I’m a coffee shop dweller. Alcohol could disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow and I wouldn’t care (I might even rejoice) but if coffee disappeared… I’d be a little sad. More specifically, I like a really good latte, because sometimes black coffee just doesn’t cut it. I can count the number I’ve had in the last 8 months on one hand.

This surprised me – it’s not something I expected from Asia. I grew up being told that in general Asians are lactose intolerant and therefore not much milk is drunk here. Taiwan is part of the ‘non-milking zone,’ countries that traditionally do not consume animal milk or dairy products, despite plenty of cows, buffaloes, and goats. The non-milking zone covers all of Southeast Asia from Burma eastwards including China, Korea, and Japan. The zone ends with the dairy-consuming Mongols to the north and the Tibetans and Indians to the west. Some 85% of the people in the non-milking zone above the age of three years have low levels of the intestinal enzyme lactase that breaks down the lactose in animal milks. This is not exclusive to East Asia: some 60% of the Western world are also lactose intolerant, and this percentage rises when people stop consuming dairy and the body is given a chance to wean. It is not just humans who cannot digest lactose, the condition is also prevalent in other land mammals (cats, for instance). An inability to digest lactose is more common than not: animal milk is intended for baby animals only, to assist growth in the early years of life. Beyond then it is not designed for continued consumption.

In fact, I heard somewhere that Westerners smell like milk because so little in drunk in Asia. The irony? The children I work with drink so much milk, they smell milky to me – I haven’t touched dairy in two and a half years. The dairy industry has got it’s claws into Taiwan, and it’s not letting go.

“But soy is everywhere!” I hear you cry. Soy oil for cooking, soy based ink on packaging, soy desserts, tofu in everything, soy sauce, soy milk from the breakfast bars. So why in stinky tofu’s name can’t I get a soy latte when I walk into a coffee shop? I think my (also vegan) friend hit the nail on the head when she described the attitude difference towards soy milk in the East vs. the West. She told me “they think of it as a juice, not a milk, and drink it like they’d drink orange juice. Why would you put orange juice in your tea?”

This is shown in the language, too. Cow’s milk is 牛奶 niu2nai3, literally ‘cow milk’. To ask for soy milk, the character is 豆漿 Dou4jiang1. Dou4 means bean, usually soy bean, and jiang1 is a thick liquid. Doujiang is first referenced in China in A.D. 82 in the Lun Heng by Wang Ch’ung, although this may be the thicker liquid version, before it was strained into a milk like consistency. (Read more on the history of soy milk here, it’s pretty interesting.) For decades in Taiwan it has been a common as a breakfast food, and large pots are often seen outside breakfast shops. In the 1960s and 1970s it started becoming popular as a soft drink. In 7/11s today you can find bottles of sweetened soy milk with flavours like chocolate and red bean. The problem is… Most have regular milk in them, too.

Like in China, soy milk is drunk as the soft drink of choice in Taiwan. In most small restaurants, for instance, only soy milk is offered in the fridges. In China this has phenomenon has socialist roots. The Asian Wall Street Journal (14 June 1983) published a front page article blasting Coca Cola, which was growing in popularity, for being unhealthy and filled with sugar, caffeine and phosphoric acid. It was also far more expensive than soy milk, and cutting the amount they imported in favour of locally produced soy milk boosted China’s economy.

Almond milk is popular in Taiwan too, usually in powdered form. Walk through any nightmarket and you’ll soon find the sickly sweet smell. However, almond milk in Taiwan 90% of the time also contains milk powder – that or you’ll be paying through the nose for it. I can only assume this is to both lower the cost, and given it a creamier consistency. The moral of the story is beware: if you’re buying soy milk somewhere in Asia, check first that it’s not got cow juice lurking in its depths. To ask – “you3 niu2nai3 ma?” listen for the reply – “you3” (has) or “mei3 you3” (doesn’t have).

So where can I get a coffee?

This isn’t a top 6 list. This is an only 6 list, more or less.

1. Starbucks

I used to avoid Starbucks in the UK, but they’re everywhere here, the staff are friendly, and the soy milk is the same as I use at home – so vegan safe. The coffees aren’t the best, and they’re certainly not healthy, but it’s somewhere to sit and have a coffee when I’m on my lunch break. If you don’t feel like coffee, their matcha green tea latte is creamy and delicious. Warning: caramel macchiato isn’t vegan (milk in the drizzle), neither is their hot chocolate (sob, it used to be) nor their chai tea latte (honey in the syrup).

Caramel Macchiato, my usual on days I need a kick.

Hazelnut Macchiato, my usual on days I need a kick.

2. Ooh Cha Cha

They don’t do lattes, but they do white coffee with a coconut almond milk blend that is delicious. I could happily forsake lattes if I had that on tap. I like it with a slice of raw vegan mocha cheesecake.

The best white coffee I've tasted.

The best white coffee I’ve tasted.

3. Mianto

Again, no lattes, but they do the ‘Miantochino’ – coffee with soy whipped cream on top from a squirts can. They import it specially and it’s divine, and you can get a cupcake with it while you’re there.

With extra cream, please.

With extra cream, please.

4. Fresh bakery and cafe

Fresh will do you a latte while you sit and eat your bread and cake, and it’s not bad – but it’s also not rich enough for my taste. The coffee is lacking a certain something, and it’s a little too weak and soy milky/just watery. I stick the the Indian milk tea which is lovely.

5. Herban Kitchen and Bar

Herban will brew up an excellent latte to go with your vegan brunch. It’s a little on the pricey side, but it’s good. They also have a cashew milk one that you can add flavoured syrups to, and it’s delicious.

6. Naked Food, Delicious Taipei

Naked Food and Herban are by far the best lattes on this list. Naked Food’s is a decent size, and good coffee. Hopefully they’ll have a non-soy option soon, too. It’s also cheaper than Starbucks and Herban, and you can get a cake to go with it.

I’ve heard Loving Hut and About Animals also do lattes, but I haven’t tried either yet. If you know of anywhere else to feed vegan caffeine addictions, please let me know!

Warning: The cafe in the QSquare mall by Taipei Main Station has a soy milk option, but it contains cow milk. I made the mistake of not asking the first two times and it was only the third time I went that they thought to tell me. Learn from my mistake: always ask!

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