It’s also one of the most vegan and vegetarian friendly places I've ever visited. Vegetarian food is the focus of many trendy restaurants, food stalls in outdoor markets, and street vendors who offer flavored tofu. Families in Taipei, I was told, will visit vegetarian restaurants often to add variety to their dining. The food is very unique and creative since they use many forms of tofu and all types of mushrooms.
When I told my colleagues in Taipei during a visit that I was a vegan, they decided to surprise me and took me to lunch one day to the Tzu Chi General Hospital. I must admit that I was a bit shocked to be going to a hospital for lunch. I try to avoid them as much as possible by living a healthy lifestyle. But they insisted that there was something special inside. They were right!
We walked through the large entrance of the hospital into a beautiful sunlit lobby. A flight of wide stairs in the center of the lobby took us to the floor below. We rounded a corner and entered a massive cafeteria with space to hold more than 500 people. It was still early so the cafeteria was empty except for a few doctors sitting in a corner in conference. My colleagues were delighted with my amazement and explained that this was a Buddhist hospital and the cafeteria served only vegetarian food with many vegan options. I was eager to see what they offered.
What I saw next completely surprised me! It was a vegetarian buffet with at least fifty different dishes. I couldn't believe it and thought I had found paradise. I loaded up my plate with as much food as possible, sampling every option including great stews, tofu dishes, vegetable mixtures, salads, soups, and rice dishes. Every single possible vegetable imaginable was offered on this buffet line in unique recipes including squash, yams, pumpkin, and eggplant, with some vegetables I couldn’t even identify. One notable dish had thin marinated tofu skins wrapped around mashed vegetables in a vegan gravy.
The food was charged by weight and my friends told me to make sure I ate everything or the Buddhist nuns would scold me for not eating what I took - food which could have been given to the poor. For me, however, it was no problem. I finished two huge plates of food and had room for more. My colleagues ate lightly and watched as I enjoyed my meal.
By the time we were done, the massive cafeteria had filled completely and a line had formed outside the doors. Every table and every chair was taken! It was enthralling to see over 500 people eating vegetarian and vegan food together. The sight inspired me greatly.
I was told the history of this wonderful hospital as I finished my food. The founder is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun named Cheng Yen. She ran away from her family at a young age and became a nun in 1966. After seeing the plight of the poor she started a relief association which led to founding a free medical clinic. That small clinic eventually grew into six large and prestigious hospitals throughout Taiwan.
When Dharma Master Cheng Yen first became a nun, her master said to her, “Work for Buddhism and for all beings.” With this phrase as a guide, the Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation gradually became an international humanitarian organization. The compassion and grace of the founder was evident in the dining hall that day.
I left the cafeteria with a happy feeling having witnessed the height of vegetarian cooking and ideals at the same time, humbled by the power of one person’s generosity to help so many people. As vegetarian and vegan diets become more popular in the U.S. and around the world, so is the chance for great works of peace, cooperation, and caring for all life as demonstrated by the vibrant vegetarian culture of Taipei. My colleagues were all smiles knowing that they had surprised me and that I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience. When I returned home I was more enthused than ever to make vegan food. I often think of Cheng Yen and her gift of goodness to the people of Taipei.