MALACCA’S Peranakan cuisine is loved by Malaysians for its aroma and taste, but imagine elevating the authentic flavours with modern smoking techniques, and grilling with locally-grown forest wood.
Wood & Grill, the latest restaurant opened in Paradigm Mall, serves local favourites with a distinctive twist developed by chef, founder and culinary director, Chef Paul Chia.
Born and raised in Malacca, Paul has more than 24 years of experience as a chef and has worked in 15 countries around the world, from the USA to Kazakhstan.
Among others, Chia worked at The Setai, a five-star luxury resort in Miami Beach, USA; Hilton London Green Park in England, and various five-star hotels and high-end restaurants, including in top cities like Shanghai.
In 2020, the chef had to come back to Malaysia due to lockdown, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for local food lovers.
Since then, he has opened not one but two Peranakan cuisine restaurants; The KamCheng in Malacca in December 2020 and another, KC & Co, in Plaza Arkadia, just last year. Wood & Grill is his third restaurant.
A different concept
For his latest venture, Chia maintained the essence of authentic Peranakan taste but explored a new approach – Nyonya-Western grilled fusion food.
It is an entirely new concept, utilising techniques and skills used in western cuisine, including grilling, and smoky flavours from wood chips.
“As a chef, I always know what elements can elevate a cuisine to another level. By using the wood smoking technique, it’s a marriage between modern technique and traditional Peranakan food,” said Chia.
An unexpected idea
In order to find the right marinade and flavours, Chia tried and tested an abundance of spices and herbs, before zeroing in on what would become his signature recipes for marinades and sauces.
“I choose particular spices that are not overpowering in taste to marinate the meat, as certain spices do not work well with smoking or grilling techniques, for example, any kind of roots of plants.”
“Ginger will overpower the wood smoke, so I picked spices that are light in taste. One of the best ingredients that works well with grilling and smoking is black pepper, which works great with all these techniques.”
It was a “wow” moment when Chia eventually served us one of his signature dishes. He presented a glass dome, which he lifted to release a cloud of smoke that dispersed to reveal the dish. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience!
Inside was a Nyonya grilled meat platter comprising mouth-watering chicken, lamb, and jumbo chicken cheese sausage, served with sambal timun nenas (pineapple cucumber pickle) on the side.
The chicken meat was unbelievably juicy, flavourful, and grilled to perfection, and it was served with three sauces – sweet and sour sauce, mushroom sauce, and laksa cream sauce – all of which were bursting with flavour and added to the already delicious meat.
Apart from grilled meat, their signature dish is the Nyonya chicken chop, which Chia says has a good hint of black pepper with a subtle taste of evaporated milk.
His best-seller is Lemak Lamb Shank. Tender and flavourful lamb sits on top of cooked paku pakis (fern leaves) with a divine, rich, and aromatic sauce made with coconut milk, turmeric, and spices. It is amazingly delicious and a must-try!
The meat was braised for six hours with celery, onion, and carrot, before spices were added to give the meat aroma and juiciness.
“A western chef will call me crazy if I say I want to use ‘Lemak Spice’ on a lamb shank because ‘lemak’ will not absorb into the meat, but I did my experiment to ensure spices from the lemak get absorbed into the meat.
“I did research and made the Nyonya dish with heart and soul, and it’s evident when my customers leave only bare bones on the plate.”
Meaty Tiger Prawns are the highlight of the Pineapple Prawn Curry. The creamy gravy is infused with acidic flavours from semi-ripe pineapple chunks and pineapple puree, along with asam keping (Tamarind slices), and it leaves an amazing taste in the palate.
Another distinguishing taste was the Sambal Hitam, made of sambal belacan and extracts of buah keluak, a hard-to-find fruit in the big city, but which Chia creatively adds in his Spaghetti Hitam Aglio-Olio with Octopus Kunyit Bakar.
We also tried Duo Sotong Kangkung, consisting of grilled Joo Hoo squid and prawn, kangkung timbale and a generous peanut sauce, as well as crispy tempeh and tauhu goreng chili garam – truly satisfying.
Suffice to say, the entire menu was not just tempting, but also reflected some of Chia’s favourites during his childhood days in Malacca. He brought back the nostalgic taste with premium meats and seafood, enchanced by his own creativity.
For 12 dishes on the menu, Chia burns locally-sourced keruing wood chips to add the extra special flavour, complexity and aroma.
“Keruing wood is special as it has oil patches within the logs and releases an aromatic scent when the wood chips are burnt,” said the chef, adding that keruing wood smoke gives the food a lemon or lemongrass flavour.
“Keruing aroma brings our sense of taste a notch higher, and makes cuisines much tastier, spicier, and highlights the flavours of spices, and this is what makes the food special,” explained Chia.
Although a variety of woods are available in Malaysia, Chia studied the characteristics of all local woods and picked keruing after discovering that it could withstand low temperatures, has natural resin, and lasts longer.
In North American and European countries, apple or cider wood is commonly used in grilling, barbecue, and for smoky flavors. “But, I wanted to support the local wood industry,” confessed Chia.
Keruing is so special to the chef that it even plays an important role in the interior design and furniture.
Table tops are made from solid keruing, while small pieces are used to recreate a keruing tree on the wall.
Chia explained that wood-fired food is considered a luxury as most local food uses charcoal, a quicker and cheaper option. “We are serving fine dining food at an affordable price,” he said.
Apart from modern technology in the gastronomic world, the chef’s experience, knowledge, skills and the distinctive concept set apart Wood and Grill from other Peranakan restaurants in Klang Valley.