China is so big that it’s impossible to say ‘I like Chinese food!’ without over-generalising the different region’s diverse flavours.
Being Malaysian Chinese with roots from Canton, I am used to mild, clear cooking made up of fresh ingredients like seafood prepared by steaming and stir-frying. Just fyi, there are EIGHT different ‘branches’ of Chinese cooking, and Cantonese cooking (which most Westerners are more familiar with when they think of Chinese food) is just one of them.
Then there’s Sichuanese with it’s tongue-numbing (ma lat) spiciness, Fujianese which is famed for it’s braising and use of dark sauces, Anhui.. etc – each with its own unique cooking techniques and ingredients influenced by geography, weather and culture.
Anyway, I got to try one of these cooking ‘branches’ – Hunanese cuisine at Xiang Li Place, Damansara Utama. Although not as popular as Cantonese or Fujian cooking in Malaysia, the fare is slowly garnering a following among locals.
Hunan is situated just next to Guangdong (Canton), but the ingredients and cooking style could not be more different. Having a cold and humid climate, the food is very oily and spicy. Chilli is a central ingredient, with most of the dishes sporting a fiery red topping of chillies (some of which are imported from China, as I am told)
Started off with an appetizer of Assorted Meats, consisting cold cuts of beef, pig trotters and pig’s ears, drizzled over with chilli oil and served with a bowl of spicy dipping sauce. (In my haste to quiet my growling tummy, I forgot to take a picture.) The pig’s ears were compressed together and then re-sliced again so it didn’t resemble an ear at all. It had a interesting texture; rather hard and chewy from the cartilage.
For mains, the owner recommended Lamb Ribs (above), which were marinated in chilli and cumin to get rid of the gamey flavour, before being shallow-fried to a crisp and topped with a colourful medley of dried chilli and chopped spring onions. The ribs did not have too much meat and were crispy on the outside while still retaining a fall-off-the-bone quality. The lamb itself was not very spicy either. I’d give this a big 10!
Modified to suit local tastes, the restaurant also serves Salted Chicken ala-Hunan to cater to those who want non-spicy food. Conventional salted chicken is usually baked with herbs like dongguai and wolfsberry in foil, but the version here had yellow skin and tasted more like smoked chicken. This was quite tasty as well.
Their signature dish is none other than Fish Head ‘Double Style’, which was attractive looking with one side topped with fermented red chillies and the other with green ones. Alas, the taste was too strong for me. Maybe it’s my Malaysian palate, but I didn’t really like the extreme spiciness and oiliness of this dish. I also felt that the sauce overpowered the fish’s freshness and flavour.
(Behind, in a bowl) – Sorry, another dish that I forgot to take a close-up of. .__. Braised Meat Mao Style was said to be the ex-communist leader Mao Zedong’s favourite dish, which he would serve to foreign delegates whenever they came by. It is basically fatty pork braised with fermented long beans ( I didn’t know they were long beans at first because they were so salty and were black in colour) and garlic. I didn’t like the saltiness of the beans, but the pork was divine. It had one of those melt-in-the-mouth textures where you can eat both the fat and lean meat without feeling like you want to puke because of the fattiness. Even though the beans were salty, the pork wasn’t.
10 for the pork, not so much a fan of the beans.
For dessert, we had deep fried pumpkin cakes .These were sweet and addictive and tasted like nian gao. (glutinous rice flour cakes).
Overall I think the food was pretty good, except some dishes which were not suited to my tastebuds. The atmosphere is that of a typical Chinese restaurant, but you can be ensured of fairly authentic fair since the chefs are all Hunanese (from China).
XIANG LI PLACE
74G & 76G, Jalan SS21/62, 47400, Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.
Tel: 03-7726 7633