Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Taiwan Cafe, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement. “Cooking delicious veggie food? Not as hard as I thought!”
For the past several months, Thursday nights have become precious for Even Yen. Upon picking up a delicious four-dish vegan dinner from Taiwan Cafe, Even Yen was free from cooking for the evening, and therefore, able to enjoy a healthful, stress-free meal with her family. Behind the cozy scene is a story that traces back nearly ten years. It’s a story about a restaurant owner and Tzu Chi volunteers supporting each other — and especially during difficult times.
“Can We Make It Vegetarian?”
“It was after the outbreak of COVID-19; many customers called the restaurant and asked, ‘can you make vegetarian food? Are there vegetarian dumplings?’ I thought, ‘maybe we can make our meatballs into vegetarian meatballs,’” recalled Sue Chang, the owner of Taiwan Cafe in San Jose. It was this moment that convinced her to cook vegetarian meals at her restaurant two months prior.
Sue’s family comes from Wanluan Township, Pingtung, in Southern Taiwan. Her family has been settled in the United States for more than 40 years, but she returns to her hometown twice yearly to taste the traditional cuisine and gain inspiration for the menu at her own restaurant. “Our restaurant mainly serves Wanluan pork knuckles, as well as some dishes from southern Taiwan, such as rice cakes and spiced chicken knuckles. The taste is relatively sweet and rich. I never thought about making vegetarian food, but during the pandemic, many people asked, so I wanted to try it.”
Meatballs are a popular Taiwanese street food, and they’re also a signature dish at Taiwan Cafe. The recipe utilizes rice milk for the skin, and the ground pork meat is coated with spices. Sue told us that it’s easy to prepare the ground pork filling, taking less than ten minutes to do so. However, when she wanted to make vegetarian meatballs, she found herself putting much more time and effort into the recipe. “The outer skin, made of sweet potato powder, is chewy and delicious. For the filling, I use bean curds, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and more. The bean curds must be soaked first and the bamboo shoots need to be boiled first. All the ingredients must be finely chopped, fried separately, and then fried together again, and seasoned. I actually spend much more time preparing to make the vegetarian meatballs, which makes our vegetarian meatballs delicious.” Sue was quite pleased with her new veggie-focused creation, and put the meatballs into a vacuum-sealed package to sell with Taiwan Cafe’s sweet chili sauce. Customers can take the package home and simply steam the veggie meatballs to enjoy this new, healthier take on the popular Taiwanese street food.
“My parents were in the restaurant industry. I have also been interested in cooking since I was a child. It seems natural for me to inherit the restaurant.” Sue loves researching and creating new dishes, and appreciates receiving feedback on how she can make her dishes even better: “Now I run this restaurant by myself. I have to learn and try everything by myself. For example, many people will offer advice on recipes, so I communicate with them and ask for their suggestions to make the dishes taste better.”
“It’s Not That Difficult to Make Vegetarian Food Taste Good”
Before introducing the vegetarian alternatives to the menu, Sue had been concerned that it might be difficult to sway people who love meat to try the new vegetarian recipes. However, after trying it out for two months, Sue told us that it had been easier than first presumed. “Although it takes a lot of effort, it is not as difficult to make vegetarian dishes as delicious as meat dishes, or even better.” So, Sue launched a vegan meal set of four dishes for $45 at Taiwan Cafe. Each week, the menu changes to incorporate fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Vegan Hakka Stir-Fry: As one of Taiwan Cafe’s most popular dishes, Su was eager to revamp the recipe and make it vegan. Made with Chinese celery, dried tofu, garlic sprouts, and adding a little spice, the dish offers a tropical flavor that’s both delicious and refreshing.
Roasted Veggie ‘Chicken’: Seasonings are added to the vegetarian ‘chicken,’ which is then coated with starch powder, and fried until crispy. Minced onions are then sauteed, and the vegetarian chicken and tomato sauce are combined with sweet, fermented rice to give the dish the unique aroma of wine.
Four-color Stir-fry: Taiwanese dishes tend to be quite rich in flavor. This special stir-fry, however, is designed for visitors who are craving something light and refreshing to lift their spirit. Sue chose four different kinds of seasonal vegetables in assorted colors: snow peas, carrots, yam, and mushrooms. The simple stir-fry brings forth beautiful hues and satisfying flavors.
Three Cups Tofu: ‘Three cups’ is a must-try in southern Taiwanese culinary technique that works very well when preparing tofu. Wrapping soft tofu in cornstarch and frying until crispy, it’s then sauteed with savory ginger and fresh basil, smoldered, and finally braised in brown sauce. ‘Three cups tofu’ is a delicacy that many veggie lovers won’t want to miss out on.
Vegan Lion Head Meatballs: Traditional lion head meatballs are made from ground pork, but Sue uses tofu instead. After being shaped with potato flour, it is fried until crispy. Then, it’s simmered with soy sauce, sugar, star anise, and more spices. The tofu absorbs the sauce, and thus, the tofu balls become deliciously tender on the inside and crispy on the outside.
Four servings each from Taiwan Cafe. Photo courtesy of Taiwan Cafe.
There are more excellent veggie-focused dishes on the menu at Taiwan Cafe as well — such as their black pepper tofu curds — and most of the meat products in other dishes can be replaced with tofu curds, such as in their traditional Taiwanese fried rice noodles. This helps the restaurant provide more alternatives for vegetarian customers.
Supporting Each Other in Times of Crisis
“Taiwan Cafe is one of the best Taiwanese restaurants in the Bay Area of Northern California. Especially the people in the South Bay area, whenever they want to have Taiwanese food, they will go to Taiwan Cafe.” Even Yen, a Tzu Chi volunteer, had mentioned Taiwan Cafe and praised their food highly. “The owner and Tzu Chi also have a deep relationship. It can be traced back almost ten years ago.”
Before the pandemic, Tzu Chi had distributed dinner to people who are homeless each Saturday from November to March. The Tzu Chi volunteers collaborated with Taiwan Cafe to provide good, free meals at a lower cost. “Sue fully supports it. It’s almost half-sold and half-given. We couldn’t make it happen without her help.” Even Yen said that over the years, inflation has increased the cost of ingredients a lot, but Sue managed to keep the price down and has been very generous when working with Tzu Chi. From time to time, She also sponsors free meals for Tzu Chi.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, business was quite prosperous for Taiwan Cafe. But as with many other eateries, sales have plummeted due to the crisis. Although the restaurant continues to fulfill orders for takeaway, the overall turnover has fallen by 70%, and rent is a persisting issue. To reduce expenses, the restaurant is closed for three days per week instead of just one. The restaurant also cannot afford full-time employees, so Sue and her husband take care of the business, hoping to persevere through the hard times.
It was during this time, however, that Even Yen visited Sue and suggested she participate in the Very Veggie Movement. “Many of our volunteers’ families want to eat vegetarian meals. Taiwan Cafe could at least have a stable income every week,” explained Even. “We give a lot of feedback and suggestions on the dishes. Some asked for less oil and salt, some don’t want to eat spices, and some hope to turn the original meat dishes into a vegetarian version, which brings a lot of challenges for the boss.” Sue listens to these suggestions carefully, and works hard to improve her veggie menu.
Sue said that during the process of developing new vegetarian dishes, she also fell in love with vegetarianism. “It is good to be vegetarian! I have been eating a lot more veggie foods since I started to make veggie dishes. I feel it’s healthier to be vegetarian.” With feedback from the families of Tzu Chi volunteers and other customers who’ve ordered the veggie meal set, Sue is confident that Taiwan Cafe’s vegetarian menu could one day be a more prominent feature of the restaurant, attracting more and more veggie lovers.
568 N Abel St, Milpitas, CA 95035
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