Last night, Sam and I were taken out to dinner by a member of Sydney’s Taiwanese-Australian community (Taibao). I met Mr Su while I was escorting a VIP from Taiwan to Australia in early July. He proudly hosted two dinners for my VIP with the Taibao community in Sydney. The first was a dinner for twenty, organised at short notice, at Tetsuyas (with matching wines, of course). The second was at a Chinese restaurant called Ocean King House, along Princes Highway in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah. The chef at Ocean King House was originally from Regal Hotel in Chinatown, and it had consequently become a favourite haunt for the well-heeled Chinese in the know. Both dinners were jolly affairs, with good food, lots of toasting around the table (jingjiu), and riotous conversation.
Mr Su told me that he would like to take me out to dinner when I got to Taiwan. I thought he was just being polite, but he did contact me to follow through with his invitation. He left a message on my phone advising that we would be going to Pengyuan Huiguan (Peng’s Agora Garden). I had no idea initially where this restaurant was, or in fact anything about the place, and it was not until I came home and googled it that I realised how privileged I had been to have been treated to such a special meal.
Pengyuan is renowned in Taipei for its authentic Hunan-style cooking. The original chef, Peng Chang-kuei, is now 92. While he is no longer working, he still has a role as an adviser. Peng trained as a chef at a wealthy household in Hunan Province, China, before fleeing to Taiwan during the civil war. There he took up a role as chef for national banquets. I wonder whether Peng was the inspiration for Ang Lee’s famous 1990s movie, “Eat Drink Man Woman”, which is one of my favourite movies. According to his son, Peng is now being urged to record his recipes in writing to ensure that they are preserved for prosperity.
Peng later became head chef at the Pengyuan restaurant in Taipei, which is now part of a chain of around six restaurants. (We went to a newer restaurant on Zhongxiao East Road, near the Tango Hotel.) In the 1970s, Peng moved to New York to open his own restaurant where he counted notables such as Henry Kissinger as devotees. His most famous dish, his own creation with many imitators, is General Tso’s chicken. This dish is not so well-known in Australia, but it is a stable in Chinese restaurants throughout the US. It is slightly sweet (although many Western versions are much more so) with just a hint of chilli. For history of Peng and General Tso’s chicken, see the following article: http://www.salon.com/food/francis_lam/2010/01/05/history_of_general_tsos_chicken/index.html
Dinner with Mr Su was once again a feast for the senses. It was haute Chinese banquet style, i.e. lots of offal and unusual ingredients, but very good. The meal started off with appetizers (xiao cai) consisting amongst others of black chicken feet, cold-sliced tripe salad, something that looked like preserved quails eggs and smoked ham slices. The black chicken feet were a bit confronting, but I did my best. I actually liked, though, the cold-sliced tripe salad, notwithstanding that tripe is not usually a favourite ingredient. Another dish consisting of sliced lamb tripe with yellow leeks was also very nice. In both dishes, the tripe was tender and non-obtrusive. I would not have realised that I was eating offal if it had not been pointed out to me.
The lavishness of the dinner became apparent with the arrival of the Peking duck, which was carved silver-service fashion and presented on wafer-thin, freshly steamed pancakes. This was serious roast duck! I probably liked the earthiness of Song Kitchen pancakes better (see my earlier review), but I found it hard to fault the delicious crispy texture of Pengyuan’s roast duck. The next dish was a bit tricky to navigate for environmental and ethical reasons: a generous serving of shark fin soup. I note that this is not normally on their menu, and was prepared specially for us.
I also, surprisingly, enjoyed another Pengyuan speciality: fish head served with chilli. It was a large fish head from a deep-sea fish of some sort (the rest of the sharp, perhaps), and it did not have any noticeable traits to indicate what part of the fish it was from (i.e. no eyes staring at you). Despite reassurances that it was not spicy, it had a definite kick to it. Another surprisingly good dish was the deep-fried spring pigeon. I remember a language partner from Taiwan once asking me why Australians didn’t try to eat all the pigeons she saw flying around. I am not sure why we are so squeamish in Australia about eating small birds — perhaps the work involved in preparing them? With this dish, all the hard work had already been done: the birds had been totally deboned and were filled with a seasoned-rice mixture that complemented the crispness of the fried skin.
General Tso’s chicken, as already noted, is Pengyuan’s most famous dish. It is rich and slightly oily, with a sticky texture that is addictive and delicious. It is definitely something to be enjoyed in moderation. Another famous dish of Peng’s creation that was served during the banquet is double prosperity ham. This consists of a slice of smoked ham topped with a piece of crispy-fried bean curd wrapped hamburger style in a piece of thin, steamed bread. (Peng’s son joked that he had run down the road and bought the ingredients from a fast-food hamburger shop. Somehow I don’t think so!) The saltiness of the ham contrasted nicely with sweet-crispy texture of the bean curd. I am glad that I was only served one portion, or else I would have gobbled up several at the detriment to my waistline.
In addition to the shark fin soup, several of the dishes that we were served were specialties not listed on the menu. For instance, we were served a round of steamed prawn meat, surrounded by what looked like a thick spinach-bubble soup. This dish was a work of art to look at, and even nicer to taste. Also, at the suggestion of one of the ladies at our table, Peng’s son specially organised a dish of cold noodles (liang mian). He proudly mixed this dish himself with great flourish, demonstrating the nine ingredients that were involved in creating the green noodle dish. This included sesame oil, sesame paste, chilli oil, the liquid from fermented bean curd (doufulu), garlic, minced prawn, minced bacon and a few other ingredients that I regretfully cannot remember. According to Peng’s son, his father invented this dish in the 1960s for a visit to the Philippines as guest chef on behalf of the Chinese Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission or some such organisation). While simple, it was a delicious and tasty dish. There was also a second soup dish of dried scallop and black mushroom that I could not find on the menu, which undoubtedly would have had medicinal properties. The soup was delicately flavoured, the mushroom was especially tender, and the reconstituted scallop was flavoursome and soft.
After all of this feasting, there could not possibly be any more: but yet there was. The baked custard pastries at the end of the meal were also a treat. The pastry was shiny and flaky, and the inside custard was wickedly rich. I was thankful that the crescent-shaped pastries were small as not even the walk home was able to dissolve the calories in each serve. We were given some leftovers to take home, and I had to ask Sam to hide them from me! Accompanying the pastries were small, tricolour puddings made from coconut jelly, green tea and red bean and topped with dessicated coconut. They were simple and pretty, and reminded me a little bit of an Asian-style snowball biscuit.
My meal at Pengyuan was a privileged treat. I have attached below a link to the menu, which provides some detail of Pengyuan specialties and standard meals. But if you dine at Pengyuan in summer, be sure to order the cold noodles. While simple, they are truly something special.