When I visited Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a wonderful vegetarian restaurant at the Po Lin Monastery on Lantau Island. A few days later, I went looking for an equally extraordinary lunch at 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.
I knew that the Chi Lin Nunnery operated its own restaurant, but I didn’t see a restaurant in the temple complex. So 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 has 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!
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 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.
A version of this post was previously published on March 22, 2016 in The Culinary Travel Guide as “Memorable Meals from Monastery and Nunnery Kitchens in Hong Kong.”