Chilli chilling at Szechwan Zen

When people talk about Chinese cooking, it tends to fall into a generic group that doesn’t specify origin, style or even distinguish itself within what is a rather large category. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but rather misunderstanding that there are so many intricate styles of Chinese cooking that to specialise in them all it would be a magnificent feat! There’s actually eight different cuisines of China which include Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Zhejiang. You may recognise a couple of those – particularly Cantonese, which is synonymous with all Asian barbecue fans.

While my mother is Taiwanese, Chinese style cooking was also prominent in my childhood, and something that appeals to me on a deep seeded comfort level. It’s something I know I’ll never master in the kitchen with the exception of one or two dishes if I’m lucky, so I definitely look forward to trying different restaurants to see what they can offer us here in Perth.

So of course when I received an invitation to Szechwan Zen restaurant in Northbridge, I was really interested to try this style of cuisine which I haven’t seen much of here in Perth. I was offered $100 by the manager Merrick to spend on any dishes of my choice. Knowing the best way to enjoy Chinese food is in a group, I brought along my boy and my mum – thinking she’d know what to order and what was worth trying!

We pick a selection of dishes to try, making sure we have a selection of proteins and vegetables to enjoy. Szechuan style cooking is famous for it’s use of chilli so I’m curious to see how hot some of the dishes are. In the end knowing the boy has his final exam for this year the next day, we decide to steer clear of the really hot dishes so no one will have an upset stomach the next day (though we all agree that that chilli burn is worth the pain!).

Once we’ve placed our orders I take the opportunity to look around at the restaurant. It’s huge, spanning a good corner block in the Chinese restaurant courtyard off William Street. It’s an area I’m really familiar with, having spent many dinners with my mum over the years at the different restaurants that have been in this space. Szechwan Zen might be hidden from the main street, but it’s quite busy on the evening we’re there with other tables filled around us, and the function room on one side bustling with activity.

Soon enough, the food starts coming out, with the cold Asian greens ($6.00) first to arrive. It’s a simple dish that I really enjoy as it’s slightly garlicky, refreshing and juicy. In hindsight we probably wouldn’t have ordered this knowing that there were so many veggies on our other dishes, but it still tasted good!

The tofu with chives and green beans (I think this was around $14.80?) is a really enjoyable dish, with those firm strips of tofu and slices of pork flavoursome. It’s like a sea of green on the plate, and my mum really enjoyed it as she’s a big fan of firm tofu, while I enjoy it too but my heart belongs to soft or silken tofu.

One thing you may not know about me is I am obsessed with bao and mantou. It’s something I’ve grown up with, something that is a regular feature on our menu at home. It’s definitely a treat when you take something as light and sweet as mantou and fry it! Jeremy and I are both all over the serving of 6 fried mantou which comes with condensed milk (this was around $7.80 I think).

The mantou are a little over cooked as you can see from the picture above, so are slightly dry in texture but flavour wise they’re so tasty! At first I was a bit taken aback by the condensed milk but after trying it I can see why it works so well together – and I’m usually not a fan of condensed milk at all! While I enjoy this dish, it doesn’t live up to the standard of fried mantou I experienced in Singapore where those glorious pieces of dough were dunked into a pool of chilli crab sauce. Talk about a match made in heaven!

The stir fried prawns with XO sauce ($22.80) looks wonderful, with a cascading pile of juicy prawns sitting atop of broccoli, capsicum, celery and onion. One of my biggest gripes when dining out for Chinese food here in Australia is the use of filler vegetables – something you never come across over in Asia. While I love the addition of broccoli, the others really weren’t needed on the plate – for me, they felt a bit like padding.

The prawns themselves are cooked perfectly and taste really fresh. I love that satisfying ‘snap’ you get when biting into prawns, and the rush of umami juiciness that floods your tastebuds. These are seasoned just right and with the toothsome broccoli make for a great dish.

Loving all things bread (and choosing not to have rice on this occasion), the home made savoury pancake ($7.80) was a natural choice to order. It’s much like my beloved cong you bing, which is a savoury scallion pancake that I tend to overdose on whenever visiting my relatives in Taipei. This version is without the onions, but still has a great deal of flavour – and a lovely variety of texture from the soft inside ribbons to the crispy outside. Immediately I feel a strong sense of nostalgia as I make my way through this dish.

Our final savoury dishes are the kung pow chicken ($17.80) which is pictured at the start of this post, and the special steamed spareribs with ground rice ($20.80).

The chicken is definitely the dish of the night. A nice base of heat from the chilli, with a rich sauce that lingers on your palate. I love how succulent the meat was, and really revelled in the crunch of the peanuts scattered throughout. I would happily order this dish again next time I come back.

The spareribs are sadly a bit of a different story. My mum has told us all about this dish as it’s one she’s really familiar with and traditionally it would come out on top of yams. Since yams are less common here in Perth, Szechwan Zen have served theirs with potato. The texture of the meat is a little mashy for my liking, and it feels like non-Asian flavours that are a little polarising. I decide to focus my attention on the chicken instead of this, but the boy cleans it up. He’s always so reliable in letting me devote my eating prowess to my favourite dishes while he spreads the love!

While I’d love to say we ordered just the right amount of food I think you’ve all probably figured out that as usual, my eyes were bigger than my stomach’s capacity. Greed tends to overcome my ability to think clearly! Thankfully we’re able to pack away our leftovers (which included the yummy chicken) which made for a tasty lunch the next day!

A big thank you to the team at Szechwan Zen for hosting us for dinner. It was a nice way to try something different than your standard Chinese offerings here in Perth, and we’re already making plans to go back soon to try the hotter dishes since none of the ones we had packed much of a punch for our palates – we started off too mild but with good reason behind it! I’m so curious about the three chilli dishes which I think I’ll have to be brave and give it a go! I’m sure I’ll be thanking myself for it.

After we’re done at Szechwan Zen we had every intention to go home but then someone (it may have been me) mentioned that Icey Ice was only a couple blocks down the road. Our trip to Taiwan earlier this year created a bit of a shaved ice fanatic in my boy, and he was yet to try Perth’s offering at this traditional Taiwanese dessert.

Mum and I were too full so we leave him to his own devices, at which he chooses a large (not a jumbo thankfully) Oreo flavoured shaved ice. We all have a couple of bites and it’s soft and melts in your mouth. It doesn’t quite have the same moorish addictiveness of the mulberry flavoured one Jeremy chose at the night markets, but nonetheless it’s a light and creamy dessert. A nice way to finish our night out!

Szechwan Zen Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon Icey Ice on Urbanspoon

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  • Reply
    25 November 2014 at 11:53 pm

    The taro ice is very yum there! I'm surprised they serve garlic chives, as I don't see it on menus very often. Yam is actually getting easier to source nowadays – I see them at VHT, Subi markets and also at wanneroo markets sometimes. Hopefully the restaurant will be able to source them to add to the dish.

  • Reply
    26 November 2014 at 6:46 am

    "One of my biggest gripes when dining out for Chinese food here in Australia is the use of filler vegetables". Totally agree. There was a cheap Chinese takeaway place we used to go to in the 90s that we used to say served 'Satay Onion with Chicken'.

    Haven't been to Icey Ice for years! That takes me back to my uni days; I should probably go and try them out again!

  • Reply
    Queen of Bad Timing
    26 November 2014 at 6:56 am

    Oh that would drive me nuts! I would rather pay a little more and get my fill of meat haha! I didn't go for ages, and then when we went to Taiwan earlier this year I binged out and had too much 😉 so good!

  • Reply
    Queen of Bad Timing
    26 November 2014 at 6:56 am

    I love garlic chives 🙂 I'm starting to see them a bit more often on menus which is great to see! I've been thinking about yam ever since… might have to go indulge in some yam duck somewhere soon!

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