Restaurateur Andrew Wong Talks About The Wonderfully Diverse Flavours Of Malaysian Food
“My mother and grandmother’s cooking” would undoubtedly be one of the first answers off the top of your head if you were to be asked what you think about good, authentic Malaysian food. Countless recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, and it’s only natural that some get lost or forgotten in the process. Authentic traditional Malaysian dishes are without question our famous nasi lemak, char kuey teow, roti canai, and everything in between. But what exactly goes into the process of making these amazing, bold flavours that blend so well together and are the pride of our nation? Are there a lot more ingredients out there for us to explore and discover? Or rather, is there a lot more for us to go back to and relearn the origins of our truly Malaysian dishes?
We sit down with the co-founder of OpenHouse, Andrew Wong, to talk about the birth and concept of the restaurant, as well as the importance of recognising the richness that can be found in our own backyards and putting that on the global map in time to come.
THE START OF SOMETHING TRADITIONAL
What began as a germ of an idea turned into an incredible journey back to the roots of Malaysian cuisine. “I’ve always felt that there was something in Malay cuisine that was never quite explored,” expressed Wong. There are countless Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Japanese restaurants that serve their food in a finer dining experience, but we aren’t able to say the same of Malay restaurants as they are few and far between.
Centrally located in Suria KLCC, OpenHouse brings its customers a finer dining concept of Malaysian cuisine that serves not only Malay food but also an array of Peranakan, Indian, and Chinese takes on certain dishes, making them truly Malaysian. “I gave my team a challenge—to go back to their hometowns, bring back recipes that villagers would eat that we have probably never eaten in the city, and that was it.”
That particular challenge sent 15 staff back to their hometowns and presented Wong with over 150 dishes. “It was a lot of food tasting!” he laughs as he recalls trying to narrow it down to what they have on the menu today. It was a seven to nine-month gestation period which gave Wong a heavy heart as he had to cut so many dishes out and present only 44 of them in the restaurant. “It was such an amazing experience, because each and every one of them—from the top chef to the junior chefs—were so proud to share whatever they had, and of course it was heart-wrenching to cut these dishes out because it was so deeply personal to them,” he said, gesturing with his hand over his heart.
It truly is a journey through Malaysia, as dishes were brought back from the north and the south as well as from Sabah and Sarawak. One of their biggest challenges was to be able to present them in a way that not only impresses customers and sparks their curiosity when they see the dish, but also be respectful of the traditions, origins, and heritage found in its flavours.
REDISCOVERING OUR ROOTS
The whole experience in OpenHouse is elevated with not just classic cuisines, but also in the service, design, and style of the restaurant. Interest started to pique when people realised that Malaysian food can actually be presented in a fine dining experience too. “Like most Malay food, the colours of the dishes my team brought back were mainly brown, orange, and black. Coming from a fashion and graphics background, I started to conceptualise how the dish would be presented. Prettifying them is important because we also eat with our eyes. Before you put the food in your mouth, your eyes will see it, your nose will smell it, and only then will you get to taste it,” Wong says with an air of passion.
Prettify he did, and boy, did he nail it. The many flowers he used to accent their dishes are considered weeds in the city. “I clearly remember my parents throwing away gentle pink flowers called the titik air manis because they were considered weeds. You’ll only find it in one place right now—my garden,” he laughs.
The team at OpenHouse do their own foraging in the city, villages, and even in the jungles because nobody sells them anywhere else. “We have one of the oldest rainforests in Southeast Asia, and the jungle has a bounty of amazing stuff!” Wong says with childlike enthusiasm. “Of course, some of it is poisonous and you need to know how to prepare and eat all these things.”
Coming from a fashion and graphics background, I started to conceptualise how the dish would be presented. Prettifying them is important because we also eat with our eyes.
This is where the orang asli come in and provide OpenHouse with that evocative air of tradition and authenticity. The jungle produce found in the restaurant are sourced indigenously; the orang asli have been using produce that we consider exotic for the longest time and are masters at their craft. The kepayang nut (popular in Peranakan cooking), for example, has toxins in it and have to be buried in the soil for 45 days and put in running water (the river) to wash the toxins off for another seven days. “When we receive it from them, we soak it for five more days just to be sure that the toxins are properly washed off,” says Wong. That comes up to a total of nearly two months before they can serve it in their Sup Ekor Kepayang.
Another produce worth highlighting is the kulim fruit, which smells like truffle to some and garlic to others but is neither; it’s a hard jungle nut. It has been around for generations, but not eaten in the city. A renowned Italian chef who visited Malaysia before the MCO was blown away by it, asking Wong how he could bring it back to Italy. As it has an extremely strong smell, the only way they could use the nut was to infuse it into something to create a beautiful aroma, and that inspired the birth of Kulim Heritage Rice. “We call it heritage rice because that’s the only rice we have in OpenHouse that’s from Malaysia. The usual ones are short-grained and can come out starchy, so one of my chefs tried to look for local rice.” Then came along a Kelantanese farmer who was growing a special long-grained rice called the MRR72 in a very small acreage, which contributed to its high price. “He was just testing a new strain and didn’t sell it commercially. That was one and a half years ago,” he recalls.
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You wouldn’t think it, but there is a plethora of unique flavours and ingredients local to Malaysia that many of us have never tried or experienced before. An example of that is the horseshoe crab roe. “It’s so alien-looking—not a pretty sight at all,” Wong says. “If I were to serve it to you as per how it is eaten in the villages, it’s slimy and doesn’t look palatable. You probably wouldn’t try the dish and you wouldn’t know how amazing it actually is!” The horseshoe crab roe is traditionally eaten by fishermen in Johor and turns out to be one of their main sources of protein. Rightfully adamant about being respectful to the dish, Wong and his team modernised it in its presentation. The horseshoe crab roe is served in the style of a kerabu beautifully presented on a horseshoe crab shell, which is then nestled on a bed of mengkuang leaves. The salad is topped with temu pauh (mango ginger), giving it a nice tang with its lentil-like texture.
Modernising such traditional dishes while retaining their rich, original flavours was definitely not a walk in the park, but Wong recognised some similarities to fine dining in the way they were prepared. “When I was told what was in each dish and how they were made, I started to realise that this is fine dining cooking,” he said with a touch of wonder. “Every dish takes hours to make, and most of us who live in the city do not have the luxury of time to recreate them.” Pounding and grinding chili with the classic pestle and mortar is a great example of that: “The traditional way of preparing and cooking is lost. Some of the sambal here takes three months before we can even serve it because it has to ferment in a jar.”
But it’s not all traditional—Wong and his team did an amazing work of blending the old with the new by using ingredients like the Barramundi and Australian beef which brings out the best of both worlds. The Barramundi, with its beautifully flaky flesh, pairs amazingly well with the pais gravy. They took to smoking it the traditional way, by using the lerek leaf which imparts its unique aroma into the fish. “The Pais Barramundi is a very good example of OpenHouse where we take the traditional, the modern, and get this amazing marriage of flavours. It has become something very different, but at the same time nostalgically familiar,” said Wong as he beamed with pride.
The traditional ciku fruit also has a spotlight in OpenHouse as it is made into a salsa mixed with kaffir lime paste, enhancing the taste of the beautifully smoked duck bathed in smooth ingkung berlada sauce. Garnished with shallots, red chili and parsley among other ingredients, the Smoked Duck Ciku Salsa is heavily influenced by Chinese cooking.
A modern take on the traditional ulam can be found in the Pecel Salad, providing customers with a marriage of village greens like ulam raja, cekur, pucuk gaju, tofu, and tempeh presented in a banana heart and arranged in the shape of—you guessed it—a heart. Indulge in these dishes with the addition of glutinous turmeric rice comfortably tucked in pitcher plants and served with santan with drops of olive oil—a classic combination.
Having introduced food that up until now a majority of us have never seen or heard of, OpenHouse is successfully pushing for appreciation toward the bounty of excellent produce that we have, the amount of time and energy that goes into the dishes and putting it on the global map.
Wong has had to reassure the younger generation that the food they see on the table is essentially traditional Malay food, because they (including himself) have never eaten dishes like these before. On the other hand, older generations revel in the food served and say to Wong: “The last time I had this was when my grandmother was still alive.” That was when he knew that he needed to keep this going and continue to protect and honour these well-loved dishes.
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- Photography Khairul Imran/Tatler Malaysia