On our recent trip to Penang, the island synonymous to street food haven. We had lunch and dinner at Hainanese Delights, a delightful restaurant in 1926 Hotel Heritage (the year it was built) owned by George Wong and his two brothers. He said that this restaurant is to showcase dishes created and perfected by pioneer Hainanese immigrants in Malaya who were renowned for their cooking prowess. The cooking techniques were derived from the traditional methods of Hainan Island but the dishes were catered to Malaya and Singapore using local ingredients. These dishes have evolved under the influence of local and foreign cultures. George and his brothers are retired from their employment and it has been their ambition to have a restaurant that recreates the Hainanese food of their youth. They are Hainanese and have a Hainanese cook to ensure the authenticity of the food.
Hainanese Delights: Origins of Local Favourites
We have always been interested in finding out the origins of local favourites such as Hainanese Chicken Rice, Bak Kut Teh, Curry Kapitan, Inchee Kay Bin amongst others and it was a good opportunity to find out from them.
George related that the Hainanese migrated to Malaya and Singapore in search for a better life. Life was tough in poverty-stricken and war-torn China in the early 20th Century. Many left their homeland and worked as cooks to the Colonial British Administrators and the Military. Some set up coffee shops and food stalls in various parts of the country. Their repertoire and recipes were adapted to the taste buds of the British colonial community as well as the local population.
They developed a British colonial cooking style with a touch of Asian flavour that is unique to Malaya such as Chicken, lamb, beef stews or pies; chicken chop or fish and chips. Today these Southeast Asian colonial staples can still be enjoyed at the Coliseum Café or the Colonial Café at Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur. The Hainanese cooks also created innovative dishes taking inspiration from local recipes and ingredients to suit the local taste. These celebrated dishes that have gained popularity in Malaysia and Singapore today include Hainanese Chicken Rice, Curry Kapitan, Inchee Kay Bin, Assam fish and prawns to name a few.
George enlightened us on the origins of some of the famous dishes. He informed that Hainanese Chicken Rice originated from a village of Wenchang in Hainan. The recipe was brought over from Hainan and its popularity grew as time went on. It is one of the hallmark dishes of Malaysia and Singapore.
He also related fascinating stories of how some of the local favourite dishes got their names such as Curry Kapitan. The story goes that the “Captain” or manager asks the cook what he is preparing for the day. The reply was “Curry, Captain.” Various versions of the origin of the name of this curry have evolved over the ages.
Inchee Kay Bin, a spicy marinated deep fried chicken apparently comes from the Hainanese words – “Injim Kay” – to marinate the chicken.
These two dishes have crept into the Nyonya repertoire of food with their own interpretation.
Our lunch included their specialities of Inchee Kay Bin, Yam Duck, lor bak (local chicken sausage wrapped in dried bean curd skin) and fried spring rolls. Unfortunately, the Hainanese Chicken was sold out. The food was good, so good in fact we arranged to go back there with some friends for a proper dinner that night. These were some of the dishes for dinner recommended by George.
The flavours of the food reminded me of my childhood. As a child, my family used to eat food prepared by Hainanese cooks in either the Colonial British establishments or Hainanese coffee shops. It is a different style of cooking, more of steaming or braising and less stir frying.
The food was great. The Hainanese Chicken rice was excellent – the chicken was smooth as well as silky. Most importantly, it had the correct required taste. The fluffy rice cooked in chicken stock complemented the chicken nicely. The other dishes were also delicious. We were glad that we went back to the Hainanese Delights for dinner after having lunch there earlier that day. We will definitely be going back there on our next visit to Penang.
In Search Of The Perfect Hainanese Chicken Rice
Anyone who is a true blue foodie in Singapore and Malaysia would rate the Hainanese Chicken Rice as the top favourite in their food chart. Helen and I have been on a quest to find restaurants that could cook Hainanese Chicken rice to our “golden wok standard”. We discovered two restaurants so far that serve this excellent dish to our satisfaction – the Chatterbox in Meritus Hotel in Singapore and Chicking in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
This dish is specific to Malaysia and Singapore though restaurants in Hong Kong have begun to jump on the chicken rice bandwagon and feature this dish with their own version. When we used to go to Hong Kong many years ago, they have never heard of this dish.
The simplicity of the dish belies its complex method of preparation to get that silky smooth texture of the chicken. The taste and flavours are so subtle that a little difference in cooking conditions can make a huge difference in the texture and flavour. Helen has experimented on the various methods of refining the gentle art of cooking the chicken but it is still work in progress to master the “magic formula” of Chatterbox, the standard bearer of Hainanese Chicken Rice in our opinion.
For further details
Hainanese Chicken Rice (Wiki)
Hainanese Cuisine (Wiki)
Malaysian Chinese Cuisine (wiki) –
Wenchang Chicken (wiki)