Malaysian food is steeped in culture with centuries of cuisine put together. Unfortunately, many traditional recipes have been forgotten over the last few decades with the emergence of mass-produced fast food and pre-packed sauces in the commercial market. Worse, some dishes have been misinterpreted and bastardised with way too many shortcuts, compromising the integrity of the original dish.

Thanks to the revolution in modern Malaysian cuisine, several restaurants in the city are going the extra mile to revisit traditional recipes and incorporating locally sourced ingredients into reimagined and inspired dishes. Ginger torch flower, kaffir lime leaves, local herbs and ulam, as well as the complex blend of spices can be commonly traced in many modern Malaysian dishes.

One restaurant is taking this to the next level by travelling further back in time to bring back long-lost generational recipes that are really hard to get these days; even in a typical household. Welcome to OpenHouse.

Brought to you by the boys behind Acme Bar & Coffee, OpenHouse brings forth a refreshing concept to the usual modern Malaysian interpretations many restaurants claim to offer best. A quick glance of the menu takes you back to childhood memories and growing up in Malaysia – the whiff of spices and fragrance of aromatics wafting from your grandmother’s open kitchen instantly comes to mind.

But here’s the twist: there are many terminologies and ingredients that you’ve probably never heard before – temu pauh (ginger-like root with a green mango scent), daun lerek (leaf used for wrapping), buah kepayang (black jungle nut), and cendawan kukur (edible wild mushrooms typically grown on rubber trees). But don’t be intimidated just yet — let your curiosity be piqued with a menu that truly reflects the flavours of Malaysia, in a way that perhaps have not been revisited in a long time.

Traditional recipes are given a fresh progressive approach.

“We are not trying to bastardise classic Malaysian food. We are reintroducing and bringing back ancestral recipes to the table because we felt the absence in the local dining scene,” co-owner Andrew Wong shares.

There’s a lot going on the menu but each speaks of the refined flavours in traditional Malaysian cuisine. We are not talking about common items like rendang, curry or masak lemak. At OpenHouse, some recipes date over two centuries old. These recipes are procured through the chefs’ very own family members, going around markets and villages, talking to the orang asli and from months of research on everything the team could find. Food from home kitchens is refined without disrupting the originality and authenticity of the traditional parameters.

The stunning cigar room inspired by Malaysia’s colonial past, doubles up as a smoking room.

Ambience

OpenHouse is located in Suria KLCC, right above Acme Bar & Coffee and Delirium Café. The stunning interiors represent significant cultural phases in Malaysia – traditional influences from the archipelago to British colonisation and Peranakan heritage. Within the 4,200 sq ft longitudinal space, the dining areas are demarcated to create a cosy and intimate experience. The vibrant colours and rustic textures are accentuated with interesting finishes and techniques to highlight a luxurious setting befitting for a queen.

Food

Each dish is considered with care and finesse. From over 150 recipes, the team narrowed it down to a total of 42 dishes that are now served at OpenHouse. Expect creativity, variety, complexity and eccentricity that come in every dish – all visually exciting and beautifully presented.

Chicken Pongté is inspired by the Peranakan heritage.
Venison Rendang Minang is a Javanese inspired dish from Negeri Sembilan.

Keeping to the parameters of its authentic flavours, the kitchen team innovates each recipe to suit the Malaysian palate. Some are tweaked with an alternative protein, while some are prepared with modern techniques. But for all the spices and rempah, Wong reassures that everything is prepared with a pestle and mortar to keep up to the integrity of the traditional dish.

OpenHouse has the characteristics of restaurants like Dewakan and Skillet@163 but it is not the typical fine dining style where each diner gets an individual portion. Come and enjoy the intriguing menu in a large group because like in every other Malaysian household, meals are meant to be shared.

Ingkung Chicken Pasta
Laksa Johor

If you’re here for lunch alone, the Chef’s Tasting Menu (RM59) is a bargain. It comes with a vegetable, a seafood dish, one meat option, a portion of rice and a sambal. Otherwise, go a la carte with the Ingkung Chicken Pasta (RM43) if you’re a big fan of lemak cili api and ayam percik. Otherwise, the Laksa Johor (RM29) is also worth a try. This dish is as authentic as it can get – there’s no need for reinvention.

First timers may find the menu slightly confusing as there are quite a lot to take in. The menu comprises very interesting items like Smoked Duck with Ciku Salsa (RM55), Udang Salut Keledek (57) and Umai Prawn Borneo (RM47) to begin with. If you’re unsure of anything, a waiter will be more than happy to explain the dish to you. Before that, allow us to run through some of our favourites from the restaurant.

Horseshoe Crab Roe Kerabu

Start off with the Horseshoe Crab Roe Kerabu (RM45). This is such a nostalgic dish that truly brings back memories – we’ve not tasted this for over 20 years. The texture of the roe isn’t like your usual ikura. It’s slightly chewy with the quality of a cooked egg yolk. The crab roe is tossed with sliced shallots, cilantro, betel leaf, torch ginger flower and temu pauh for texture and freshness. The tanginess and slight sweetness from the tamarind-based dressing give this kerabu starter a unique punch – seducing you for a second and third helping. The plating in the whole shell also makes this dish a standout on the dining table.

Soup Ekor Kepayang

Sample also the Soup Ekor Kepayang (RM47). Buah kepayang, or known as buah keluak by Peranakans, is an exotic black nut that carries an acquired fermented taste. In this dish, the nutmeat is mixed with spiced beef mince and then stuffed back into the shell. It is quite an experience for first-timers to this ingredient – use a teaspoon to scoop out the filling and enjoy it with the flavoursome rich broth. But for those who are familiar with the black nut, you may prefer a more intense flavour of the kepayang, which seems to be overpowered by the umami of the broth.

Pais Barramundi

Another noteworthy dish is the Pais Barramundi (RM49). What’s unique about this dish is the texture of a perfectly cooked fish that is enhanced with a turmeric-based rempah. Traditionally a dish that hails from the east coast, the pais is usually wrapped in banana leaf. Here, the kitchen team uses lerek leaf (from a wild herb plant) to wrap the fish like a papillote – giving the dish an additional layer of aromatics.

Glutinous Pitcher Plant Rice

OpenHouse also serves four types of rice that are cooked in its own special way. Traditionalists can go ahead and order the Steam Kulim Rice (RM9) that comes in a leaf-wrapped parcel and dusted with kulim, a jungle fruit that bears the flavours of garlic and truffle. If you’re not really a fan of white rice, make your carb intake worth every grain by ordering the unique Glutinous Pitcher Plant Rice (RM29) that somewhat similar to nasi kunyit but cooked in pitcher plants, and served with coconut cream.

But take our word for it: you really need the rice to enjoy the dishes as a complete meal. The flavours of the pais truly stand out with white rice while the Venison Rendang Minang (RM73) pairs remarkably with the turmeric rice.

An array of sambals.

It is also highly recommended for you to try the different types of sambals for an extra zing and spiciness to your meal. It is hard to pick a favourite but if you’re into strong bold flavours, order a portion of the Tempoyak Ikan Bilis Terung Pipit (RM7) which features fermented durian and sour yellow aubergine or Hitam Kepayang (RM7) which uses the black jungle nut or buah keluak. For something milder, go for Isi Rong (RM7) that is made using rubber seed kernels, or Kulat Kukur (RM7), a sambal mixed with wild jungle black mushrooms.

Drinks

What is very Malaysian that is non-alcoholic? If you’ve not known this, the jamu or tonics are traditional drinks that are consumed for potent health benefits. These tonics are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, and are made using active ingredients like tongkat ali, ginseng roots, honey and butterfly pea flower.

Akar Kebayan
Bidara Rimba

Try the Akar Kebayan (RM27) that combines two jungle roots – ginseng and tongkat ali – for a nicely balanced herbaceous taste. The Bidara Rimba (RM27) has a sweeter note with rosemary, lemon, grenadine and Tualang honey. The Tualang honey is a very potent honey harvested by the orang asli from the Tualang, which is some of the tallest trees in the world. Just the colour of the drink alone is attractive enough to capture the attention of diners but don’t be fooled by the taste as some may find these concoctions slightly too tannin or bitter for their liking. Each drink is served with Tualang honeycomb on the side to balance the flavours of these plant-based tonics.

Verdict

It is the narrative of generational recipes that drives the menu. These flavours have been refined and perfected over the decades, and it will be difficult for chefs today to replicate. Here, the dishes are as authentic as it can get and modern at the same time.

Each family heirloom recipe is given utmost respect, keeping the integrity of every dish strong and lively. Have fun going through the dishes that are laced with colour, flavours and aromatics that bring you back to fond memories. Malaysian food is a sleeping giant and it needs to be awakened. OpenHouse is doing just that, and just a month into business, it is by far the best place to show what true traditional Malaysian cuisine is all about.

Martin Teo
Deputy Editor
Martin loves traveling the world to see ancient ruins and classical architecture. He enjoys the culinary experience of various cities but (still) refuses to eat anything insect-like. On a daily basis, he finds time hitting the gym to compensate for the amount of food he needs to eat just to write an article.