Three pioneers of sustainable dining show that green food can be delicious, innovative and elegant.
Pan Tongchen worked as an accountant at a bank before making the unexpected decision to become an organic farmer.
“It wasn’t my plan,” he said. “But when my wife got sick, we decided to choose a healthy life.”
Over the past few years, Pan and his wife have transformed an aging Naxi pear orchard in Zhuolan Township, Miaoli, into a pesticide-free paradise. There they grow more than 40 types of fruit and vegetables, from arugula to strawberries. Dark clouds rolled in from the mountains, shrouding the farm in an ethereal morning mist. At dawn, rare visitors, such as the occasional owl, accompany Pan to work on his one-hectare farm.
Pan’s path to a sustainable food industry is just one of many unique origin stories I discovered among the vendors at the 3rd Sustainable Market Expo organized by the Taipei Cultural Exploration Association. More than 160 farmers, food vendors and artisans gathered at the Hakka Cultural Park to bring locally grown organic and vegan food to city dwellers attracted by the concept of “green food”.
What is green food? Definitions vary. He Jiaying, co-founder of the Green Diet Guide, said that it can be boiled down to the six-point green food declaration of the guide: buy organic food first, buy local food, follow sustainable principles, and reduce the amount of additives. , providing vegetarian options to reduce waste of resources.
“Our goal is to grow food so that we can coexist with the environment for a long time and help small family farmers in Taiwan,” Ho said.
The Taipei Cultural Exploration Association, of which Ho is a member, began running farmers markets such as the Sustainable Market Expo and the regular Water Garden Organic Farmers Market. In 2019, the association also launched the Green Dining Guide to promote sustainable development and help farmers find good sales outlets for their wares.
Participating restaurants sign the Green Food Manifesto and source some ingredients from participating farmers. In the first year, 32 restaurants participated. This year that number has grown to more than 200. Pan said interest in green dining has grown significantly, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
“We’re starting to see a lot of restaurants participating in the cuisine,” she said. “Our farmers supply everything from simple breakfast joints to five-star hotel restaurants.”
A manifesto is not a strict and rigid decree, but a gentle statement of encouragement and intent. While restaurants are encouraged to source animal products responsibly, that needs to be determined by businesses, Ho said. However, they do need to offer some vegetarian options.
“Taiwan is a small and diverse country, and our farms tend to be small and diverse,” Ho said. “By and large, we don’t have large monoculture farms with one crop. That’s good for the environment, but we need to help farmers find markets for their crops.”
Leo Tsai’s Green Food
Chef Leo Tsai’s gastronomic career began in his childhood when his uncle took him to eat in Taipei. Accustomed to simple preparations in his hometown of Yunlin County, Cai was drawn to the complex flavors and techniques used by chefs in Taipei.
“Same fish, same vegetables, why do they taste so different?” he remembers asking himself.
Tsai Ing-wen left Yunlin when she was young and worked in a high-end restaurant. Then he was approached by organic food group Yuen Foong Yu Biotech Co. with a mission: to educate the public that organic food can also be good food.
“Fourteen years ago, the term ‘organic’ was only just beginning to become more widely known,” Cai said. “People equate it with being healthy but not tasty.”
Yuen Foong Yu’s core business is organic produce and products, allowing Tsai to obtain a steady supply of organic raw materials from all over Taiwan. The first organic hot pot restaurant he founded, Qimin Market (Qimin Market Organic Pot, No. 158, Section 2, Xinyi Road, Daan District, Taipei City), quickly became popular.
Eight years ago, Cai helped create an even more ambitious concept, a fusion of gourmet, Taiwanese cuisine and green food. The result was the restaurant Shan Hai Lou (Shan Hai Lou, No. 94, Section 2, Renai Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City).
“We wanted to return to the original flavors of pre-World War II Taiwanese cuisine while using local, organic ingredients,” Cai said. “I had to throw away a lot of what I learned and start over as an apprentice.”
All the old chefs who remember this gorgeous historic style are now in their 80s. Like “Gold and Silver Roasted Pork” (Gold and Silver Roasted Pig, jinyin shao zhu) can’t find Taiwanese restaurants anymore.
“I went to learn this dish from an old chef in Beitou,” Cai said. “He had me start with an open fire in the yard.” Cai was able to recreate this classic dish using a convection oven. He insists on using sustainable, local ingredients, just as he insists on authenticity in his cooking.
The chickens used by Shan Hai Lou are Taiwanese native breeds that have been adapted to the subtropical climate and naturally require less antibiotics. Unlike traditional chickens, which can be harvested after 45 days, Taiwanese chickens take up to four months to mature. The result is firmer, tastier meat, Cai said. The fish Tsai uses is netted, not dredged. This approach ensures high-quality catches while mitigating habitat damage.
“If I want to use something, I go to our sourcing team and ask if they can find something that meets our local, organic and sustainable standards,” Cai said. “If they can’t find it, I’ll do something else.”
In 2019, Mountain and Sea House’s authentic and sustainable philosophy was validated in the form of a Michelin star, which the restaurant has maintained since then. In 2021, it received a Michelin Green Star, an award that recognizes restaurants at the forefront of sustainable practices.
Tsai said the awards were a welcome surprise. “The Michelin people are very low-key, we didn’t know they were here until the awards were presented.”
When serving a dish in Shanhailou, the waiter will tell diners the “story” of the dish and its ingredients. “It’s all about the land,” Cai said. “Finally, if you have real whole foods, you can simply cook. It tastes the best. It will taste like home.”
Sustainable Sweets by Isabelle Tsao
Self-taught pastry chef Isabelle Tsao was an early adopter of green dining. Ten years ago, when she opened Green Bakery, a vegan pastry café in Taipei’s leafy Minsheng neighborhood, she decided to bet on this concept.
Cao said global trends usually start in Europe and the United States, then reach Asian countries and finally reach Taiwan. “It’s really an improvement that I’ve seen in the store,” she added. When Cao first opened, many of her clients were from Europe and the United States. They were joined a few years later by clients in South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. But local Taiwanese tourists are on the rise.
People are drawn to the umbrella concept of green dining for a variety of reasons, Tsao said. “For one person, it might be a concern for animals. On the other hand, it might be reducing carbon emissions.”
Leo Tsai found consistency between classic Taiwanese cuisine and sustainable ingredients, while Isabelle Tsao found inspiration in her green mission, which for her involved finding local ingredients with as few “food miles” as possible.
“In my opinion, there’s no reason to limit yourself to known flavor combinations,” she said, citing her best-selling chestnut aiguanyindan cake as an example. The cake is flavored with Taiwanese Tieguanyin tea and the chestnuts are locally grown. Taiwanese chestnuts have unique qualities that distinguish them from other varieties, Tsao said.
Large corporations are also starting to pay attention to the green dining trend. Green Bakery won the first prize in the Food Entrepreneurship Competition held by Wowprime Group, a Taiwanese restaurant group, and received an investment of NT$10 million. “They wanted to incorporate a little bit of green dining into their corporate DNA,” Tsao said.
Although the concept of green dining means different things to different people, its proponents are motivated by living more sustainably without sacrificing style or sophistication. So is Cao.
“I know how to capture the interest of a variety of clients,” she said. “I had to show them an enticing product that didn’t taste like it would compromise their taste for green dining.”