SeeFoon Gets Fired Up
Málà comes from two Chinese characters meaning, respectively, ‘numbing’ 麻 and ‘spicy (hot)’ 辣, describing the sensation in the mouth that the dish creates.
Málà is almost as addicting as a drug. It is said that the best málà sauce is one that is handmade with around 20 different types of herbs and spices (chillies galore!). The tongue-numbing effect experienced after having málà is caused by the use of Sichuan peppercorns.
The málà dishes I have had outside of Sichuan province in China have generally been disappointing, toned down to almost bland and to add insult to injury, they’re sweet to boot.
The authentic Sichuan cuisine I have had in China was more than fiery, it was bordering on incendiary, the marriage of fried dry chillies and Sichuan peppercorns producing an intense tingling sensation brought on by the copious use of the peppercorns.
Sichuan food is really about a variety of flavors: spicy, flowery (Sichuan peppercorns), salty, sour, sweet, bitter, smoky. Frequently all of those flavors are combined in one dish. The result is a cuisine with an incredible depth and complexity of flavor, hitting all sense receptors in your mouth, nose, and gastrointestinal system at the same time.
Even though it’s called a pepper, Sichuan pepper (a berry of the prickly ash tree) has lemony notes and creates a tingly numbness in the mouth.
I have finally discovered a chef in Ipoh who not only trained in ChongQing in Sichuan province, but was requested by his master, before his apprenticeship began, to taste all the varieties of Sichuan cuisine available.
For one month!
Armed with the myriad sensations in his taste memory, Eddie Lai, brother-in-law of Sun Heng proprietor Gary Soh embarked on his Sichuan culinary apprenticeship, and today we Ipohites are benefitting from his training.
Gary Soh took over Sun Heng from his mother-in-law, who had been in Canning Garden for 25 years. Gary lost his job last year during the first MCO, where he was National Sales Manager for Brand’s Suntory, the company that owns the brand of Brand’s Essence of Chicken. When his mother-in-law asked him to take over her business, he jumped at the opportunity and began to rebrand the whole shop.
Today, with Gary Soh at the helm and his wife Peggy Lai behind him, as well as his brother-in-law Eddie Lai manning the kitchen, Sun Heng is transforming into a restaurant to be reckoned with.
Many Sichuan xiao chi (snacks or “small eats”) have their roots in the vibrant street food culture of Chengdu in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most famous of these is dan dan mian, a noodle dish with a savory topping of minced beef or pork cooked with pickled vegetables, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorn sauced with a combination of sesame paste, soy sauce, and chili oil. It takes its name from the word dan, the bamboo shoulder pole vendors once used to carry their wares through the streets. Many of the seasonings sit at the bottom of the bowl. Stirring them up awakens the flavors, coating the tangle of noodles with the piquant sauce.
The dan dan mian from Sun Heng lives up to the Chengdu legacy and is the perfect entry into Sichuan cuisine for those with a more timid palate. RM10.
In contrast, the ChongQing Spicy and Hot noodles was incendiary, living up fully to the description above. With tears and perspiration raining down my face, the addictive quality left me craving for more. RM10. Another noodle dish worth ordering is their Smoked Duck Ramen, a hearty comfort dish with a broth that is unlike any other ramen I have tasted. The broth ingredients are a closely guarded secret but suffice to say, it’s a must try at RM15.
Meanwhile I had other fish to fry (literally).
I had ordered the house specialty, the fish of the day, fresh from the market. On the day I ordered, the fish available was a Grunter or a Pak Cho in Chinese.
Cooked in a classic Sichuan style known as shui zhu yu or water-poached fish, this was a full-on málà assault whose angry-looking broth includes dou ban jiang, Sichuan peppercorn, red chilies and garlic. With plenty of cabbage and other veggies, fried tofu skin, and the addition of prawns and clams, this is a dish on its own. With this, you only need enough mouths to do justice to the presentation and a noodle dish or two. I could have happily done without the prawns and the clams as I found they distracted from the beauty of this particular fish. They also added to the price which was high, as all fish-of-the-day can be, so discuss with Gary on the price range you’re willing to pay. But expect to pay a minimum of RM100 or more if you want a good fish.
As I mentioned earlier, I am addicted to the málà taste and have been ordering from Gary on several occasions so I’ll list the dishes in no general order.
The first dish I had from Sun Heng was delivered by dear Ann Tan, Ipoh’s home baker extraordinaire, with the admonition : “You have to try this”. Being the ever curious Foodie that I am, I tucked in and was immediately hooked!
This was the Lazi Chicken: chicken chunks, dry fried with scads of red chillies and smothered in Sichuan peppercorns. This is their Scorched chili flavor where dried chilies are fried in a wok until they begin to toast and darken. Other ingredients are then tossed into the fragrant oil with Sichuan pepper—which, for my readers’ information, are imported from ChongQing as are most of their other spices. This probably accounts for the authentic taste of the dishes as I have found the local peppers which I have bought before not up to scratch. RM33.
Another style of cooking is the Mouthwatering or kou shui wei. This sauce for cold dishes like chicken chunks in red oil sauce gets most of its color and flavor from red chili oil. It’s the addition of sesame paste, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce along with garlic and ginger that makes the sauce mouth-watering as opposed to just mouth blazing. I sampled two of these as in the chicken (cold) at RM18 and the fish (hot) at RM26.
They also have a cold smashed cucumber dish topped with a spicy special sauce at RM16, as well as a cold spicy sliced vinegared potato just blanched and crunchy which I found delectable. RM16.
There were two specials one day that I had to try. A break from málà and these two were their Mui Choy Kao Yoke (Chinese preserved vegetable braised with pork belly), perfectly done, with the Mui Choy lending its mildly smoky taste to the pork, the whole dish smooth and unctuous. The Fu Kwei Chicken was fall-apart-tender, redolent of fragrant Chinese herbs, and steamed to perfection. RM28.
Sun Heng has daily specials, and it pays to call and ask. Their menu is extensive, with the málà specials only a small proportion of it. I have chosen to focus primarily on the málà dishes because I find the taste totally addicting. Other small eats sell out every day and are worth ordering the day before, especially their Yam Balls. Of course, Gary’s mother-in-law was famous for her curry noodles and other popular breakfast dishes. These are being served daily, as are their roast meats of Char Siew and roast pork which is a side of the menu handled by Gary himself, having been an avid home chef for over 20 years while working in his corporate job.
I can’t wait for MCO 3.0 to be over and for dine-ins to be allowed again so that I can invite friends over to the restaurant itself. Meanwhile, Sun Heng has just been approved by Grabfood and in a week’s time, we should all be able to order directly via the app.
Meanwhile, do what I have been doing, which is to call Gary directly to order.
19, Lorong Cecil Rae, Canning Garden, 31400 Ipoh, Perak
7:30am-3:30pm; 3:30pm last call
8:00am to 3:00pm during MCO
Will normally be closed for 3 days during the third or fourth week of each month. Do check with Gary for clarification.
012-5035888 / 012-5323888 / 017-3537562
Sun Heng is currently offering free delivery with a minimum spend of RM60 to the areas mentioned in the poster below. Additional delivery charges are applicable for other areas.