By Sophia Hsu
As you stroll up to this brightly lit store on Hester and Centre Street, May Wah Vegetarian Market seems a little out of place next to the darkly lit surroundings. The pictures in the window can lead one to think a vegetarian restaurant occupies the space, but the very clearly printed sign distinctly says market. This is a haven for vegans and vegetarians searching for a viable protein substitute without having to miss out on global delicacies. All of the products are all natural and are exclusively made in Taiwan.
The owners originally ran the May Wah Pork Chop Restaurant just down the street on Hester for 24+ years, cooking up delicate and brightly flavored pork chops to the delight of Chinatown visitors. One of the owners decided to go vegetarian for the health benefits. After selling the restaurant, which is still in operation today, the family opened the tiny shop on Hester Street in 1995. The original shop is now less than a third of the renovated space, proving to the family that the first five years of hardship was worth the wait.
Nowadays, vegetarianism is widespread and crossing many cultural boundaries. Vegetarianism has been a common practice among the Buddhist community, so it is not a big leap for many Asians. Asians who become vegetarian tend to rely primarily on soy protein and wheat gluten to supplement meat, but May Wah Vegetarian Market can provide an enormous variety of vegan, vegetarian, and organic meat substitutes that use a variety of all natural base proteins. Vegetarian and vegan-friendly protein no longer has to come from just soybeans and egg whites; it’s found in wheat glutens, mushrooms, pumpkins, seaweed, and a variety of other natural foods.
Even the most dedicated vegetarians may long to try many ethnic delicacies and are denied the pleasure because those traditional dishes may contain some sort of meat as an ingredient. Yes, even bacon and ham are meat no matter how much you consider them seasonings. I know some of my long term vegetarian friends were overjoyed when I made a vegetarian version of zong zi, the pork stuffed sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. I used one of the dried, textured vegetable protein products from May Wah and treated it just like I did the pork, marinating it, then stir-frying it. I was able to bring a very traditionally meaty delicacy during the Dragonboat Festival to my vegetarian friends without losing the flavor or texture.
The freezer case provides vegan and vegetarian options for those ethnic dishes. If you aren’t feeling adventurous in the kitchen, a lot of the options are of the heat and eat variety, where only knowledge of operating a microwave is all you need to enjoy tasty and healthy dishes like citrus faux spareribs, one of May Wah’s most popular products along with the faux chicken nuggets. In fact, both products are so popular, the owners can barely keep them on their shelves. Even though May Wah Vegetarian Market is not a restaurant for all of the beautiful photographs in their windows, they supply some of the city’s most well-known and influential restaurants whose chefs want to get creative with their vegetarian options. They actually distribute to restaurants and grocery stores throughout New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and now, Maryland, but their online store has global customers.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood, stop by and pick up one of my favorites like the pumpkin floss to sprinkle over rice or porridge, or stuff into a whole wheat steamed bun or the smoky, grilled flavor of the tofu jerky. Enjoy a refreshing, chilled oolong tea while you pick up some faux ham slices for your next sandwich or faux duck for a steamed bun duck slider. To get a product list and pricing, check out their website http://www.vegieworld.com.