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Rice Article: Malaysia  

Tastes of Hainan Island
By Sharon Tan
The Star, March 30, 2003

ONE of the last Chinese clans to arrive in Malaya, the Hainanese, a distinct dialect group, came to be known for their prowess in the kitchen. Many young men from China's Hainan Province were prompted to seek their fortunes overseas when the island's livelihood - fishing and farming - was affected by political turmoil in neighboring provinces between 1926 and 1930.

Thus, a typical Hainanese family could trace its roots here to only as far back as three to five generations, unlike the other early Chinese settlers.

Restaurant Nam Heong in Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur, claims to be the pioneer of commercial Hainanese chicken rice in the city.

As the story goes,the latecomers found that most of the industries and trades were already controlled by the other clans, so they ended up taking positions in the homes of the colonial masters as domestic helpers, identified by their starched white service uniforms. Among the Hainanese, "ang moh kang", a reference to their common fate of being in British employ, became a catchphrase.

Another version of folk history has it that the Hainanese men ended up as cooks because, traditionally, it was their womenfolk who toiled in the fields back home, while the men stayed indoors. Therefore, when they got to Malaya, naturally they sought employment where they were best suited. They came to almost monopolize the cooking profession in expatriate establishments.

Many of them worked in British households where they picked up the English language. It is said that their children were better-educated because of their language advantage. They also got into better schools with their employers' help.

The cooks managed to save enough money to start their own little restaurants. In due time, these immigrants dominated the kopitiam and bakery business. Their popular enclaves were ports in Malacca, Penang, Terengganu, Selangor and Singapore. The community mostly settled in towns, following their careers in the food and beverage industry.

According to Foo Khee Beng of the Penang Hainanese Association, the community used to own 90% of the coffee shops in Penang but the number has since dwindled to a mere 1% - a far cry from the glory years.

The Hainanese bakeries, which produced the popular Hainanese bread and coconut and kaya buns, also became casualties of time and progress. Many closed down or were taken over by other clansmen. The younger generation of Hainanese, being well educated, preferred to seek greener pastures, often opting for white-collared jobs.

In Malaysia and Singapore, the food that can be traced to the Hainanese has two distinct roots: one influenced by the cuisine of Hainan Island, the other colored by colonial attachments.

Originating from a tropical island, Hainanese cuisine is very much reflective of the island's vegetation. (Famous for its coconut palms and white sandy beaches, Hainan Island has been called "The Hawaii of Asia"). Coconuts and banana leaf are dominant ingredients: While the rice dumplings (chung) of other ethnic Chinese are wrapped with bamboo leaves, the Hainanese use banana leaves to wrap their pillow-shaped dumplings (chim khau tang).

Coconut milk does not figure much in the cuisine, but whole coconuts and grated coconut are used. Yi Buak, a sweet dumpling made of glutinous flour dough is filled with grated coconut and crushed peanuts, a dessert similar to the Nyonya's Kuih Koci. Yi Buak is traditionally served at a baby's full-moon celebration.

As coffee is planted on the island, its association with the Hainanese is not surprising: they brew the best kobi khaw, a thick, aromatic cup of strong coffee, made the way the Hainanese like it.

Rice balls have a pragmatic origin - rice in balls was easier to eat out in the fields where they toiled. Today, rice balls are still made at home as prayer offerings, especially during the Qing Ming festival, a day to remember the departed.

Other than chicken rice, not many traditional Hainanese dishes made headway, unlike foods of the other Chinese dialect groups. Although there are many Hainanese-owned restaurants in Malaysia and Singapore, none serves full-fledged authentic dishes.

The local Hainanese themselves are no longer familiar with their cuisine. Dishes such as mutton soup, Gu Yoke Som (beef soup) and Nong Yoke (pork stew) are seldom served today in their homes.

Mutton soup, brewed with herbs available from Chinese medical halls, is eaten with a chilli dipping sauce made with fermented red bean curd (nam yee). Gu Yoke Som is beef hotpot Hainanese-style: the beef slices are marinated with fermented bean curd before being dunked in a steamboat. In Hainanese restaurants in Malacca, one can still order these specialties.

The older generation recalls dishes like Kuih Tai Din, a black dumpling said to be good for ridding the body of toxins and for relieving rheumatic pains. Lap, a savoury leaf-wrapped rice similar to the Malay ketupat, appeared during auspicious occasions, and chives (kau sang) was a popular everyday vegetable.

Dominating the kitchens of their colonial masters at the turn of the 20th century, the Hainanese were adept cooks who not only learnt to prepare Western food, but created local dishes to suit European taste buds, giving birth to dishes such as chicken chop, macaroni pie, chicken pie and chicken and lamb stew.

Curry Kapitan, a dish widely associated with the Nyonyas, is said to be a local Hainanese invention. The mildly spicy chicken curry was apparently created to suit European taste buds. Roti Kahwin, two slices of white bread spread with butter and an egg-and-coconut jam, another specialty associated with the Nyonyas, is also said to be of Hainanese origin. This last claim is highly probable since the Hainanese dominated bread-baking, a skill they must have learnt from their British employers (besides, bread does not figure in the Nyonya menu).

So it follows that Roti Babi, a deep-fried savoury sandwich, is also a dish the Nyonyas borrowed from the local Hainanese and adapted to suit their taste buds; the Nyonya version is highly spiced with herbs and many aromatic spices). - Flavours

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