Shin Yeh makes traditional Taiwanese home-style food trendy. Through their several restaurants in Taipei (and associated global chain) they offer up more choices than just Taiwanese dishes. But recreating old-fashioned fare for a modern clientele is the heart of their business and what they are best known for.
Founded in 1977 by Mrs Lee Xiu Ying, Shin Yeh has evolved from a small, back-street restaurant into a high-end restaurant chain. At the business lunch that I hosted, their store at A9 Mitsukoshi Department store Xinyi was doing brisk trade. (Lucky I booked because otherwise we might not have gotten a table.) While the surroundings were elegant, the mood was relaxed with the sound of laughter and conversation in the air. This is a place to come with friends, to enjoy good food, talk and perhaps to reminisce about the past over dishes from one’s childhood.
We ordered several dishes, consciously chosing traditional, home-style fare. One of my dining companions hailed from Xiamen, China, and we wanted her to sample some representative Taiwan dishes so that she could compare and contrast.
First up was the simple omelette with pickled turnip (正宗菜脯蛋). This is a peasant-style dish, that used to be served when times were tough. But at Shin Yeh it was transformed into an almost souffle-like fluffy disc encasing tender pickled turnips. I have made this dish at home several times, with the end result no-where near as impressive as at Shin Yeh. Here they have turned something simple into something special.
We also enjoyed a type of steamed pork dish, moulded with duck yolks jewelled on top. This reminded me a little of a Taiwanese interpretation of a yum cha style dish. The pork, and the surrounding sauce, was delicious spooned over our accompanying congee.
Which brings me to the accompanying starch. Instead of the usual steamed rice, we ordered a Taiwan peasant staple: sweet potato congee. In years gone by, rice was expensive while sweet potato was cheap and easy to grow. So poorer folk used to bulk out their rice by making it into sweet potato congee. But over time people realised how delicious this poor man’s rice was, and it has now become a popular dish in its own right. I like to refer to this dish as ‘mother-in-law’ congee. In the Taiwanese soap opera Inborn Pair, the mother-in-law of the heroine slyly suggested she make everyone’s favourite sweet potato congee for breakfast. Because of the time needed to cook the dish, this meant the heroine had to get up at 5.00am in the morning to start cooking.
We just had to order stir-fried oysters with shallots, which had been a favourite dish of my friend’s Xiamen grandmother. I thought the combination might be a little fishy, but the mixture of sweet, plump oysters and chunks of green shallots provided a nice balance. My friend thought it was quite good, but I guess it is difficult to compare with a childhood dish prepared by nai nai (grandmother).
Being a fan of cashew nuts, I ordered a serving of stir-fried prawns with cashews. The dish was not especially generous, but the combination of fresh king prawns, full-flavoured roasted cashews and crisp vegetables was light and just right.
Just as we thought we had finished ordering, we decided to add in a serve of ‘three cup chicken’ (三杯嫩土雞). The dish refers to the main ingredients: sesame oil, rice wine and soy sauce. At Shin Yeh three cup chicken was made with free-range chicken, accompanied by large portions of ginger, garlic and basil. It was a bold, pungent dish delicious offset by the thick sweet potato congee.
We finished with some small Japanese style sweets — sticky-rice mochi coated with sweet peanut powder (欣葉暖麻薯). Although the serving was small, it was ample for us.
Shin Yeh is at several locations in Taipei, but we dined at Level 8 of the A9 Shinkong Mitsukoshi department store in Xinyi (台北市松壽路9號8樓(新光三越信義新天地A9館8樓). Their restaurant might look small, but it is deceptively big and can seat up to 300 people. For reservations phone 02-8786-1234.