I have always enjoyed spicy food, my taste for chillies having been honed from childhood. But it was only in my working life that I was first introduced to the mouthfeel of ‘Mah Lat’, that numbing sensation created by Szechuan peppercorns, ubiquitous in Szechuan province in China but not used as liberally outside.
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. When married with chilli peppers (the other key ingredient in Szechuan cuisine), chefs believe this numbing effect reduces the chilli pepper’s heat, leaving diners free to appreciate the capsicum’s intense, fruity flavour.
Stewart Hoo who invited me with some friends to try the newly-opened Xiang Man Lou at 1 Casuarina (next to Impiana Hotel) would beg to disagree as I found him spluttering and gulping down cold beer to help dissipate the fiery sensations caused by some of the dishes.
I, on the other hand simply revelled in the unique taste treats, hitherto unavailable here in Ipoh and one for which I have been hankering as I have not been to Szechuan province in quite a few years. Added to this was the abundance of offal on the menu and I found myself in eclectic gastronomic heaven.
In fact being the first to arrive, I couldn’t resist ordering an appetizer portion of their cold beef tripe while waiting for the others. Tripe here comes in many forms, the two which I had were wet and dry respectively, the former with chilli oil, sesame oil, Szechuan peppers and the latter was especially delectable and made a lovely snack – chewy slices of beef tripe sprinkled with again the ‘de riguer’ spices but with subtle hints of other herbs. Totally scrumptious – RM15 each.
Still on appetizers, the cold ‘mook yee’ or ‘wood ear’ was interesting, unlike our local monstrously large variety, these were petite, each a bite-sized piece and marinated with less fiery pungency, receiving favourable comments from around our table of 10 – RM12.
And while this was vegetarian, the next cold dish wasn’t, being the cold sliced pig’s ear, lean with little fat, cartilaginous, sliced appetizingly thin and doused in a similar marinade – RM15.
So far, we had been indulging in appetizers, nuances of pungency and aromas celebrating the taste and textures of the ingredients on the plate. Next came the hot dishes beginning with the ‘Saliva Chicken’, basically a mild steamed chicken to appease the flaming taste buds at RM15 and followed by one of their signature dishes, the ‘Hao Yu’ or Sekap fish, sliced with skin intact, with tofu, and the larger bean sprouts called ‘Tai Dou Nga’ served in a searingly hot (both in mouthfeel and temperature as it comes with a burner) broth, the top smothered in dried red chillies. Although a few at our table were taken aback by the preponderance of floating chillies in the dish, on tasting, the broth was surprisingly not as spicy as it looked and the fish slices were velvety smooth as was the tofu – RM68. This for me was one dish worth coming back for.
Many other dishes followed, notably the fried pig’s large intestine which was served with vinegar and garlic – RM23 and the stoneware frog legs, not spicy which came piping hot in the stoneware bowl – RM30.
We finished off the meal with a Szechuan hotpot with a choice of spicy or herbal soup. We opted for the combination with separate sections for those who like their soup spicy or bland. With 30 different options in the meat and fish section and 18 vegetables as well as bean curd and noodles to choose from, one is spoilt for choice. The beef and mutton were thinly sliced, tender and flavourful – RM18 per plate and the combination soup RM20.
The menu at Xiang Man Lou is extensive, and it’ll take many visits to exhaust the selection. Some dishes are Hunanese in origin, emanating from the chef who hails from Hunan. Hunan food too is spicy and very robust but does not use Szechuan peppers. Nevertheless a new taste sensation for most people in Ipoh used to the more bland Cantonese style of cooking. Non-spicy regular fare is also available for the timid palate and one can also request for the fire to be toned down for any of the searing hot dishes.
The biggest advantage that this restaurant has over others is their opening hours from 11.30am to 4.30am. So a midnight supper or even later is definitely on the cards for all the Ipoh night owls looking for a pick me up after all the bars have closed.