Asia is home to some of the most veg-friendly cities in the world. Think Bali, Chiang Mai, and Taipei. But the region remains to be unknown territory for many vegans and vegetarians with some places having a reputation for being difficult to eat as vegan. So we are quite excited to share this latest interview with Joy Yuan, a Singaporean entrepreneur, graphic designer, and recipe developer who blogs about vegan travel and more on her website More Than Veggies. Read on to learn more about the diverse and fascinating Asian food scene, explore the wide array of veg options in Singapore from a veg local's perspective, and get plenty of tips that will make you want to start planning an extended trip around Asia.
Q: How long have you been vegan and what inspired you to make the switch?
I grew up vegetarian and I’ve been vegan since 2010 or so. Health was the first reason because I had digestive issues. Very soon I discovered all the other reasons (environment, animal welfare, etc) so I was more motivated to continue.
Q: Tell us more about your website More Than Veggies. What inspired you to create it?
Push factor was that I was quite tired of people thinking that vegan food is either salad or bee hoon, or they assume I’m starving myself. The pull factor was that I was very stressed in architecture school and started experimenting in the kitchen to de-stress. I stumbled upon some recipes that I liked, so decided to share it on a blog while practicing photography, something else that I enjoy.
Q: Can you name some of the most vegan-friendly cities you’ve visited so far, especially in Asia? How veg-friendly is the region?
Out of the 7 Asian cities I visited, I’d say Bali & Canggu are the most vegan-friendly. I was there as part of the abillionveg team during Bali Vegan Festival 2018. You can pretty much walk into any place and get vegan options and non-dairy milk for your coffee.
I would say Asia is potentially veg-friendly although some countries might not look like it on the surface. That’s because most traditional Asian food consists of a huge variety of veggies, grains and plant-based proteins such as tofu, seitan (called mianjing or kaofu in China), tempeh, lentils, and legumes. And vegetarianism is quite ingrained in many Asian countries due to religion. The potential challenge is communication and the need to understand the food culture. Once you can communicate your needs and identify the foods that have always been made vegan, you’ll open lots of doors to discovering plenty of local vegan eats!
Q: What are some of the most veg-friendly places in Asia that you would recommend to those traveling as vegan for the first time?
Bali is a good first stop. Not only you’ll be spoilt for choice with international and local eats, you’ll also leave motivated and inspired by the supportive Bali vegan community.
Taipei is a fantastic place for new vegans as it’s so easy to identify vegan food at very affordable prices. Although knowing Chinese will help as it’s the main language there. Plus, there’s plenty of vegan Chinese comfort foods. I think it was listed as the most vegan-friendly Asian city by PETA. Taipei is the only place in Asian where I know the word “vegan” is used in local Chinese as 纯素. It’s even labeled on many packaged foods, so be prepared to get a good amount of check-in luggage!
Once you feel you’re “seasoned” enough, give Japan a try. Japan is not known to be veg-friendly due to the food culture there but it’s now changing thanks to 2020 Olympics. Visiting Japan requires more preparation and research than other countries, but it’s worth it. Tokyo and Kyoto are the most vegan-friendly cities. Every single thing I ate there was high quality. Many had so much creativity and care that every bite blew my mind! That is something only Japan can achieve. My Japan vegan food guide to Hokkaido, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka is here.
Q: Is there a place that you find particularly challenging to visit as a vegan? Can you tell us about what made it difficult for you?
I tend to do research on the food before travelling since I’m a food blogger so I’m usually prepared. But the least vegan-friendly place I visited was San Jose del Monte in the Philippines. I went there as part of a research group for my landscape architecture degree. It’s not a tourist place but a resettlement area for the poor. I actually think there were some vegan local dishes like ginataang lanka minus the shrimp and veggie only chop suey. But language was a bit of an issue and I was concerned about hygiene so I avoid eating out as much as possible. I expected this before I went so I brought plenty of food there.
Q: How veg-friendly is Singapore from a local’s perspective?
Very veg-friendly, we’re pretty spoilt for choice! The diversity and accessibility of the country really makes the experience special. We get to choose from so many different cuisines. It will only get friendlier in the future.
Q: How does it compare with the plant-based food scene elsewhere in Asia?
Better than many other countries in Asia. All locals understand what “vegetarian” is and most will be able to respect your food choice. But still not caught up in terms of convenience with places like Bali or Taipei. The word “vegan” is still quite foreign to many, especially the older generation. Quality wise, Singapore’s vegan food is definitely not on-par with Japan’s.
Q: Do you have any tips or advice for vegan travelers in Singapore?
Know our food culture first before setting your expectations. You have to know that there are so many types of vegetarian diets here so servers tend to get a bit confused. Communication is also key as “vegan” is not a mainstream word, but everyone understands “vegetarian”. Read my guide to eating out & in hawker centres in Singapore, and check out Animal Allies “eating out” and “where can I find” guides.
Try hawker food! If you don’t, you’re missing out the biggest part of our food culture. I know that if you google “vegan food in Singapore” you’ll get a list of cafes. So look beyond that, ask local vegans for recommendations. Hawker centres are where the best local food is. If you’re going to just visit one hawker centre, go to Circuit Road. Many vegetarian stalls there and the vegan satay and otah is to die for!
Q: What are some of the must-try vegan meals you’d recommend to those traveling there and the best places to have them?
Laksa - Green age at yew tee, or Mummy Yummy’s one at Shenton house which is available on Tues and Thurs only.
Kuay chap - Vegepot at fortune centre. Everything there is tasty and homely so I highly recommend it. Also try the tempeh curry, shrimp noodles and bak kut teh.
Thunder tea rice - Thunder Tree at Smith street. Every dish there is homemade, people are so friendly, so I also highly recommend. The miso sauerkraut is my current favourite.
Satay & otah - Victor’s Veggie at circuit road.
Awesome local noodle dishes like ban mian and mee hoon kuay - Xuan Miao (multiple outlets, the Paya Lebar one is likely closest to town.)
Shark’s fin soup without sharks harmed - Eight Treasures
Vegan cakes, waffles & ice cream - Well Dressed Salad Bar at Chinatown.
Quality Indian food - Raj and Gokul in Little India, menu labels vegan items. Gokul is oilier, cheaper with much bigger variety of menu. Raj is fancier and only focuses on Indian food.
Burgers with a local twist - NomvNom, try the satay tempeh burger!
Q: Any tips or advice you can share to newbie vegan travelers?
Research & communication are the most important. There’s plenty of free tools like abillionveg and Google Translate to help you find vegan food and translate languages. So you’ll know what to expect and convey your requirements in a manner that’s sensitive and respectful to the local culture. It was in Japan that I realized these two were the most important. Thanks to being prepared with both, I didn’t encounter awkward or difficult situations, despite Japan’s reputation for not being vegan-friendly. Once you have that settled, you’d have a lot more space to truly enjoy the travel experience!