KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 11 — In the heart of Kuchai Lama, Restaurant Sichuan Cuisine or Chuan Xiang Ge, as it’s known in Mandarin, brings you a little piece of Sichuan. You may think it’s just all about the burning heat. It’s not. There is a certain refinement to Sichuan food which balances out the heat with flavour.
Opened for two years, the restaurant is owned by China native Nikki Ni together with local partners. In China, she had a restaurant for about a decade which specialised in Anhui cuisine.
When she decided to venture to Malaysia, she carefully surveyed the current dining scene. Even though there were many restaurants opened by China natives — most of them are from Xinjiang, specialising in Hunan cuisine — she noticed authentic Sichuan food wasn’t available here.
For the uninitiated, there is a marked difference between Hunan and Sichuan cuisine. Both cuisines are famous for being spicy and full of heat from an abundant use of chillies. According to cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop, the difference is Sichuan food uses Sichuan peppercorn. These tiny peppercorns make your lips feel cool and tingly. In Chinese, they call this sensation “ma” which means numbness associated with anaesthesia or even when we experience pins and needles.
In Harold McGee’s book, On Food and Cooking, he explains that this sensation is caused by a hydroxyl-alpha sanshool. He wrote that, “Sanshools appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, induce sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily non sensitive, so perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion.”
Nikki also advised that Sichuan cuisine consists of seven flavours: sour, pungent, hot, sweet, bitter, aromatic and salty. Hence there are various combinations, giving rise to an incredibly diverse cuisine. In comparison, Hunan food has bolder and savoury tastes. You also have a mix of chilli hot or sour hot combinations.
The owners had also selected Sichuan food since it is one of the top cuisines in China. “It’s highly popular in China where there’s 400 million people. We wanted to bring real, top quality food from China,” she said.
Even though she is not from the Sichuan province, they have hired experienced chefs from that area to ensure they serve proper Sichuan food. According to her, these chefs go through many years of training in Sichuan cuisine before they can be certified to cook authentic Sichuan fare.
In order to keep the taste authentic, Nikki explained that all the ingredients are brought in from China. You’ll notice that the Sichuan peppercorn served here are also extremely fragrant. Nikki explained, they only use the highest grade of these peppercorns to impart that important fragrance and flavour. Technically the Sichuan peppercorn is actually a berry of the prickly ash tree.
The menu here reflects the diversity of Sichuan cuisine. If you have the time (and stomach space), order dishes from the various sections to get a taste of everything. The restaurant with its traditional Chinese atmosphere spans two floors. In the future, Nikki explained that there are plans in the pipeline to expand the business to another location.
When you dine in a Sichuan restaurant, remember to balance out the spiciness with non-spicy dishes. This will save your palate from being overwhelmed by the spiciness from the dried chillies and the tingling sensation from the Sichuan peppercorns.
You can, for instance, select from the cold dish section. Start with a spread of these small dishes to whet your appetite for the bolder flavours to come. There’s refreshing pickled seaweed, jellyfish or even black fungus. If texture is what you enjoy, there’s crunchy pigs’ ears sliced thinly that is tossed with a fiery Sichuan sauce.
Unusual ones include green peppers paired with century eggs. You also have sliced lungs! This famous dish is called husband and wife sliced lungs, as it was invented by a couple said to have a harmonious relationship just like how the flavours of this cold dish goes well with its chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorn and peanuts.
Another classic dish is the Sichuan mouth-watering chicken. It is essentially boiled chicken paired with chilli oil to give a spicy, appetising taste. The dish is topped with sesame seeds and peanuts.
Usually every table will order the fragrant Sichuan spicy chicken dice. Small pieces of chicken are deep fried till golden and dry fried with an abundance of dried red chillies, Sichuan peppercorn and sliced garlic. Chilli cowards will balk at the mountain of dried red chillies but give it a try. When you mix the flavours together, you get a nice fragrance punched with the spiciness and a tingle from the peppercorns.
If you find the chicken version too dry, order the pig’s colon version. They may look like curled pieces of crispy crackers but it’s actually small pieces of the pig’s colon. You won’t be able to stop eating it! And nibble on those garlic slices. Since they use grade A Sichuan peppercorn, it imparts a lovely fragrance to that humble side ingredient.
Another classic dish that will get you all fired up is the roast fish. Here tilapia fish is butterflied and deep fried till it’s golden brown. Once an order is placed, they prepare a broth with chilli oil, dried chillies and Sichuan peppercorn. The tray which they serve the fish is placed on a portable stove, keeping the whole ensemble warm throughout your meal here.
If you prefer a less spicy alternative, go for their stone potted fish. You get thin, tender slices of fresh Toman fish for this boiled dish.
Another alternative would be Sichuan stir fried frog. This is served with enoki mushrooms and pickled green chillies. It’s a little milder compared to the other dishes. Just ladle out the frog and mushrooms to enjoy them. Don’t be put off by the amount of oil in the dish as it’s more to accentuate the Sichuan flavours. The restaurant also offers boiled dishes with a choice of sliced beef, pork, seafood and even pig’s kidneys. Dip your choice of ingredients into this chilli oil laced broth to get the flavour.
Accompany your meal here with a portion of hot potted crystal noodles. Served in a hotplate with an omelette as a base, these translucent noodles have a nice springy texture. There’s a spiciness and tangy taste from the pickled vegetables and red chillies. Another popular item is the griddle cabbage where the vegetable is stir fried with diced pork belly and Sichuan spices. Nikki tells us that the crunchy Chinese cabbage carries the flavour of the Sichuan spices well, hence it’s a crowd favourite.
If you’re dining solo here, order the incredibly appetising spicy and sour or ma lat noodles. Rather than the usual rice noodles that tend to expand after some time, this menu item is served with unusual red potato noodles. These sponge-like noodles also won’t expand when it sits in that spicy broth. You will want to slurp up the whole bowl as it has a slightly tangy taste from the use of pickled long beans. Scoop up the broth and you will discover minced meat and peanuts too
From 5pm onwards, the restaurant serves a selection of BBQ items. These aren’t from Sichuan but popular street food snacks in China. Most of their customers like to enjoy these skewers with beer. There’s a variety of meats, seafood and vegetables available. Popular items include the lamb, pork belly, chicken wings and sanma fish. All of these items are marinated in cumin and salt for at least 12 hours. This imparts a slightly nutty and tangy taste to the meats and seafood. Depending on the different ingredients used, each skewer has slight taste variations. For instance, the lamb goes very well with the cumin flavour.
No matter what you order, this place offers a satisfying meal that will fire up your appetite.
Restaurant Sichuan Cuisine (Chuan Xiang Ge)
No. 6, Jalan Kuchai Maju 6
Kuchai Entrepreneurs Park
Tel: 03-7971 4166
Open daily: 10.30am to 2am