When I planned my recent trip to Hong Kong, I intended to eat well. I booked a culinary tour in advance, I hired a guide to introduce me to local markets and I researched the popular restaurant scene. But, as is often the case when I travel, my favorite Hong Kong food experiences turned out to be two spontaneous meals in extraordinary settings. Lunches at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island and at the Nan Lian Garden of the Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon were highlights of my trip
Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island
I didn’t go to the Po Lin Monastery to eat. Visiting the monastery on Lantau Island was on my wish list because it’s home to one of the largest outdoor seated Buddha statues in the world, the bronze Tian Tan Buddha – known simply as the “Big Buddha.” At 34 meters (112 feet) tall, the Big Buddha would be impressive in any setting. But the colossal figure sits crossed-legged on a lotus throne atop the peak of Mount Muk Yue, 268 steps above the grounds of the monastery, so it positively dominates the landscape from every direction.
The climb to the top is well worth the effort. Six graceful, smaller statues share a platform near the top of the steps. Each of these female figures, known as Devas, makes an offering to the Buddha.
For a while, I shared a quiet morning on the platform with the Six Devas. I walked all around the base of the Buddha, enjoying sweeping views of the surrounding valley and the monastery below.
But before long, the crowds started to make their way up to my perch, so I headed back down. When I paused at the base of the steps, I noticed a window advertising “meal tickets” for the monastery’s vegetarian restaurant. I bought a ticket for the first luncheon seating of the day, then I set off for the monastery.
Compared to the bronze and gray color-scheme of the Mount Muk Yue peak, the monastery complex was surprisingly colorful. I walked under elaborately decorated eaves.
And I marveled at the vibrant and beautiful details of the carved woodwork overhead.
In a wide, plain building on the far edge of the temple complex opposite the Big Buddha, I found the Po Lin Monastery Vegetarian Kitchen. When I presented my ticket, a host ushered me briskly through a series of no-frills, windowless dining rooms.
An efficient and silent waiter delivered hot tea to my table, followed by a huge serving bowl of winter melon soup. Then three more colorful dishes arrived: baby bok choy with mushrooms, fried vegetarian spring rolls and a mixed dish of celery, cucumber, tofu, red and yellow peppers.
The dishes were fresh, fragrant, healthy and hearty. Although no meats or sweets were served, the flavors were perfectly balanced and delicious. I sipped my tea and decided that I would keep a lookout for more vegetarian restaurants when I returned to the Hong Kong-mainland.
Nan Lian Garden of the Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon
A few days later, I visited the Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon. Unlike the Po Lin Monastery, the Chi Lin Nunnery is neither remote nor secluded. In fact, the nunnery is located smack in the middle of a busy shopping area, and a congested road bisects the nunnery and the adjacent Nan Lian Garden.
But the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian Garden are a surprising oasis in bustling Kowloon. Behind heavy gates, the traditional-looking nunnery complex is actually a marvel of modern design. Rebuilt in 1990 in the style of the Tang Dynasty, the timber-frame buildings were constructed without a single nail.
The unique temple complex is surrounded by a restrained, Chinese garden and tranquil lotus ponds.
Since I had enjoyed my lunch at the Po Lin Monastery earlier that week, I was on the lookout for a similar place to eat at the nunnery. But I didn’t see a restaurant in the temple complex. I left the nunnery and took a pedestrian bridge over Fung Tak Road into the meticulously manicured park space of the elaborate Nan Lian Garden. Every tree, plant, flower, and rock have been placed carefully in the garden according to traditional Chinese landscape techniques.
The wooden Pavilion Bridge, adorned with a phoenix, led me toward the eastern end of the garden.
Past the Pavilion Bridge, the nunnery’s Chi Lin Vegetarian Restaurant was hidden behind a waterfall.
A signpost near the door caught my eye. The featured menu item for the day was “Braised Hairy Gourd with Black Jelly Fungus and Gluten.” I laughed to myself. Since I’d been eating in Hong Kong for almost a week now, I knew that described a dish of squash and mushrooms. I was up for that!
In contrast to the large and modest Po Lin Monastery Vegetarian Kitchen, the tiny Chi Lin Vegetarian dining room was modern and upscale. Eager patrons lined up for their reservations at tables illuminated by sunshine through the enormous waterfall curtain window.
I was lucky to get a seat at the counter, where a team of wait staff delivered an array of fragrant dishes. In addition to the braised hairy gourd with black jelly fungus, I tried coconut broth soup, deep fried oyster mushrooms with seaweed, bean curd sheets rolled with shredded vegetables and stir fried shredded mushrooms with bean sprouts.
The fare was rich and tangy, with an extraordinary depth of flavor. I would have lingered over my pot of tea if other hopeful diners had not been lined up and waiting outside.
So I left reluctantly, then continued my stroll through the garden. Suddenly, I was surprised by a sight that was both unexpected and familiar. A brilliant, golden pavilion of harmonious proportion rose from an island in the center of a glassy pool.
I recognized the pavilion solely because it was the cover image on my guidebook. Aptly known as the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection, it was the most magnificent and lustrous feature in the garden. I felt thankful to have come upon it accidentally. If I hadn’t gone looking for the nunnery restaurant, I might have missed it altogether.
If You Go
The Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Vegetarian Kitchen are within the Po Lin Monastery complex on Lantau Island, which is an easy day trip from Hong Kong. To get there, take the MTR to Tung Chung Station, then catch either the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car or New Lantau Bus 23 to Ngong Ping Village and follow the signs for a short walk to the monastery. Alternatively, take the ferry from Hong Kong Central Pier 6 to Mui Wo, then catch New Lantau Bus 2 to Ngong Ping Village.
The Chi Lin Vegetarian Restaurant is in the Nan Lian Garden, adjacent to the Chi Lin Nunnery, in Kowloon. To get there, take the MTR to Diamond Hill Station, then follow the signs to the garden entrance. Reservations at the restaurant are highly recommended.
Hong Kong is well known as an expensive city to visit, but the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong is well worth the price. This hotel is home to Hong Kong’s first 3-Michelin star restaurant, Lung King Heen. It serves up some of the world’s best Dim Sum in a high class environment with service to match.
About the Author
Catherine Fancher is a Dallas-based attorney who decided to take some time off in 2012. She sold her house, put everything in storage and traded her high heels for hiking boots. More than 30 countries later, she is still traveling. Catherine’s photographs and stories about the places she has seen, the dishes she has eaten and the things she has learned along the way are collected on her website GreatTaste.Travel.