Behind Taiwan's Pop-up Vegetarian Night Market Phenomenon
 
Aug 12, 2019
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Although Taiwan has a thriving night market culture, vegetarian choices are somewhat scarce. But now there is a new, traveling night market consisting of over a dozen food trucks exclusively serving up vegetarian fare, attracting throngs of people wherever it goes. What makes this dedicated vegetarian night market so wildly popular?

Well into the evening of July 14, the temperature still lingers at 30 degrees Celsius. The parking lot off of Chenggong Road in Taipei’s Nangang District is packed with people queuing up, fanning themselves and wiping away sweat, yet showing no signs of impatience. At the end of the line stand food trucks that look like everyday night market food trucks.

A fragrant aroma wafts from one of the vehicles, which is burnt orange in color. The menu on the side of the truck reads: Philly cheese steak, golden pork, and roasted orange duck. Upon closer inspection, the burgers offered here are all vegetarian. Not only that, but the toon biscuits, takoyaki, fried items, and soup dumplings sold nearby are all vegetarian as well.

This traveling vegetarian night market consisting of around a dozen food trucks started last year, attracting throngs of people wherever it goes. One Nangang resident reports that there is always a night market on Sundays in the parking lot, but that on this day the vegetarian night market has attracted 10 times the usual crowd, making people line up for at least an hour.

How did such a vegetarian night market that draws crowds from all over Taiwan come about?

Unity Helps Veggie Cuisine Make Inroads

The story begins with the meeting of two men, both vegetarians.

Huang Shih-hsien, the 35-year-old proprietor of Bird’s Nest Vegetarian Cuisine, which specializes in toon biscuits, is a burly man wearing a ball cap backwards. One of the co-founders of the vegetarian night market, today he is busy doing media interviews about the market.

A vegetarian from his youth due to family religious beliefs, he and his wife opened Bird’s Nest Vegetarian Restaurant four years ago near the Zhunan train station in Miaoli County.

However, running a vegetarian restaurant outside of a major metropolitan area, they soon ran into a bottleneck. “Combined with neighboring Toufen, Zhunan only has around 180,000 people, with a relatively small population of vegetarians, making it tough to sustain a restaurant,” he says.

While Huang was struggling with his restaurant operation, another vegetarian night market co-founder, vegetarian hamburger proprietor George, was driving around Taiwan with his food truck.

George, who was born in America, adopted a vegetarian diet in response to childhood illnesses. Upon coming to Taiwan in 2008, he discovered that no one was selling the veggie burgers popular in American fast food restaurants. This led him to start his own business, selling vegetarian hamburgers at stalls near the Bali ferry slip and the Fu Jen University Garden Night market.

After a television report on him aired, George’s veggie burgers became an overnight sensation. When consumers in central and southern Taiwan indicated their desire to enjoy his veggie burgers, he swapped his stalls for a food truck to better serve vegetarians in different regions around the island.

“As vegetarians, whenever we go to a new area, we patronize the local vegetarian restaurants,” recalls George. He met Huang Shih-hsien two years ago when he drove his food truck to Zhunan, and the two became loyal customers of each other’s cuisine.

In a fit of inspiration, Huang Shih-hsien asked George and a food truck from Yunlin selling takoyaki to set up in front of his restaurant. The popularity of George’s burgers attracted considerable customer traffic. “Selling vegetarian cuisine alone in the countryside can be hard for some to endure. By clustering everyone together, along with my online notoriety, it helped boost opportunities for exposure,” explains George.

With the introduction of new labor laws mandating one fixed and one flexible day off per week, combined with rising labor costs, Huang Shih-hsien also decided to close up his struggling restaurant and join the mobile food truck ranks. Together, the three food trucks formed the prototype for the vegetarian night market.

A Night Market Where Vegetarians Can Feel At Home

Now, after a little over a year, the core group of partnered food trucks has grown to a dozen, and nearly 100 vegetarian night markets have been held, filling to capacity every weekend. The one held in Nangang on July 14 was the largest one to date, with 17 participating food trucks. That evening, Chenggong Road Section One showed up as red on Google Maps (indicating a traffic jam), as more than 3,000 people poured into an area around the size of four basketball courts.

The fervent response shows that vegetarians’ demand for food is still met by a sizeable void.

According to Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics, around 10 to 12 percent of the Taiwanese population are vegetarians. Lin Tzu-yu, section chief in the Department of Nutrition at Taipei’s Adventist Hospital, a long-time researcher of vegetarianism, observes that not only is Taiwan’s vegetarian population continuing to grow, but vegetarians’ motivations are more diverse than ever.

From early religious factors to more recent motivations like personal health and environmental consciousness, Lin noted that Taipei Adventist Hospital only offers healthy vegetarian meals, yet patients do not order fewer meals compared to regular meat menus. Each day at noon the hospital offers 300 boxed vegetarian lunches for general sale, quickly selling out.

However, in daily life it is not that easy to find a restaurant with an exclusively vegetarian menu, and it is even harder to find at night markets, where usually at most there are three vendors selling vegetarian food.

Consequently, when vegetarian night markets appeared, vegetarians’ eyes lit up. Miss Chen, a vegetarian from Taipei, felt excited and fortunate when she heard that the vegetarian night market was coming to Nangang. “Now I can finally wander around the night market without having to constantly stare at menus looking for vegetarian cuisine, and worrying about having to ask each proprietor if the ingredients include meat!”

Fully prepared, she and her husband got to the parking lot location at 3:00 p.m. to line up, and were fortunate to buy vegetarian food from four different vendors. Interestingly, the people around them in line were not vegetarians. Some had become fans of vegetarian food after sampling veggie snacks, and others had come out of interest piqued by information posted on Facebook fan pages and clubs.

The Little Vegetarian Night Market group page on Facebook claims over 50,000 members. Online vegetarian social media is a critical factor contributing to the throngs of people that show up week after week to the night market.

North to South, Vegetarians Feast

Huang Shih-hsien, who manages the group himself, relates that, apart from announcing the little night market’s weekly schedule, he takes it upon himself to recommend vegetarian restaurants in different regions. Netizens also enthusiastically share their thoughts and experiences after dining at the little night market, and lend their support and encouragement to the vegetarian food truck operators, comprising a formidable group of vegetarian enthusiasts.

Whenever the vegetarian night market’s schedule is released, netizens eagerly share and repost the information, spreading it rapidly. “In addition to the local public, there are a lot of vegetarians from other counties and cities who drive expressly to line up and get some vegetarian food,” marvels Huang.

Behind the scenes of the veggie night market is a lot of hardship that is invisible to consumers.

During the week, the food truck operators run their respective businesses in different locales. On the weekend, they drive their trucks far and wide and converge together to make a night market at locations as far north as the Badouzi Fishing Port off Keelung to Pingtung in the south.

An awkward smile on his face, Huang Shih-hsien says that this peripatetic modus operandi is not something “normal” people can endure. Moreover, given the trucks’ limited capacity for supplies and the cost of fuel consumption, profits are actually rather meager. “What matters is that we’re promoting vegetarian ideals. If our hearts weren’t truly into promoting this, there’s no way we could endure all the running around for such a long time.”

George, a resident of Taipei, shares his routine for night markets down south, starting with buying vegetables and preparing ingredients at 2-3:00 a.m. After a short break after dawn, he drives several hours to the destination and gets started right away with preparations. Around dusk, he begins serving customers uninterrupted, and gets home in the wee hours of the morning.

“Don’t eat too many burgers; there’s a lot of other vendors to try!” George often exhorts patrons buying his burgers. For vegetarian food vendors, leveraging online promotion of the vegetarian night market brings in a lot more customers and stimulate business.

For vegetarians, who had never imagined being able to happily indulge in fine vegetarian fare at a night market, the emergence of the veggie night market presents a totally fresh experience.

“We’ve really turned the situation around where vegetarian food wasn’t available at Taiwan’s night markets!” exclaims George.

By Meng-Hsuan Yang