Vegetarian Taiwan: Aboriginal Cuisine in Wulai

Although I spent most of my time in Taiwan in Taipei, I did take a few trips to some of the smaller towns south of that city. One of those towns was Wulai, a small town that I had seen featured on Bizarre Foods — but it wasn’t just food that brought me there. I’d heard that it was a beautiful town with a nature preserve, with an impressive waterfall. I tried to board one of the crowded buses out to Wulai but so many people were ehading there for the day that most of us couldn’t get on board. I ended up sharing a taxi with 5 complete strangers, splitting the fare 6 ways. It was a quick ride out of the city, and when I got out of the taxi I was greeted by the sight you see above. Wulai is an unbelievably beautiful place, almost unreal.

After exploring the bridge and temple alongside the river, I headed into Wulai proper. The main tourist street is lined with restaurants and food vendors, and I stopped at one to get this grilled rice cake. Similar to mochi, the rice cake was dense and chewy, grilled so the exterior was slightly crisp, and then topped with powdered peanuts and sesame. This dish was more about texture than flavor.

The road to the waterfall was lined with steep mountains, covered in dense vegetation. It looked like something out of a storybook. After seeing the waterfall and taking a gondola ride to the top, I returned to the town ready for lunch. And I knew exactly where I wanted to eat.

Taiya Po Po is a popular restaurant on the main street, specializing in aboriginal cuisine. When Andrew Zimmern ate there on Bizarre Foods, he sampled fried bees and fermented pork. When I approached the restaurant I asked if they had any vegetarian food, and they referred me to a young woman who spoke English. When I asked her if they had vegetarian food she replied, “Of course!” And then she helped me find a place to sit in the crowded restaurant. I asked her if any of the vegetarian food was traditional, and she recommended a couple of dishes. Above you see betel flower buds, tossed with sesame oil, soy, and chilis. Served cold, it was a crisp and refreshing salad; the betel buds had a texture similar to baby corn.

My new friend also recommended this dumpling — steamed sticky rice wrapped in a leaf, stuffed with bits of chewy mushrooms. It was delicious, and according to the server very traditional.

As I ate the young son of Taiya Po Po’s owner come out to talk to me, and practice his English (it was excellent). Upon hearing I was visiting from New York City, he started rattling off the names of New York Knicks. I only recognized a few of the names, he clearly knew more about basketball than I do. We chatted for a bit, and I was made to feel incredibly welcome. Later in the day, heading back to Taipei, I thought a lot about the kindness I’d been shown by everyone in Taiwan. People were going out of their way to help me out, something that would continue to happen throughout my trip. The food was great, but these small moments of connection with the Taiwanese people are what made the trip something special.