Lily Ng, the manager of May Wah Vegetarian Market (and daughter of its owners), is not a vegetarian. Or, as she put it, “not yet.”
May Wah was created by Lily’s mother, who came to New York from Taiwan. Raised as a Taoist vegetarian, Lily’s mom was disappointed with the options for vegetarians in New York. In Taiwan she had hundreds of different vegetarian foods available to her, but the most she could find here was vegetables and a little tofu. Determined to bring some of vegetarian Taiwan to NYC, she created the shop in 1995 and began importing vegetarian products from Taiwan.
Success was not immediate. For the first three or four years, said Lily, they made no money. Lily would go to school in the morning and come back to work in the shop in the afternoon, since they couldn’t afford to pay a staff. And though business started to improve, it wasn’t until 2002-03, seven or eight years after opening, that things began to change. Lily attributes this to a change in the way people were thinking about food. Suddenly, she said, people were thinking about their diets and considering vegetarianism as a healthy lifestyle.
Now that business is better, they’ve expanded the shop from its original, narrow room to an open and airy space lined with freezers and containing a large selection of dried products. They have markets around the eastern United States, in places like Florida and Ohio. And they’ve started operating an online business, a move Lily was at first reluctant to make.
One of Lily’s goals is to get their products into local supermarkets. They’ve had some success in Brooklyn, getting May Wah branded items into Foodtown and Food Bazaar. These products, which make up a large percentage of the items on sale in the shop, are made in Taiwan specifically for May Wah. Lily travels back to Taiwan at least once a year to check on production and distribution, as well as to do some taste tests.
In fact everything that they sell in the market is taste tested by the staff first. Occasionally a product does not make the cut; Lily recalls with a smile a vegetarian egg yolk they tasted and decided not to carry. “It was just so weird,” she said. They do carry a vegan sunny side up ‘egg’ (sold frozen) that has been a big hit with what Lily calls their “temple customers.” These are the local Buddhist temples that come to May Wah with specific requests. Of the fried ‘egg’ Lily says, “It’s actually pretty good!”
They’ve had less success getting their products into markets in Queens, a problem that seems to stymie Lily. Because their products contain no onions, scallions, or leeks, she feels they should appeal to the many Asian vegetarians who don’t eat those ingredients. Still, she thinks that with enough perseverance they will eventually get a toehold in Queens markets.
Whether or not they are May Wah brand, the majority of the products on sale at the shop are imported from Taiwan. This is very important to the family. They try not to import anything from China; Lily says that their laws about food safety are too lax for the family’s standards. The few Japanese products they carry are purchased from distributors here in the US.
Walking around the shop it’s easy to make light of some of the products. One in particular made me do a double-take: the vegetarian lobster, molded to look just like a whole lobster, complete with spindly legs. Eating the food, though, is enough to make you a believer. I became a big fan of the ginger “chicken” (one of Lily’s favorites), easily defrosted in the microwave and tossed into a stir-fry. The “beef” chunks get nice and crispy on the outside when sautéed, and taste better than any other fake meat product I’ve tried (which is a lot). The vegan jerky is a fantastic sweet and spicy chewy snack.
What does the future hold for May Wah? . Through their Internet presence they’re getting requests from as far away as Utah, Europe, and recently one from Egypt. The biggest issue, says Lily, is the shipping – a 15-pound package being shipped to a customer in London would cost almost $300 in shipping alone. This is the biggest hurdle for their hope to make the business truly international. It’s an interesting dilemma for a business that had its origins abroad. As more requests roll in, though Lily is confident that they’ll find a way to solve those problems.
Lily Ng exudes the enthusiasm and passion of someone who is committed to getting people to enjoy their products, because she believes on those products. After getting to know Lily and tasting the May Wah products, I’m a believer too.
May Wah Vegetarian Market — 213 Hester St New York, NY 10013