In the Halls of Chinatown's Faux Meat Marketplace

[Photographs: Rabi Abonour]

Chinatown's markets are known for their exotic ingredients: foreign produce, live seafood, dried goods of all kinds (oysters anyone?). Just a couple blocks away from the hustle and bustle of Mott Street, you'll find a market with a different—but no less interesting—inventory. May Wah Vegetarian Market, a small, brightly lit store on Hester Street, specializes in faux meat products.

Looking for a "fried egg" made of soy protein with a cheese powder yolk? A whole "lobster" made of yam flour? Vegan "beef stew," wrapped in plastic and ready to eat? Whatever meat substitute you need, you can probably find it here.

About three quarters of May Wah's business is wholesale—they supply temples, churches, and schools, as well as many of the city's vegetarian restaurants. Be it for health or religious reasons, May Wah's customers abstention from meat comes with a cuisine all its own, such as the vegetarian Buddhist fare you'll find at nearby Buddha Bodhai.

May Wah imports its products from owner Lee Mee Ng's native Taiwan. In the early years the store sold only established brands. Some of those foods—tea, noodles, and sauces—still stock the shelves, but eventually the store started selling products under its own May Wah Vegan label.

The first May Wah Vegan foods were frozen imitation meat. Based mostly on soy or wheat, these include chicken nuggets, Gong Bao chicken, and teriyaki chicken and beef. Seafood, too, gets the vegan treatment. May Wah sells imitation lobster, whole fish, shrimp balls, and more, all made from konnyaku, a type of Japanese yam. Many of the seafood products are shaped to look like the animals they are based on—May Wah's freezers are full of cartoonish representatives of sea creatures.

Over the years, Ng has recognized the importance of responding to customer demand. When customers started asking for more ready-to-eat foods, she supplemented May Wah's frozen line with freeze-dried ready-to-eat meals including beef stew, braised curry, and spicy chicken. They also began to make vegan jerkies, with flavors ranging from spicy beef to basil chicken to black pepper seitan.

Ng immigrated to the US from Taiwan about thirty years ago. She had grown up with ready access to vegetarian foods, and was disappointed with the lack of vegetarian products in the States. Missing the food she loved from back home, Ng opened her own small shop in 1994.

"The first four years were terrible," says Ng's daughter Lily, who now manages the business. "She worked really hard, and tried to get the word out there."

Rapidly approaching its twentieth anniversary, business at May Wah has improved dramatically. While most of their customers were originally Asian, a growing interest in health food and vegetarian/vegan products has diversified May Wah's clientele. Ng has expanded the market twice to keep up with demand.

Moving forward, the Ngs would like to increase their retail business, both in New York and around the world. They currently ship products to consumers across the United States and in parts of Canada, but want to expand even farther.

"Our whole goal is basically to give the consumers a chance to become vegetarian, and just to spread the word of vegetarianism," says Ng. "So we do want to make it accessible to everybody."