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Taiwan's vegetarian scene is thriving — and we should be proud

We all know that reducing, reusing and recycling waste is a key part of a green lifestyle, but one somewhat less-discussed part is being conscious of how our eating habits — particularly our fancy for red meat — affect the environment.

A growing number of academic studies as well as popular documentaries, such as Leonardo DiCaprio's "Before the Flood," suggest that the massive meat-farming industry contributes substantially to climate change. Specifically, cattle farms have been identified as one of the biggest producers of methane — one of the key gases causing global warming.

Many believe that reducing beef consumption in favor of chicken and other animals that have a smaller effect on the environment would be sufficient, others insist that the complete elimination of meat from our diet is the optimal solution. This movement has gained traction in recent years, particularly in Western countries, where the number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants has skyrocketed.

By contrast, Asia has a long history of vegetarianism, mainly resulting from branches of Buddhism that demand it. The largest group in this regard is Chinese Buddhism. As a result, the food of Chinese Buddhists — such as that served throughout Taiwan — is arguably the most visible form of vegetarian cuisine in Asia.

A typical Chinese Buddhist vegetarian restaurant serves traditional dishes such as Kung Pao chicken with processed soy in place of the meat. This skill to expertly imitate various types of protein by using soy is the result of centuries of trial and error.

So what makes Taiwan's vegetarian food different from that elsewhere in the Sinosphere to the point that one could say this is the best country in Asia for vegetarian dining?

The answer lies in Taiwan's diversity of beliefs and personal palates. While most Taiwanese vegetarian dishes are inspired by both Buddhist beliefs and Chinese cuisine, a growing number of diners and restaurateurs understand the health and environmental benefits offered by vegetarianism. More food lovers who have no religious affiliation have also begun to adopt and contribute to international vegetarian cuisine. This has enabled us to differentiate ourselves from other countries, where vegetarian food tends to have the same flavors as everything else; for instance, vegetarian food in Southeast Asia — while delicious — doesn't taste a whole lot of different from its meat-containing counterparts.

Thanks to the new ideas brought to Taiwan by immigrants and through pop culture, people here are increasingly aware that vegetarianism need not be born of religious belief. It also need not adhere to their parents' idea of vegetarian food, which is often slightly greasy and arguably unhygienic as they are commonly served buffet-style (in contrast to vegetarian food in the West, which tends to focus more on clean eating).

Taiwan's explosion in modern vegetarian and vegan eateries, such as Raw and NakedFood, also breaks the one-note monotony of the vegetarian buffet and its lazy Susans, Buddhist statues and religious music.

While Taiwan might have a ways to go to become a truly environmentally friendly country, we are well ahead of many countries in the region and beyond when it comes to the diffusion and diversity of vegetarianism — and that's something to be proud of and to promote.

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