To understand the wide availability of vegetarian and vegan food in Taiwan, it is important to appreciate that around 35% of the population(1) follows the Buddhist religion and another 33% of the population practises Taoism(2).
Taiwanese practise the Mahayana form of Buddhism, which preaches the strict abstinence from meat consumption. Taoist believers also abstain from meat on certain days of the lunar calendar and on important ancestral and commemorative anniversaries. Against this religious and cultural backdrop, there is a growing number of young Taiwanese who believe in non-violence to animals and the health benefits of a dairy-free diet. All these factors have ensured the dynamic and popular development of the vegetarian and more importantly vegan food space in Taiwan.
For native Taiwanese Stephanie Lin, who only adopted veganism about 5 years ago after she met New Zealand-born James Bell. Inspired by James, Stephanie slowly embraced the vegan lifestyle and felt energised by this new understanding of food and well-being. She was however missing her favourite food – cheese! Brought up and educated in the Philippines, Stephanie found it difficult to adjust to work life in Taiwan after living 20 years abroad. About 3 years ago when she started to feel disillusioned with corporate life, she was gifted the reference book on vegan cheesemaking by guru Miyoko Schinner.
Armed with a mission to help people explore healthy eating and driven by a hunger for “cheese”, Stephanie embarked on a self-taught journey to launch herself into a new profession. After six months of trial and error in her home kitchen, Stephanie and James created Moon Lab and started selling Moon Cheese. Although James continues to work full-time in software design, he provides Stephanie with much needed moral support and inspiration. Above all, he is her “guinea pig” for new products!
Vegan cheese is a plant-based non-dairy product, made using either proteins from a plant source or a combination of oils and starches, followed by flavour and texture developments. Cultured fermentation and enzyme breakdown add further complexity to the flavours.
This is made possible by fermenting the natural sugars present in the base materials. Different ingredients are available, including oils (eg coconut, palm or safflower), starch (eg potato and tapioca), beans, seeds and nuts (eg soy protein, pea protein, sunflower seeds, cashews, macadamias and almonds), emulsifiers and thickeners (eg agar). An assortment of bacterial cultures is available for vegan cheesemaking, as well as nutritional yeast to add extra flavours. Vegan cheese has experienced strong growth, better awareness and product innovation in the last decade. It is now more common to see vegan cheese with a shorter list of natural ingredients, namely nuts, vegan-friendly cultures and salt.
When I first approached Stephanie for an appointment, I was afraid that she would be reluctant to speak to a non-vegan cheese lover. To my relief, she responded to my request with much enthusiasm. I was keen to learn about her story and find out more about vegan cheese. And so it was on a rainy afternoon, after an unusually early morning start at 5:30 am by the earthquake that shook Taipei and northern Taiwan, I went to meet with Stephanie at neighbourhood coffee shop, where the owner allowed her to bring me a sample platter of her cheeses.
Together, we tried 6 cheeses from her collection: Classic, Sharp Cheddar, Spicy Chili, Sundried Tomato, Smoked Gouda and Blue. I liked them all! The blue cheese is not yet available in the market. I was very impressed by the prototype version which was aged for 2.5 months. It had evenly distributed blue veins, with distinct mushroom and vegetal aromas and flavours, as well as a mild blue mould note. The creaminess was jazzed up by the slight blue mould sharpness at the back of the palate. A vegan version of Gorgonzola Dolce!
But my favourite had to be the Chili Cheese. Stephanie had fermented the chili to soften the heat, so that just a warm sensation percolated with a nice spicy Tex-Mex kick. The Sun-dried Tomato cheese delivered that unique sweet/salty/savoury balance with the chewy texture of the sun-dried tomato in the creamy paste. The Smoked Gouda was smokey, meaty and broth-like. I would like to see how this would taste with further aging.
[CWHK: All her cheeses retail for NTD 320 per piece except for the Smoked Gouda which retails for NTD 420. The blue cheese is yet to be priced.]
Before the tasting, I had a good chat with Taiwan’s pioneer vegan cheesemaker, Stephanie Lin:
CWHK: Why the name “Moon Cheese”? Does it have a special meaning?
SL: There is a saying that the moon is made with cheese! The moon is like a wheel of cheese.
CWHK: What were your initial challenges in setting up Moon Lab? Are you able to source all your ingredients locally?
SL: Initially we shared a kitchen with a vegan restaurant but when they moved out to a bigger location, I had to find an alternative dedicated space for fermentation, dehydration and aging. In the end, I remodelled our apartment to create the necessary space. Fermentation at room temperature is possible, but often the fermentation temperatures can reach about 37°C. It is important to be able to control temperature and humidity and to achieve consistency in fermentation. I think I have finally made it work with Penicillium Roqueforti to make blue cheese. But I am still experimenting with Penicillium Candidum and Geotrichum Candidum to make bloomy rind cheeses.
One of my biggest challenges is humidity in the sub-tropical climate of Taiwan. Humidity can accelerate the fermentation, which may not be desirable. A slow fermentation is not a problem but over-fermentation can induce the presence of undesirable mould and the batch is wasted.
The other challenge is cost of cashew nuts. I want to work with a nut that has a creamy texture and is neutral in flavour. I do not like working with almonds because it is time-consuming to remove the skin. Cashew nuts do not come cheap though. I source them from China and Vietnam. It would be nice to source the key ingredient locally to reduce my carbon footprint. Unfortunately, they are not grown in Taiwan as cashews need a warm climate and plenty of sunlight to grow. I have experimented with soya beans and found the texture quite similar to tofu. I think this may not be so attractive for consumers in Asia when we already have so many tofu products. Consumers need to be able to differentiate between tofu and vegan cheese.
CWHK: How would you describe the style of your cheese, compared to vegan cheese in other countries?
SL: Our cheese is less salty and more delicate. I try to avoid strong flavours because I like to let the ingredients speak for themselves. Our cheese is healthy – it is made with all natural products, nothing processed at all! I use a probiotic starter culture. The other product I use is salt. I use both pink salt and rock salt.
There are generally two types of vegan cheese: the nut-based type that is made from fermentation and can be aged and the other type is starch-based (typically tapioca or gum agar) and can be melted in cooking. The starch-based type can have flavourings and colourings added to it. I want our cheese to be as natural as possible, to be as true to the ingredients as possible. So I only make nut-based cheese.
CWHK: Do you age your cheese? What is the shelf life of your cheese?
SL: I make a range of styles, from creamy to soft, then semi-hard and hard (the latter usually aged for 3 months or more). You can grate the hard cheese and use it like Parmesan. I have tried to age cheese up to 6 months too, at around 60% humidity and 10°C. I do limited aging as it takes up space.
However, customers can continue to age our cheese in their home refrigerators. The cheese loses moisture, becomes harder and develops a more tangy/sharp taste. It also tends to taste a bit saltier with aging, as it loses moisture.
Most of our cheese keeps for 3 months, as long as cross-contamination is contained. You store vegan cheese in the same way you store normal cheese.
CWHK: What is the nutritional value of vegan cheese?
SL: Vegan cheese contains healthy fats (all saturated fats) and has zero cholesterol and low sodium content. It has protein and minerals because of the nuts. All our cheeses are processed under 43°C. Therefore, all the nutritional goodness is preserved.
CWHK: Which is your best-seller? Why is that? Have you created products to suit local taste? How do you come up with new products?
SL: The locals do not like too much salt, but they like the tartness. Our sun-dried tomato cheese is our best-seller. I marinate the sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil and herbs before adding to the cheese. It tastes like “pizza in a bite”. Our second best-seller is the Smoked Gouda. I hand-smoke it for 5 minutes over hickory wood in a smoker and then age it for 2 weeks. It’s very popular!
For some of my cheese, I add a dash of Japanese miso to the fermented cashew paste. For example the Classic cheese has white miso added and the Cheddar has black soy bean miso added for a more savoury taste.
I decide what new cheese to make! I make what I like. Looking ahead, I would like to explore making black garlic cheese and bloomy rinds. [CWHK: At the time of publishing, Stephanie has successfully produced her first Vegan Camembert!]
CWHK: How do you market and sell your cheese? Do you also sell to other markets?
SL: I have tried to sell at farmers’ markets, but it’s really tough work for a one-man shop like ours. So I stopped doing that.
Now I just sell through our online shop and also through two vegan restaurants, Ooh-cha-cha and Plants. Most people learn about our cheese by word of mouth. Occasionally, I collaborate with vegan restaurants (for example Plants) to incorporate our cheese into their seasonal menus. We have a mix of corporate (not restaurants) and retail customers. I do not make the kind of volume that is sufficient to supply to restaurants. A lot of our orders are from repeat customers, but we also acquire new customers every month.
James has organised for us to do tastings in Hong Kong (2018) and Singapore (2017). The response was very positive in both cities. I think I even inspired one participant to start her own vegan cheese business in Singapore as a result!
I do not directly sell to Hong Kong and Singapore because of the costs of transportation. However, I have customers from Hong Kong who would place their [large] orders prior to arriving in Taipei and I would deliver their cheese to them after they arrive. I ask them what they do with so much cheese. They tell me they just share with friends and it goes rather quickly!
CWHK: Being a pioneer has first move advantages. Do you have competition? How do you envisage the future for Moon Lab? What are your plans?
SL: It’s not exactly true that I am a pioneer in vegan cheesemaking in Taiwan. Vegan restaurants have been making vegan cheese for a while. However, I was probably the first to make it for the retail market.
At the moment, my competition is probably the imported products. However, it’s usually the meltable type of cheese that is imported, for use in pizza, pasta and risotto dishes.
I am happy working by myself at the moment. I do not wish to scale up for the sake of scaling up. I just want to focus on creating new products for the time being.
CWHK: Do you work 7 days a week? What do you do when you are not working?
SL: I have a great work-life balance! I work only 4 hours a day and I make cheese every 2 weeks. I highly recommend the book “The Four Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss!
When I am not working, I read and listen to Podcasts.
CWHK: What motivates you every day?
SL: To be a better version of myself!
CWHK: Who is your hero in life? Who has inspired you the most?
SL: I would like to say it’s Miyoko Schinner. Her creativity and her courage to be a pioneer in vegan cheesemaking is very inspiring. I used her book as the foundation upon which to build my skills. Now I also regularly share views and learn from others within the Facebook vegan cheesemaker community.
CWHK: Do you have favourite pairings with your cheese?
SL: We do not do a lot of cheese and wine pairing here in Taiwan. Wine is not acceptable in the Buddhist religion. So we tend not to promote it.
However, I love Merlot! I particularly like it with our Sun-dried Tomato Cheese or Smoked Gouda. I can imagine a bit of Taiwanese whisky with our blue cheese or the chili cheese too.
For pairing with condiments, I love our Classic cheese served with kumquat jam, apples or caramelised/maple syrup nuts.
CWHK: If you were a cheese, which one it would be and why?
SL: I think the blue cheese. It can look intimidating at the first meeting. But when you start to get to know it better, you can appreciate the vibrant and warm personality underneath! [CWHK: I did not get the intimidating part at all. Stephanie was a ball of energy and her warm personality was very present!]
Follow Moon Lab Foods on Facebook @moonlabfoods
(1) The 2010 census of Taiwan recorded a population of 23.16 million people. The population is currently estimated to be 23.77 million.
(2) There are distinct differences between Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. However, it is believed that the majority of the Taiwanese population follow a mix of Taoism, Confucianism and ancestral worship. The statistics regarding the religious followings were provided by the Ministry of the Interior.
About the author:
Ivy is an independent cheese and wine educator based in Hong Kong. At Cheese & Wine HK (https://cheeseandwinehk.com) she collaborates with quality suppliers of both cheese and wine to organise educational and creative tasting events. Talking Cheese in Asia is cheese specialist Ivy Ng’s interview-based series on the movers and shakers in Asia’s burgeoning cheese world.