Tbsp. nutritional or brewer's yeast 2 Tbsp. flour 2 tsp. garlic powder 1⁄2 tsp. salt 1⁄2 tsp. pepper 2 Tbsp. olive oil Slice the tofu into 1.5-cm. cubes. In a small bowl, combine it with the other ingredients, except for the oil, and toss gently to coat the tofu well. (Or place the ingredients in a zip-lock bag or covered container, and shake well.) Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the tofu. Cook for 4-6 minutes, turning occasionally, until golden brown and lightly crispy. ASIAN GREEN BEANS 500 gr. green beans, trimmed 11⁄2 cups water 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil 1⁄4 cup vegetable broth 2 Tbsp. soy sauce 2 tsp. rice wine or dry sherry 1 Tbsp. sugar 3 cloves garlic, minced Heat the water in a wok or large saucepan. Add the beans and steam until tender but still crisp, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside. Combine the vegetable broth, soy sauce, rice wine (or sherry) and sugar in a small bowl, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Wipe the excess water from the wok or saucepan, add the oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the beans and sauce and cook for two minutes, stirring often. NOMI KALISCH of Givat Ze'ev forwarded me a health item from the Internet that dovetailed neatly with my Taiwan trip. The Chinese and Japanese, it said, drink warm tea with their meals, and maybe it's time Westerners adopted the habit. While a cold drink after a meal is nice, it tends to solidify any oils just consumed, slow the digestion, break down and become absorbed faster than the solid food. This oily mixture will line the intestine, turn into fat and may even lead to disease. Soup, warm water or warm tea after a meal is therefore a good idea. This item explained why the tea I got served in Taiwan was invariably lukewarm rather than hot - a bit irritating to the uninitiated, but altogether soothing now I know there is a healthy reason for it. It also helped me understand why the soup always arrived toward the end of the meal.