Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana Dibenedetto
Story shared by Lily’s Vegan Pantry, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “We bring tasty Taiwanese vegan foods to the United States.”
Approximately 20 years ago, the vegetarian food industry in Taiwan started to flourish. However, these tasty Taiwanese products were still absent from vegetarian markets in New York, and Lee Mee Ng, Lily Ng’s mother, dearly missed the wider variety of Taiwan’s vegetarian foods. With the encouragement of friends from Yiguandao, she decided to open a vegetarian market — May Wah Vegetarian Market — to bring Taiwan’s vegetarian food to New York. After a tough first three years, May Wah gradually established its reputation for high-quality products among customers, and the market began its shift toward vegan foods. “We decided to go vegan, and it seemed to be like starting from scratch again.” Lily Ng, who has been helping in the store since the age of ten, said that everything had been done slowly, all on their own: “We are one of the few stores that provide nationwide delivery service for vegan products,” she said.
During the pandemic, May Wah Vegetarian Market relaunched as Lily’s Vegan Pantry, bringing vegan food from Taiwan to the U.S. for their guests to enjoy. Lily is also very pleased to have joined the Very Veggie Movement as a partner, promoting greater availability of vegan alternatives alongside Tzu Chi.
The founders of Lily’s Vegan Pantry, Lee Mee Ng and Lily Ng, work hard to bring delicious Taiwanese vegetarian foods to the US. Photo/courtesy of Lily’s Vegan Pantry
When May Wah Vegetarian Market was established in New York’s Chinatown in the 1990s, business was rather slow. “I was about ten years old,” recalled Lily, “and I needed to run back home after class to look after the store. However, there was almost no business, so we just did our homework in the quiet store.” Lily Ng told us about the times when she helped her mother take care of the store as a youngster with a little sadness. “At that time, Americans had no idea about Taiwanese vegetarian food. No one wanted to buy our products, and when the products were about to expire, we had to give them away for free. And the most pitiful thing was even when we gave them away for free, still, people didn’t want them.”
Nowadays, the Taiwanese vegetarian foods that were once unwanted have become increasingly popular throughout the United States. Customers from all over the country call or go online to order the products. Lily Ng has also grown from the little girl who used to help her mother into the head of the store, herself. That’s when they decided to relaunch May Wah Vegetarian Market as Lily’s Vegan Pantry, going further to make a wider variety of vegan cuisine available to more people.
Bringing Taiwanese Foods to New York
It all began in 1995 when Lily Ng’s family immigrated from Taiwan to the United States, and Lily’s mom missed Taiwan’s vegetarian food a great deal: “Taiwan’s vegetarian food is so delicious, why is there no such food here?” Lily remembered wondering, for she had also been eating vegetarian food with her mother since she was a child. Encouraged by friends, Lee Mee Ng decided to open a vegetarian market to introduce Taiwanese vegetarian food to New York. And thus, May Wah Vegetarian Market was born.
“But we had never done this kind of business. We had no experience at all. It was very difficult at the beginning,” said Lily as she looked back upon the first few years at the store. “I remember that when we ordered a whole container of about 2,000 boxes of products from Taiwan, we didn’t know what to do. The delivery man parked the truck at the entrance of the store and let us handle the 2,000 boxes by ourselves. My mother hurried to hire people, and we also needed help to bring the boxes into the store.”
It wasn’t until five or six years after the store opened that the name, “May Wah,” finally gained interest. The change had come when the store collaborated with the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and was recommended by the organization. Many people had come to discover for the first time that Taiwan offers a wide variety of high-quality vegetarian products. As the business became more stable, May Wah, which was striving to be at the forefront of the vegetarian industry, began to take on a new endeavor. At the beginning of 2000, May Wah launched a platform for online ordering, and then began offering nationwide shipping. The freshness of their food must be guaranteed, they knew, and there are strict temperature requirements during delivery. But it was quite difficult to develop a nationwide delivery service: “We have no experience, and again we needed to explore bit-by-bit, one step at a time. And gradually, we were able to send Taiwan’s vegetarian food to all over the United States.”
Once their nationwide delivery services were established, Lily found that more and more people around her stopped eating eggs or dairy products. “At that time, there were companies that just started to provide vegetarian food, but we’ve already decided to turn vegan. Many people didn’t understand and some clients stopped cooperating with us. We can only tell our customers slowly that veganism can truly protect the environment and life, and it is also good for the body,” Lily finished with a smile.
A Wide Variety of Vegan Products
Veganism has become a rising trend in the United States. At the beginning of last year, Lee Mee Ng planned to retire, so the May Wah Vegetarian Market also began to reinvent itself as Lily’s Vegan Pantry, emphasizing its new focus on vegan products. “A lot of people think that vegan food is boring and there is nothing to eat, but in fact, Taiwan has a variety of vegan products, and the workmanship is exquisite. Our store now has almost 300 kinds of food products, 98% of which are from Taiwan,” Lily said. These products were each carefully selected for their market by her and her mother. “We tasted every product, we went to Taiwan to visit the factory and learn about the production environment, and we also ensured that we have a stable relationship with the manufacturers.” Lily and her mother have conducted annual trips to Taiwan for many years, visiting Taitung, Changhua, Hualien, and other places where vegan manufacturers are located to discover new products.
“Taiwan has a wide variety of vegan foods with good taste. I have friends who want to try vegan foods and I recommend they try our products because many of our products are ‘transition products’ which help you transfer to vegan smoothly. With our products, the process of turning vegan becomes very natural.” Lily then introduced their most popular product: “The best-seller in our market is vegan chicken legs. The taste is very similar to chicken legs. There is a wooden stick in the middle that mimics chicken leg bones. There is also a thin layer of tofu skin on the outside which imitates chicken skin. If you bite it, you can taste a trace of chicken. Many veggie restaurants like to use this product because it doesn’t have a strong flavor, so you can add your own seasoning. Of course, if you want to make it simple, you can just heat it in the microwave and eat it. It’s delicious, too.”
The majority of products at Lily’s Vegan Pantry are designed to be easily cooked, and are quite versatile so they can be used in a variety of recipes. In addition to their vegan chicken legs, there are also vegan chicken nuggets, which are also welcomed by restaurant chefs. Wrapped in thin bread flour, these can be fried directly, and their taste is reminiscent of regular chicken nuggets. The vegan chicken nuggets can be used not only for shredded stir-fry or stew, but also for sandwiches and salads. “These chicken nuggets can be a good base for cooking many dishes, like sesame chicken or sweet and sour chicken,” Lily said.
Other than vegan chicken, there are also vegan ribs. Vegan citrus spare ribs at Lily’s Vegan Pantry are sweet, sour, and spicy. “This is a product favored by a lot of Americans because the taste is richer, chewy, and it’s very convenient in cooking; just microwave for 30 seconds.” Lily said that before the pandemic, the market hosted tasting activities almost every weekend. The vegan citrus spare ribs were the most popular during those events. They can be eaten alongside one’s salad or even in tacos.
Another popular product at the market is the vegan red spot prawn, which is both soy-free and gluten-free. It’s also made from konjac, which means it’s rich in fiber. This vegan seafood alternative takes slightly more effort when cooking, needing to be boiled in water and then marinated. “This vegan shrimp can also be used in various dishes,” Lily explained. “For example, Thai restaurants can use it for vegan coconut shrimp, and Japanese restaurants can use it for vegan tempura shrimp.”
Launching a New Future in the Pandemic
In March of last year, the pandemic hit, and many businesses have yet to recover in the ongoing crisis. “We were doing the renovation,” Lily recalled. At that time, she was preparing to re-launch the market after her mom’s retirement. “We hadn’t closed the market and continued to accept the orders online.” During the pandemic, the nationwide delivery network has become vital. Lily even helped several vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the community deliver their products: “The restaurant business was hit hard during the pandemic. We help them put their products online and deliver the frozen products for free, hoping to support our veggie restaurants.” Although it takes a lot of work to deliver the food products, Lily said she’s happy to help. “I am glad that we can provide this service. Thinking about the customers who live far away, like Seattle, and have few vegan options in their community, I am happy that they can still receive our tasty vegan products. It’s worth the effort.”
Lily discovered the Very Veggie Movement through her aunt, and is pleased to work with Tzu Chi to promote greater availability of vegan foods. “During the pandemic, the retail business is really difficult, there are much less people visiting the market. We need to cooperate with everyone in the vegetarian industry to survive the pandemic,” she said. Lily is also looking forward to having an official ‘relaunch party’ once the pandemic finally abates, and hopes to collaborate with more local veggie-focused restaurants to promote access to vegan cuisine from Taiwan.
Learn more about the Very Veggie movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!