Hainan, “South of the Sea”, is China’s answer to Hawaii, a semitropical island in the South China Sea some 20 km off the coast of the mainland and not far from Vietnam. Historically a remote backwater, Hainan didn’t even become a full province until 1988, and today it’s best known for the sandy beach resorts of Sanya and China’s answer to Kennedy Space Center, the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site.
Being both historically poor and geographically close to Southeast Asia, despite its small size Hainan was a major source of Chinese settlers to Singapore, accounting for some 7% of the local Chinese population. Many ended up working in the hospitality sector as cooks and waiters, and hence many of Singapore’s most famous dishes bear the label “Hainanese”, including Hainanese chicken rice, Hainanese kaya (coconut jam), etc.
There’s only one little problem: most of what Singaporeans think of “Hainanese” food was in fact developed locally, and bears little if any resemblance to the original. Even local Hainanese comes in two distinct strains: one type that I’ll dub “Singaporean-Hainanese” took Chinese dishes and mutated them until they became distinctively Singaporean, while “Hainanese Western” descends from Hainanese cooks hire to make Western food for their British employers.
What to do? The answer was clear: eat all of them.
As far as I can tell, there is exactly one restaurant in Singapore offering Hainanese food that a person from Hainan might recognize: Yeh Ting (椰庭), the “Coconut Courtyard”, tucked away above the Woodlands Regional Library deep in the heartlands of Singapore, with tacky yet somehow endearing decor of fake thatched huts and painted palm trees. Oddly, it’s a corporate offshoot of the Jack’s Place cheap steak chain, but turns out the founder was Hainanese, so at least there’s some connection.
Their speciality is Coconut Chicken Soup Pot (椰子鸡汤煲 yēzǐjī tāngbāo), an actual Hainanese dish, which true to the name consists of bony, yellow-skinned chicken boiled in coconut water with wriggly translucent worms of coconut flesh, both ingredients rarely seen elsewhere in China. Water chestnuts add some crunch, but at the end of the day it’s just not a terribly exciting dish. Much more to our liking was the Hainan Fen (here 海口腌粉 Hǎikǒu yānfěn on the menu, after the provincial capital, but usually just called 海南粉 Hǎinán fěn), a dish of rice noodles served at room temperature (by design) that have absorbed an dark, unseen and tasty sauce, with toppings of marinated beef, roasted peanuts, pickles, crispy dough fritters and coriander. This was quite tasty as is, but it’s kicked up another notch by a flavourful Thai-style sauce of chilli, garlic, ginger, and more coriander, served on the side to ladle according your own liking. Definitely the best dish of the day! Total damage for three dishes $42, and we’ll be back for more.
Hainanese restaurants may be thin on the ground, but there are a few hawker stalls carrying on the tradition, two of which can be found at Kim Keat Palm Market in Toa Payoh. First off the block was Hai Nan Xing Zhou Beef Noodle Soup (海南星洲牛肉粉 Hǎinán Xīngzhōu niúròu fěn). Xīngzhōu (星洲), literally “Star Province”, is an old Chinese name for Singapore, and the stall is run by two elderly gentlemen who should probably be enjoying a well-earned retirement now. But there they were, slicing up a huge slab of beef at 8 AM in the morning, so I ordered a $5 “dry” bowl of Sliced Beef + Beef Ball with flat kway teow (粿條 guǒtiáo) rice noodles and dug in. The initial impression is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho, with Chinese herbal notes, a spray of green onion and bean sprouts, and that umami-rich just-cooked beef flavor, but the texture is utterly different, with a viscous, thick gravy not unlike Singaporean favorite lor mee ladled on top. Since I’d ordered mine dry, a small bowl of broth was served on the side, with more of that beefy goodness but a distinctly different set of spices, this time dominated rather incongruously by cinnamon.
Only a few stalls away is Hainan Cuisine & Snacks (海南小吃 Hǎinán xiǎochī), which has garnered mild fame for being one of Singapore’s few purveyors of yi bua (薏粑 yìbā), a distinctly Hainanese type of kuih, the sweet snacks beloved across Southeast Asia. It’s made by steaming glutinous rice flour with a filling of palm sugar (gula melaka), grated coconut and peanuts, then wrapping it with banana leaf. The rice here is very sticky, effectively gluing itself to the plate, and while the filling is sweet and tasty, it’s rather overpowered by copious lashings of ginger, although if this video is to be believed plenty of ginger is traditional. An interesting experience, and priced right at $1.20 a pop, but one was enough.
Honorary mention: this stall is also possibly the only place in Singapore that sells the euphonious Chicken Poop Soup (鸡屎藤粿仔 jīshǐténg guǒzǐ), after the Chinese name of Paederia foetida aka skunkvine. Unfortunately they didn’t have any when I visited.
I took my first steps on the Singaporean-Hainanese trail with a visit to the ruins of the Hainan Village in what is now the Thomson Nature Park. Abandoned only in the 1980s, the extent to which the jungle has devoured the ruins in a few short decades is astonishing and some of the buildings look like they could be from Angkor Wat. (Food trivia: ubiquitous “mediocre but cheap” Asian-Western fusion chain Han’s Cafe originally hails from here.) A Hainanese Village Centre at Hougang feebly commemorates another former community at nearby Lorong Ah Soo, but sadly, this looks like any other heartland HDB market and the hawker centre doesn’t appear to have even a single Hainanese stall left.
Nevertheless, the definitive Singaporean-Hainanese dish, and a firm contender for the national dish of all Singapore, is Hainanese chicken rice. Chicken and rice are eaten all around the world, and indeed an ancestor to this called Wenchang chicken exists in Hainan, where the chicken is slowly poached in sub-boiling temperatures (today we’d call this sous vide) to make it soft, tender, and let’s face it, rather bland. The key to making it tasty is the two Singaporean innovations you won’t find in Hainan. First, the rice isn’t just plain old rice, but rice cooked in a rich chicken broth flavored with garlic, ginger and fragrant pandan leaves. Second, it’s always served with a freshly made chilli sauce with a citrusy tang.
As you can imagine, the title of Singapore’s best chicken rice is hotly contested. Boon Tong Kee remains justly a legend, but actually started out as a Cantonese stall. Hainanese stalwart Yet Con closed in 2020, done in by the double whammy of COVID-19 and their head chef passing away, so in the end I went with the modestly named Loy Kee Best Chicken Rice (黎记海南鸡饭 Lí jì Hǎinán jīfàn), founded in 1953 by Hainanese immigrant Loy Nie. The first time around, we ordered delivery in spiffy branded bento packs for $9 a pop, and it was good enough that we returned for lunch at their shop in Balestier, complete with their glorious if mildly disturbing slogan of “Chicken Lickin’ Good”.
We ordered 4-person Family Plate ($32), with half/half steamed & roasted chicken, plus some extra eggs and chicken liver on the side. Traditionally, the chicken is served lukewarm, whose appeal I’ve never quite understood and it certainly didn’t do the limp, mushy, boney steamed version any favors. The roast chicken was nicer in texture, but the oil poured on top to finish it off nuked any hint of crispiness. Fortunately the key to good chicken rice is the rice itself, which was spot on, rich in taste but not too oily and none of the ingredients overpowering. And the vital chilli sauce nailed it: chilli kick with a lemony zing, spicy but not overpoweringly so.
The sides were a bit meh: cold chicken liver without a hint of spice, soggy bok choy, braised eggs doused in gloopy sauce. And sadly, the usually-obligatory chicken broth served on the side was missing: apparently this is considered an optional $1 extra, which seems a little cheap given we’re already at 2-3x the regular hawker price here. Total damage came to a reasonable $57, so one and a half thumbs up.
Another only-in-Singapore “Hainanese” dish is Hainanese curry rice, which manages to cram together influences from all of the island’s four major ethnic groups. Inspired by an episode of CNA’s Who We Are, What We Eat, I headed down to Hong Seng Curry Rice in Redhill Market and ordered the “Four Heavenly Kings” combo ($6.90). King #1 comes from Britain, namely a tasty pork cutlet, breaded and fried like Japanese tonkotsu; mine was piping hot and easily the best part of dish. King #2 was braised pork belly, a classic Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) dish, quite fatty and served some bones still in; alright, but nothing spectacular. King #3 was supposed to be chicken curry, but instead I got a chicken cutlet, lukewarm but spiked with a lot of garlic. Last and least, King #4 was a less than inspirational pile of cold, boiled cabbage straight out of a Soviet canteen. All this was served with an egg, a pile of rice and the Indian innovation that turned the instruments into an orchestra, namely a ladleful of thick, rather mild curry. Competent, yes; filling, extremely; spectacular, no.
Honorary mention: Ivy’s Hainanese Herbal Mutton Soup in Pasir Panjang, which has a Michelin Plate but, as far as I can tell, no connection to any actual Hainanese dish.
And for the last of the three Hainanese food groups, we’re going to untether almost entirely from the Sinosphere, since Hainanese Western food came about when Hainanese cooks were hired by Western families and companies and tasked with recreating the tastes of Britain. Inevitably, the availability of ingredients in Singapore, the chefs’ own tastebuds and the need to cater to local tastes resulted in the dishes slowly mutating over time, and the best example of this is the classic Singaporean breakfast of coffee, toast, and egg. Sounds rather British, wot? Less than you might think, old fruit.
The Hainanese are synonymous with Singapore’s coffeeshops (咖啡店 kopitiam/kāfēidiàn), and one of the local legends is Heap Seng Leong (協勝隆), an exceedingly old-school establishment tucked away at the Kallang end of North Bridge Rd. Run by a father-and-son duo since 1974, the shop opens 5 AM to 5 PM every day except Chinese New Year. Their thick, strong kopi is made from robusta beans roasted in butter, ground and brewed with a sock, and served with condensed milk, teeth-shattering amounts of sugar, and the optional bonus that made them famous, a pat of salty butter to make it kopi guyou (咖啡牛油, “cow oil coffee”). Invented long before bulletproof coffee became hip, if you can get over the appearance it’s actually rather tasty, adding a surprisingly mild salty caramel note to the concoction. Their soft toast is grilled over charcoal and slathered with orangey-brown Hainanese kaya (coconut-egg jam) and more butter. The eggs are served Singapore style, meaning extremely runny — even the egg white has not set — and with a dash of white pepper and Maggi seasoning (like soy sauce, only even more MSG-laden). As a bonus, you can admire the interior, which is a direct time warp to the 1970s complete with abacus and coin-op public phone. All this will set you back the princely sum of $3.60, so go for a visit now, since Pops is over 80 years old and his work routine would be grueling even for a much younger man.
For a more filling Hainanese Western experience, we headed for lunch at the flagship Joo Chiat outlet of British Hainan, whose website somewhat disturbingly promises “Deliciousness Jumping Into The Mouth” (somebody must have been lickin’ the chicken again). Located in a quiet residential neighbourhood a block off the main drag, the restaurant is famous for its retro decor, with the English Room packed full of British-American kitsch like jukeboxes, sewing machines, and framed portraits of muttonchop-festooned Victorian gentlemen, and the Hainan Room packed equally full of Mao-era Chinese propaganda, including a portrait of the Mao of our generation, Xi Jinping. On a random Sunday the joint was packed, for which the affable owner Frederick Puah, who was doing the rounds of the customers and dropped by to wish us “Welcome home!”, thanked a recent video by Japanese-Singaporean vlogger Ghib Ojisan.
Of course, the main reason we were here was the food, which leans much more British than Hainanese. I had their signature Braised Oxtail Stew ($29.90), stewed for fifteen hours, and I can believe it: the meat fell apart if you so much looked at it sideways, and the thick, umami-laden gravy was so good we ordered an extra portion of bread to sop it all up. The Hainanese Curry Rice ($15.90) here was a fancier affair than Hong Seng, with spicier curry, more pork belly and a side of chap chye (雜菜) mixed vegetables, while the 3 Porky Combi ($18.90) came with two pork cutlets (one fried, one grilled), a pork sausage and an authentically abominable “fruit salad” of lettuce, tomato and tinned mango (squick). I washed down my flashbacks of the BBC canteen at Shepherds Bush with a Saltaire Proper Stout, which lived up to its name, and Frederick sweetened the deal with complimentary cups of mango pudding for dessert. Tasty? Oh yes. Hainanese? That’s a bit of a stretch, although to their credit, British Hainan does have a limited selection of Hainanese-Chinese dishes like beef soup, herbal mutton soup and even yi bua on the menu.
I started writing this blog to learn more about Chinese food, but with this episode more than any other, I think I’ve learned about Singapore instead. I don’t think it’s too much an exaggeration to say that the Hainanese story of how a bunch of immigrants can come in, adapt themselves to local conditions and produce something greater than the sum of its parts is the story of Singapore itself, and the next chapter of that story is being written today.