By See Foon Chan-Koppen
Most readers will have discovered by now that my taste in food is somewhat eclectic, and while not as adventurous as Very Serious Foodie Andrew Zimmern in his programme called Bizarre Foods, where he will pop live worms and insects into his mouth and apparently enjoy them, I have eaten my way around the world and am now left with lingering taste sensations that will occasionally nudge at my taste buds and a hankering to repeat some of those ephemeral taste memories.
One of these is huājiāo, the Szechuan pepper that dominates many a dish in the Szechuan province of China. Many people are surprised to learn that Szechuan peppercorn is not a pepper at all – the distinctive reddish-brown berries hail from the prickly ash tree. Its main claim to fame is the powerful numbing sensation it causes around the mouth. When married with chilli peppers (the other key ingredient in Szechuan cuisine), chefs believe this numbing effect reduces the chilli’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the capsicum’s intense, fruity flavour. Hence, the term ‘Mah Lat’ (numbing hot) for the dishes which are produced out of this marriage.
Northern Dumplings Taste Test
When someone asked me if I had been to Chuan Kwong for their Shao Long Pau (a dumpling peculiar to northern China) I made a note to check it out as it is very close to the Ipoh Echo office. Chuan Kwong has only been opened for about eight months and has already garnered many fans. It is essentially a Dim Sum place, serving tea, soft drinks, desserts, noodles and snacks (as in Dim Sum).
I asked for their recommen-dations and was immediately told to try their Shao Long Pau, which is listed as Shanghai Minced Meat Dumpling. What sets one restaurant’s Shao Long Pau against another is easily summed up by the chopstick pick-up test. Shao Long Pau must be picked up with chopsticks and popped whole into one’s mouth. The critical test is whether the pastry stays intact on the journey to the mouth or if it breaks, leaving all the delicious juices and half the skin in the steam basket. A good Shao Long Pau stays intact, the meat juices oozing out in the mouth on the first bite, the skin still ‘al dente’ with a slight elasticity and the meat filling succulent and flavourful. Chuan Kwong’s easily stood up to the test and I promptly ordered another basket; a rare taste treat in Ipoh. RM3.00 for 3 pieces.
Cantonese and SzeChuan Dim Sum
The menu is divided into sections for Cantonese Dim Sum and Szechuan Dim Sum. The Cantonese section had the usual coterie of dumplings like Shao Mai, Har Kau, Carrot Cake, Char Siew Pao, etc. The few that I sampled were all good quality including the Mini Egg Custard Bun filled with egg custard made with the addition of salted egg yolk oozing out on the first bite. Slightly sweet and salty at the same time; utterly delectable. RM3.90 for 3 pieces. They also have daily specials on Dim Sum which are not on the menu, so ask for those.
The SzeChuan Dim Sum as well as their SzeChuan Noodles menu contained many treasured items long buried in my taste memories as well as hitherto new taste treats all created and homemade by Chef Alex Leong.
Must try-s include their Glutinous Rice Balls wrapped in banana leaf, Deep Fried Pancake with crispy floss, RM3.90 for 3 pieces; the Chives Dumpling with chilli oil, RM3.50 for 4 pieces; Pan Fried Chives Dumpling. RM3.50 for 3 pieces; and the Steamed Meat Dumpling in chilli oil, RM4.00 for 6 pieces.
Their pièce de résistance though has to be their Szechuan Knife-Shredded Noodles with Chilli Oil, a bowl of thick hand-cut noodles, smooth and chewy in the mouth served in a fiery meat cum ‘Mah Lat’ broth that almost brings tears to your eyes and yet is irresistible to those (like myself) who are addicted to that searing sensation of hot chillies.
Intrigued by the noodles, our group went to the kitchen to watch Chef Alex perform his magic as he took out a round longish slab of dough about half the size of a rolling pin and began chipping away at one end in a circular motion, creating thick tendrils of dough which he then blanched and put into the broth. These knife-cut noodles come in a variety of broths, some spicy and others bland like in chicken stock. RM5.50 per bowl. Highly recommended.
All in all, the Dim Sum and noodles in Chuan Kwong are well worth a visit as they are all home-made by Chef Alex who learnt his trade in Singapore working in some of the best Szechuan restaurants that I have personally dined in. Do expect to queue up for tables on Saturdays and Sundays as they don’t take reservations.