|Seasonal bounty: (Left to right) A coagulation of mashed taro with orange sauce seasoning; freshly cut dragon fruits and kiwis; a persimmon filled with mashed chestnut and yam; a soup boiled with seasonal vegetables, three different mushrooms, and watercress.
by Hans Hung-Yuan Chen
Going up the stairs of Taipei's Sagely Appearance Rock, one can take a left turn and enter a short trail comfortably ensconced on the base of the hiking trail. Here a home-operated food enterprise that prides itself on the delicate creations of its chef Wang Pei-jen.
A high school arts teacher in her earlier years, Wang decided to take her passion for cooking and set up a restaurant that constantly seeks to innovate and is always true to the original sources of her various materials. The five colours that make up a dish's composition – these are basic tenets of consideration in the presentation of her dishes.
The space in which we take a seat is situated right next to her kitchen. Besides heavyset tables and chairs made of wood, the inside feels cozy, with the mountain right outside if one wants to continue a hike. A small waterfall and rock mountain adorns the path leading to the home kitchen.
It is amazing how much unique variation and sumptuous delivery there is in the cuisine that Wang offers. In her vegan repertoire, she boasts of the simplest of foods presented in ways that are both visually pleasant and olfactorily addictive. And each dish is enticingly deliciously a treat for the taste buds.
|Balanced flavours: Wang Pei-jen's vegetarian home kitchen prides itself on delicacy and creativity.
Wang's exquisite touch is present in all stages of the meal. From the carefully matched celery rolls, imbued with a light, clean sauce that only freshens the tongue and doesn't dampen it like so many sauces do, the feast of basic ingredients hones to new heights by building up on techniques begins.
The motto of locally procured, seasonal produce is what Wang emphasises. Also, the prerequisites of selecting clean and high-quality, hand-made materials throughout the whole cooking process is what she takes obvious pride in.
Technical innovation is present in every part of the dish. Breaking through the traditional expectations of roles for various ingredients is vital to which Wang carries out through the entire repertoire of her works.
One prime example is a tofu dish that appears as a flawless block of purity, adorned with several strands of crisp brown great burdock coated in sweetness. Upon the first bite, you will experience the aroma that completely washes away the previous expectation of bland tofu that we are all used to. It is a surprise that brings excitement due to the sheer bouts of transcendence that seep through.
It turns out that the tofu is a delicately mixed block of ground-up peanuts, cashews, and sesame, its consistency and smoothness achieved by the blending of those nuts by hand. The feeling of gentle splendour when the aroma rushes to the boundaries of the larynx and up through the nasal cavity is delightful.
The concept of the five elements, a system describing mutual interaction of the composite parts of nature, is incorporated in Wang's design of food, In autumn, eating with the colour "white" in the concept of Chinese nutrition systems, in order to moisturise the lungs.
The sweetness of the onion pie makes a statement of its own, in a dish that belies the appearance of ordinary bakery. A pure scent that is simple and sweet but yet conveys an unmistakable aura of high quality, different from the heavy fried taste of ordinary street-sold onion pies – that is the special part about Wang's pie.
Passion and love
Open heartedness is critical to cooking, according to Wang. Transformation and adaptation are critical; that's also how innovation occurs. When an obstacle stands in the way, one must not approach the same problem via the same method; rather, immediately correcting errors is necessary. Furthermore, one can never pretend a problem does not exist. Must face the problem directly, or face the immediate trashing of the food. And despite all the determination, one can't tackle the problem effectively with tension or pressure.
She says, "Your interest and passion will let you feel unafraid of being tired. If you love it, you will be willing to keep trying. There is no need to talk too much. To support you keep walking down on the path, you simply need love."
Continuous, repetitive practice is a must, she adds. Experience accumulation leads to inspiration, and there is nothing that comes out of thin air, Wang said determinedly.
"Slowly, slowly accumulating" is the only way to become good at making food, she said.
|Perfect pear: Spring rolls, cashews, snow lotus seeds and other bites (left); mashed yam on a heated pear (right).
One of the most special parts about her cuisine is how Wang breaks through the identity barriers of fruits and vegetables, and combines them into one. "Allowing fruits to form a unitary body with other foods" is a direction that she took on herself to take her cuisine.
She proudly mentions that her insistence on reaching above and beyond rewarded her with dishes that truly fuse fruits with other foods, whereas many other restaurants use fruits only as a container of sorts for various stuffings. Of particular importance to the process is the heating of fruits, a technique by which Wang resolved the challenge of melting the taste of fruits and vegetables together through.
Taro is an example of Wang's stringent selection of foods. She only uses taro that can be squished by hand, because she wants the soft, loose feel of the mashed taro. If the taro is too hard, she discards it.
She is also committed to spreading the creed of cooking. She hosts lessons on demand for those interested in learning the vibe of her skills. She is a firm believer in the transmission of such knowledge and through reaching out and testing her skills, she wants to broaden the frontier of vegetarian cuisine.
Wang believes that by sharing her menu, she will improve, keep moving forward. She simply wants others to make better and better dishes.
"Everyone should make a dish with individual style," Wang says. — The China Post