In the Xizhi District of Northern Taiwan, where GPS manufacturer Garmin is headquartered, ironically, I’m lost.
Or perhaps just off track for a moment. I’ve been told by other travellers that my destination — Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant in the Keelung River Valley between Taipei City and Keelung is a genuine pilgrimage. Not easy to get to, but an authentic food experience worth the trek.
There’s quite a narrative to this restaurant. Over its 20-year history, it has moved from mountain to mountain, from its original Xindian City location, to a perch high on Yangming Mountain. Then two years ago, it relocated again to its current home in the wild countryside on the outskirts of Yangmingshan National Park. After nearly an hour, the concrete city of Taipei feels a world away, the rural trail following a rhythmic series of switchbacks, slowly climbing Xiwan Road until at last reaching the restaurant’s laneway.
The owner, Lin Pin-Hui, a former architect and devout Buddhist, traded a successful city career to pursue a more contemplative life in the mountains. Initially, he spent his days reading, drinking tea, meditating and discussing spirituality with friends, who came to equate his home with a retreat centre. As one cannot live on tea alone, Pin-Hui found it necessary to feed his guests — ultimately nourishing both mind and stomach with dishes he creatively assembled using locally-sourced ingredients — many grown and harvested right on the property. Coming from a clear mind as he cooked, his meals were not only delicious, but also beautiful. His reputation grew, and with each season, he would set more places at his table.
After two decades of welcoming an international following of foodies, day-trippers, dignitaries and world travellers — who now reserve their place at least two months ahead, it’s uncanny that Pin-Hui humbly professes he’s not a chef.
Stepping out of street shoes and onto rice tatami mats, we enter a space that’s best described as authentically Zen. Imagine a place where you might do yoga or spa — a place void of ostentatious ornaments and decorations, colours earthy, furniture simple and natural, and a peaceful ambiance to reflect, relax and ponder life over a cup of oolong tea. I don’t practice Buddhism, yet I find immediate comfort in this minimalistic aesthetic, inspiring my own journey to improve my life, to remove distractions, be mindful and build better life habits.
To best experience Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant, it’s wise to dismiss Western ideals, time pressures and expectations of what a restaurant experience should be.
“I don’t let guests order dishes because I want them to experience the flavourful and visual rhythm represented in what I decide in that moment to prepare,” says Pin-Hui, who changes the 10-course menu constantly. “Besides, it gives them unexpected surprises!”
Guests sit at long narrow tables, providing opportunities to converse and practise mindful eating — appreciating the presentation, colours, aromas, and chewing slowly to taste attentively, whether savouring a dish of pineapple juice with a splash of passion fruit, or contemplating the texture of peanut tofu in corn juice that follows.
Fast food is a foreign language here, as dinner slowly transpires over three hours. The creative cuisine is a reinterpretation of traditional food, taking inspiration from Japan and mainland China, yet prepared with Western cooking techniques.
“Our dishes are like Eastern people dressed in a suit,” says Pin-Hui. “Each ingredient is essentially Eastern, yet we adapt Western cooking methods to maintain the original tastes of individual ingredients and add our homemade sauces. The combination of sauces and ingredients and the order in which we serve each dish reflects the spirituality and cultural connotations of the cook.”
simply, yet with the fine proportion and composition of a skilled architect, in minimalism there is space to experience the true essence of each ingredient — a realization that came to Pin-Hui when he became a vegetarian. He began to eat less food, but better quality and more flavourful.
Service is attentive; waiters clearing the table completely before the next dish is served, creating an unhurried and novel epicurean experience. Admittedly, I often eat on the run, thinking of food simply in terms of calories, nutrients and basic sustenance. It’s a challenge to maintain a meditative quality of mind throughout a meal, yet at this moment the smooth silky steamed eggs have my full attention, infused with the aroma of fried scallops. Soon that empty plate is whisked from the table, replaced with a varietal seafood platter of prawns, sea urchins and sashimi.
In succession, there are two more vegetarian dishes: fried sticky-rice cake stuffed with mullet roe, followed by asparagus and mushrooms, and finally the star attraction — lotus chicken stew, served intentionally last for its symbolism of spiritual enlightenment. Life’s seasons from bud to blossom are represented in this dish, highlighted when a dried lotus bud is placed in the warm pottery urn and slowly opens to reveal its hidden beauty, like artistic time-lapse photography. The floral fragrance simultaneously blends with the soup, creating harmonious flavour that has become a patron favourite.
Pin-Hui plans to keep refining his vision toward a cultural and culinary nirvana that lives in harmony with the surrounding mountains and forests. His goals may be lofty, but they’re filled with wisdom — healthy nourishment for the body and most sincerely, a place where travellers like me can find food for the soul.
Chinese Text by Rui Chen English Text by Janine Mackie Produced by Echo Li Photos Courtesy of Shi-Yang Culture Restaurant