Hainanese cooking, with its fusion of Chinese and Western, comes back in vogue

From left: Sous chef Steven Lim, executive chef Charlie Tham and junior sous chef Chew Jian Da.
From left: Sous chef Steven Lim, executive chef Charlie Tham and junior sous chef Chew Jian Da. PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Singapore chefs are putting Hainanese cuisine back on their menus

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - After the British, and before the first French chefs arrived on Singapore's shores, there were the Hainanese. They were the bridge between Singapore and "Western" food, dominating the food and beverage scene with pork chops and Chicken Maryland, while creating a few culinary legends of their own.

Who can forget Ngiam Tong Boon, who created the Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel's Long Bar in 1915, or Steven Low, the chef who elevated Hainanese chicken rice from street food to five-star hotel status at the Mandarin Orchard Singapore?

How the Hainanese "invaded" the kitchens of hotels and coffee houses was no coincidence. From the mid-19th century, there was a widespread migration of Chinese to South-east Asia, with most immigrants coming from Canton (now Guangzhou) in southern China.

The Hokkien arrived in Singapore first, followed by the Teochews and Cantonese. By the time the Hainanese got here, most of the lucrative jobs and businesses had already been snapped up. Most Hainanese men ended up in the British colonial system, working mainly as cooks in army cookhouses, households and hotels.

Because of that, the Hainanese were the first Chinese in Singapore to become adept at Western cooking and table craft. Condiments such as Lea & Perrins, HP sauce and mustard were incorporated into their own cooking very quickly.

In the Great Depression era of the 1930s, many foreign traders left Singapore. The Hainanese seized the opportunity to buy over vacant buildings, particularly in the Beach Road area. They set up kopitiams and family-run eateries, serving their own unique dishes laced with Western influences. These became so popular that Hainanese chicken rice, fried pork chop, mutton soup, meat pies and even Hainanese steamboat became part of Singapore's first "fusion" food.

By the 1990s, the Hainanese dominance was over. There are fewer Hainanese in the industry even as Singaporeans in general have shied away from a profession with long hours and lower prospects. Malaysians and other foreigners have taken their place. But a handful of Hainanese chefs have kept the fire burning.

Han Liguang, whose restaurant Labyrinth was recently awarded a Michelin star, is one of them. Born into an F&B family, he started his career as a corporate relationship manager in a bank before trading his business suit for chef's whites. His family used to own Cairnhill Steak House, one of the earliest Western steakhouses in Singapore.

In time, he enrolled at At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy and emerged to become a private chef for a spell before starting Labyrinth, where he pushes the envelope of Singapore cuisine.

One of his sources of inspiration is his grandmother; he is now working on one of her family-favourite recipes and is introducing it in his restaurant's menu - Hainanese chicken rice. The chef explains: "As I grew older, I realised her version was so different from the others. My grandmother learnt some Western cooking techniques from her house tenants years ago, one of which was making roux for her sauces. So for our chicken, we use a roux white sauce and button mushrooms as well."

Given its origins, chef Han is not taking his creation lightly. He grinds his own rice flour and spends days perfecting the chilli sauce. While he is preparing to launch the dish, he is already working on grandma's next signature recipe - fish maw soup. This is one advocate of Hainanese cuisine who is intent on showcasing it to the world.

Meanwhile, at York Hotel, Charlie Tham explains that when he joined the hotel, not only did he inherit a cache of retro Hainanese recipes,  but he also gained a cohort of experienced Hainanese chefs who had witnessed the glory days of the coffee house.

He says: "I have five Hainanese chefs and one of them is in his 70s. They are so proud of their skills that they insist on rolling the pie pastry from scratch. No short cuts."

Most of his chefs worked at the now-defunct and demolished Ladyhill and Boulevard hotels, famous for their colonial-style food. Chef Tham recalls: "In those days, the senior chefs were very protective of their skills and  taught only the apprentices who were from the same dialect group."

He also witnessed the decline of the coffee house during the 1990s. As more restaurant chains sprouted along Orchard Road, food became more thematic and cuisine-oriented. The menu within hotels also started to evolve - they became more Americanised; Italian and fusion dishes made their appearance while demand for local dishes dipped.

However, chef Tham has noticed an upturn in demand for retro food, which has been making a comeback since 2013. In response, he and his team are revamping the menu at their restaurant, gradually leading to the return of old favourites such as curry puffs, chicken pies and Hainanese mutton curry.

Frederick Puah is a second-generation Hainanese whose father came to Singapore and worked as a cook for a British family. Not only did the elder Puah have to learn a new cuisine, but he also needed to make adjustments to the recipes as his employer was diabetic.

While searching for an alternative to processed sugar, he began to use vegetables such as sweet potato as a substitute. Mr Puah's father became so good at his craft that he was later transferred to work onboard a ship.

Mr Puah loved stew as a kid. It was only much later that he realised the meagre portions he was served as a child were actually leftovers. His strong affinity for British food remained with him for life, along with Hainanese dishes with a strong British influence.

After working as a precision engineer for 15 years, Mr Puah decided to dabble in sound systems and the karaoke business. One thing led to another and he eventually opened British Hainan, a casual dining enclave serving lamb stew using his own recipe. It proved to be a hit and he decided to expand his culinary repertoire. One of his strengths is his adamant desire to stick to old-fashioned cooking methods, eschewing the pressure-cooker and microwave oven.

The name "British Hainan" is actually a reflection of his palate for British-influenced cuisine, which along with his determination to stick to traditional preparations - such as long hours of stewing - and lots of passion, have taken him a long way.

He has plans for the future as well: He is looking for bigger premises that will allow him to showcase authentic cuisine from Hainan Island, as well as new dishes. His eldest daughter, too, is taking pastry courses in Perth, hopefully with the aim of helping her father expand the realm of Hainanese cuisine.