Chef Paul Chia adds a bold new approach to grilling and smoking with keruing wood at his new Peranakan fusion cuisine restaurant, Wood and Grill
MALACCA Peranakan cuisine is loved by Malaysians for its aroma and taste, but imagine enhancing the authentic flavors with modern smoking techniques and grilling with locally grown forest wood.
Wood & Grill, the newest restaurant to open at Paradigm Mall, serves local dishes with a distinctive twist developed by Chef, Founder and Culinary Director, Chef Paul Chia.
Born and raised in Malacca, Paul has over 24 years of experience as a chef and has worked in 15 countries around the world, from the United States to Kazakhstan.
Among others, Chia has 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 major cities like Shanghai.
In 2020, the chef had to return to Malaysia due to the lockdown, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise for lovers of local cuisine.
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, last year. Wood & Grill is his third restaurant.
A different design
For her latest venture, Chia retained the essence of authentic Peranakan taste, but explored a new approach – grilled Nyonya-Western fusion cuisine.
It’s an entirely new concept, using techniques and skills used in western cooking, including grilling and the smoky flavors of wood chips.
“As a chef, I always know what elements can elevate a cuisine to another level. Using the wood-smoking technique, it’s a marriage between modern technique and traditional Peranakan food,” Chia said.
An unexpected idea
In order to find the right marinade and flavors, Chia tried and tested an abundance of spices and herbs, before settling on what would become her signature recipes for marinades and sauces.
“I choose particular spices that don’t taste too strong for marinating meat, because some spices don’t work well with smoking or grilling techniques, for example, any kind of plant roots.”
“Ginger will overpower the wood smoke, so I chose light-tasting spices. One of the best ingredients that works well with grilling and smoking is black pepper, which works great with all of these techniques.
It was a “wow” moment when Chia finally served us one of her signature dishes. He presented a glass dome, which he lifted to release a cloud of smoke which dispersed to reveal the dish. It was truly a one-of-a-kind experience!
Inside was a Nyonya grilled meat platter including appetizing chicken, lamb and jumbo chicken cheese sausage, served with sambal timun nenas (pineapple pickle) on the side.
The chicken meat was incredibly juicy, flavorful and grilled to perfection, and it was served with three sauces – sweet and sour sauce, mushroom sauce and laksa cream sauce – which were bursting with flavor and added to the meat already delicious.
Besides the grilled meat, their signature dish is the Nyonya Chicken Cutlet, which Chia says has a nice hint of black pepper with a subtle taste of evaporated milk.
His bestseller is Lemak Lamb Shank. Tender and flavorful lamb sits on cooked paku pakis (fern leaves) with a divine, rich and aromatic sauce made with coconut milk, turmeric and spices. It’s incredibly 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 flavor and juiciness.
“A western chef will call me crazy if I say I want to use ‘Lemak Spice’ on a lamb shank because ‘lemak’ won’t absorb into the meat, but I did my experiment to make sure that the spices of the lemak are absorbed into the meat..
“I have researched and prepared the Nyonya dish with heart and soul, and it is evident when my customers leave nothing but bare bones on the plate.”
The meaty tiger prawns are the highlight of the pineapple prawn curry. The creamy sauce is infused with the sour flavors of semi-ripe pineapple chunks and pineapple puree, along with asam keping (slices of tamarind), and it leaves an incredible taste on the palate.
Another distinctive taste was the Sambal Hitam, made with sambal belacan and extracts of buah keluak, a fruit that is hard to find in the big city, but which Chia creatively adds in their Spaghetti Hitam Aglio-Olio with Octopus Kunyit Bakar.
We also tried the Duo Sotong Kangkung, which consisted of grilled squid and Joo Hoo shrimp, kangkung timbale and a generous peanut sauce, as well as crispy tempeh and tauhu goreng chili garam – really satisfying.
Needless to say, the entire menu was not only tempting, but also reflected some of Chia’s favorite dishes from growing up in Malacca. He brought back the nostalgic taste with premium meats and seafood enhanced by his own creativity.
For 12 dishes on the menu, Chia burns locally sourced keruing wood chips to add extra flavor, complexity and aroma.
“Keruing wood is special because it has oil stains in the logs and gives off an aromatic smell when the wood chips are burned,” the chef said, adding that the smoke from keruing wood gives the food a lemon or lemongrass flavor.
“Keruing’s aroma enhances our sense of taste and makes cuisines much tastier, spicier and brings out the flavors of spices, and that’s what makes food special,” Chia explained.
Although a variety of wood is available in Malaysia, Chia studied the characteristics of all local woods and chose keruing after discovering that it could withstand low temperatures, had natural resin and it lasted longer.
In North American and European countries, apple or cider wood is commonly used in grilling, barbecuing, and for smoky flavors. “But, I wanted to support the local timber industry,” Chia confessed.
Keruing is so special to the chef that it even plays an important role in interior design and furnishings.
The 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 because most local foods use charcoal, a faster and cheaper option. “We serve fine dining at an affordable price,” he said.
Apart from modern technology in the gastronomic world, the chef’s experience, knowledge, skills and distinctive concept set Wood and Grill apart from other Peranakan restaurants in the Klang Valley.