My Executive

My Hainanese food odyssey in S'pore

CHINESE CUISINE: The writer visited the Golden Mile Thien Kee Steamboat during her return trip to Singapore. The restaurant's standout dish was the pork chops, and it also offered pork satay, a rare Hainanese dish.


    Nov 28, 2013

    My Hainanese food odyssey in S'pore

    ON THE small sidewalk that hugs a corner coffee shop in Tiong Bahru, a long line was once again firmly in place.

    Though it was just late morning, people had gathered to make sure they'd get a morsel of the lunch treats at Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice.

    The view through the oil-slicked window revealed a handful of narrow shelves packed with dishes: juicy squid drenched in spicy tamarind gravy, pork belly braised in a sweet soya sauce and crunchy planks of thin pork chops coated in a saltine-cracker crumble and fried.

    What you would not find here is Hainanese chicken rice.

    Though it is arguably Singapore's most famous dish, there is much more to Hainanese cuisine in the country. It serves as a reminder of Singapore's colourful migrant history and is one of the country's first fusion foods.

    The Hainanese style of cooking in Singapore can be traced back to immigrants from Hainan Island in China, who began arriving after the British established a trading port there in 1819. Among the wave of Chinese, people from Hainan were among the slowest to arrive.

    "They were pretty much the last people on the boat," said Ms Yin Phua, a Singapore-based food-and-travel TV producer who is of Hainanese descent.

    "What was left when they got here were jobs in the kitchen."

    Dr Cynthia Chou, associate professor and head of South-east Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, said these kitchens were often in colonial households, where the Hainanese, known as "cookboys", learnt to make standard British dishes such as roast beef. But they also adapted some Hainanese dishes using British or South-east Asian touches.

    I've lived many years in the United States after growing up in Singapore and, as Singapore's cuisine became more internationally known, people have often asked me about Hainanese chicken rice - which is tasty, to be sure.

    But, as delectable as it is, I've long known that it represents just the tip of the iceberg. So, on a trip back to Singapore last year, I was determined to more fully investigate this sliver of my country's cuisine.

    One evening, I took my family out for a good Hainanese meal. I led them past smoky karaoke bars and shops offering young Vietnamese brides - for a fee - in Golden Mile Tower.

    The Golden Mile Thien Kee Steamboat bills itself as a Hainanese restaurant, but its signature dish, the steamboat, is a generic Chinese dish in Singapore. But it was tasty anyway.

    The standout dish here was the pork chops - the crust had a lovely crunch to it, and its tomato sauce was delicious. Equally remarkable was the fact that it had pork satay on the menu, a Hainanese dish that has become harder to find in recent years.

    There were still a few Hainanese standards I had yet to try, so I ventured off to Chin Chin Eating House - one of Singapore's oldest, most beloved Hainanese restaurants - in Purvis Street.

    The setting is basic, little more than a fluorescent-lit coffee shop with chipped tables and plastic stools.

    But the menu is impressive: It even has delicious Hainanese mutton soup, a thick, dark broth packed with mutton and the flavours of cinnamon, dried dates, star anise and a litany of Chinese herbs; and chap chye, a classic dish of Chinese cabbage and carrots stir-fried with slivers of fish maw.

    For the finale to my Hainanese quest, I went to a leafy, rustic corner near Queenstown.

    Nestled amid the trees on Whitchurch Road was ColBar Cafe, a baby-blue wooden shack that looks as if it's firmly stuck in the 1950s.

    A curt woman with a shock of white hair and wearing an old housedress recommended the Hainanese pork chops, which are not on the menu, to my mother and me.

    The chops were a little more British than the others we've tried: There's much less breading, and they come tossed with tomatoes, fried potatoes and large peas in a sweet tomato sauce.

    The Hainanese curry there was different, too: The gravy was thicker and sweeter, but the chicken itself was just sheer falling-apart goodness.

    As my mother pulled out toothpicks from her purse for us while we sat back in our chairs reflecting on our meal, I couldn't help but be thankful.

    The Hainanese may have been the last to arrive. But, after having eaten my way through many pork chops, mutton soups and curry rice, I'm certainly glad they made it at all.