The dark clouds were closing in overhead, but we were not going to let the chance of rain spoil our food adventure for the night, as Taiwans traveling vegetarian market descended upon the Sing Ren Garden Night Market in Shulin.
As we ventured to the back of the market we found what we had come for, a small gathering of five or six vegetarian food stalls, each with a few people queuing to try vegan and vegetarian version of their favorite Taiwanese night-market snacks.
But there was only one star of the show and that was George, and Georges’ vegetarian burgers were what people had come for. George’s bright orange food truck stood pride of place in the center, and his queue – for want of a better word – was massive. I am a little ashamed to say, that despite being a visitor and a resident of this Island over the past 5 years, I had not had a genuine queueing experience.
Not only is George and his Gardenburger food truck the star of the show, he is also the organizer of it. After circling the Island solo for some time, George now regularly travels with a convoy of ever-changing vegetarian and vegan eateries. Despite the array of choice in one place, it is clear who everybody is really here for. One could wonder, does Georges popularity help or hinder the other stalls business?
I had estimated the queue to be an hour long, and this turned out to be about bang-on. So as we entered a strategy formulated – one to hold the line, and one to go around to the other stalls and get snacks. Surely this would keep us sustained through the long journey to the front of the queue. (Later we would find ourselves full before reaching the point of burger-goodness!)
The first stop was the fried “chicken” – or actually – tofu skin wrapped around a wooden paddle. It’s not bad, don’t get me wrong, fried tofu skin is delightful, but these days it’s also a bit of a staple at cheap and cheerful vegan eateries globally, and nothing super special. No matter how you spin it though, this is a treat, and definitely not healthy. As we descended into our night of gluttony we were also calculating how long we would have to work out for the next day!
Snack number 2 took a Japanese twist with grilled mochi – a fairly common snack food you’ll find on the street in Taiwan, but full credit to this vendor, who beautifully presented the final product with generous helpings of peanut powder and dried seaweed.
If you have ever had mochi before you will know one thing for sure – it is deceivingly filling, while it looks snack size, mochi is made from rice that’s been bashed into a paste – it could almost be a meal in itself.
The second largest queue for the night was for the Xiaolongbao – soup dumplings. Taiwan has become famous for soup dumplings and is the birthplace of global chain Din Tai Fung which is considered by many to be the gold standard of Xiaolongbao. This stall however, was no Din Tai Fung, it was street-food chic, on a small metal trolly with a stack of steaming baskets filled with these hot soup-filled morsels.
After both sampling the dumplings, which came with a slightly-too-generous helping of ginger on top we both remarked that the flavor was not particularly special. There are certain flavor combinations that can become a little bit too familiar in the world of Taiwan Buddhist vegetarian cuisine and these dumplings exemplified that. In addition, the skin was too thick and the soup filling also seemed to be thickened. Those looking for a safe vegan Xiaolongbao fix though, will be happy that this stall exists.
We were now about 45 minutes into the line, and as the night wore on, our stomachs grew fuller. We mused how we would be able to fit the burgers when we got to them, but we were not going to give up.
But before we reached the front of the queue we had one more snack to try – a vegan version of Shaokao, a variety of barbecue that typically consists of meats, vegetables and other bits on skewers. While there were some green options, this is another one that vegan junk food and fake meat lovers would enjoy. After a bit of a wait our vegan hot dog, chicken nuggets and sticky rice cake (a vegetarian version of pigs blood cake) was lathered in a bbq sauce and served. Since they were cooked over a charcoal barbecue they delivered a nice smokey flavor complimented nicely by the sauce and I thought this was one of the highlights of the evenings delicacies.
And now the moment you have all been waiting for. The answer to the question on everybody’s lips – how is George’s damn burger? Well, to be honest, it’s just okay. George has around five or six burger options in a somewhat confusing menu where you can choose to have your burger in a vegan variety or one of Taiwans four other vegetarian-styles (if you are not familiar with this, we’ll explain it another day in another post).
We decided to rock the Orange Duck Garden Burger and the Chipolte Chicken Garden Burger. At 60NTD (around $2 USD) the burgers are on par with any other night market option for price. The first thing that we noticed once we got our mits onto the bags- the burgers were not piping hot. It seems that with the heavy traffic the food truck gets, burgers (or at least the burger components) are pre-prepared and waiting for people to order them. Flavor wise these are just a slight step above the average Taiwanese night market vegetarian burger, with the extra points going for the variety of sauce and filling options. All-in-all a fairly average burger experience considering the epically long wait in the queue.
I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that we finished the night dissapointed, after all this adventure into the vegetarian night market was all about the experience. Taiwan is already such a vegetarian and vegan friendly place and every night market in the country will have its one or two vege options scattered about, but even here, it is a rare occasion to get this much choice all in one spot, at one time, and for that reason we salute George and his traveling convoy.