A classic Hainanese coffeeshop breakfast: coffee and charcoal-grilled toast with butter and kaya,usually accompanied by a soft-boiled egg
About eighteen months ago Dave and I were approached by the editor of a new Dutch food magazine called Sabor. Would we be interested in doing a feature story on the topic of our choice for the inaugural issue, he wondered? In fact, for years we'd wanted to write and photograph a story on Malaysia's curious culinary mish-mash known as "Hainanese food". So in late 2010 we spent some time in Kuala Lumpur and on Fraser's Hill researching the story for Sabor.
Sabor published its first issue last August. It's a beautiful, substantive food magazine the likes of which I wish there were more of: a great mix of stories high-brow and low-brow, on dining from the street to tables in starred restaurants, focusing on chefs and producers and cooks and eaters of all stripes. The photography is beautiful and the layout is gorgeous. Our Hainanese piece was given 20 pages; needless to say the photographer was pleased. If you're interested, have a peek at, or download, the story here.
The second issue of Sabor is out now. If you're in the Netherlands and read Dutch (or not, but enjoy looking at wonderful food photography) please pick up a copy and support this new venture.
Our next story for Sabor, on Hanoi, will appear later this year. In the meantime, now that Issue No 1 is off the newstands, we give you here the original English text and photos: Hainanese food and Hainanese cooks in Malaysia, with recipes.
Just another busy day at Yut Kee
Soon after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur a Malaysian friend invited me out for a Hainanese meal. Hainan is a Chinese island province in the South China Sea, about halfway between southern China and Vietnam, and in the mid-eighties I idled there for an entire August. I spent every day just like the one before it, hiking past cows grazing in coconut palm groves, swimming off pristine stretches of sand and gorging on whole snapper, plump prawns and lobsters with tails the diameter of my wrist, all steamed with garlic and ginger.
After almost three decades I can still taste those simple yet stunning lunches and dinners. My chum’s invitation threw up the possibility of having those flavors close to hand once again, and I was thrilled.
Imagine my surprise a few days later when I found myself staring down a chicken chop. My friend and I had just been served at Yut Kee, a Hainanese-owned stalwart of Kuala Lumpur’s dining scene for over 90 years. The corner coffee shop's chicken chop -- a mostly de-boned leg and thigh deep-fried, topped with peas, cubed carrots and corn kernels and bathed in glossy Worcestershire sauce-seasoned onion gravy -- is one of its signature dishes.
This was my first taste of Malaysian Hainanese cuisine. It was as far from the dishes that I’d fallen for on Hainan as much of what passes for Cantonese food in America is from the food eaten served in Guangzhou. Once I got over my shock, however, I had to admit that chicken chop was a work of art in its own right. I soon became a Hainanese food devotee and Yut Kee regular.
Chops are just one of the pantheon of dishes with origins variously Western, Chinese or a combination of the two recognized in Malaysia as “Hainanese”. In addition to chops, Malaysian Hainanese cooks are known for their breakfasts -- soft-boiled eggs served with steamed or charcoal-toasted soft white bread -- chicken pot pies, steaks, and Hailam mee, noodles cooked with prawns, pork and vegetables. They're credited with making some of the best kopi (coffee) -- thick, dark and usually mixed with sweetened condensed milk -- in Malaysia. And they poach whole chickens and serve the meat sliced, accompanied with oily chicken stock-enriched rice and dipping sauces made with ginger and fresh chilies, for a dish known as “Hainan chicken rice”.
Malaysian Hainanese is a hodgepodge cuisine, a product of the country’s history as colony (the British controlled much of what is now Malaysia and Singapore from the mid-19th century until 1946) and adopted home of waves of immigrants from Asia and beyond. Today ethnic Chinese make up a little over a quarter of Malaysia’s population. They arrived in stages, beginning in the 1700s with traders from the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian (who are known as Hokkien). Hakka, Cantonese and Teochew followed. They arrived early enough to have their pick of jobs in tin mining, rubber production, agriculture and other professions.
Hainanese Chinese were among the last to make their way to British Malaya, beginning in the late 1800s and continuing into the early 20th century. By that time Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkienese and Hakka clan associations, which were established to help new arrivals find work and housing, had secured a lock on most employment opportunities. So many Hainanese ended up taking positions as cooks in British military camps and in the homes of British expatriates and wealthy Chinese, where they learned to turn out perfectly cooked roasts, make cream of mushroom soup, boil eggs just so, fry up crispy chops and knead dough for bread and pastries. Soon enough they put this experience to use in their own restaurants and coffee shops, where they cobbled together the elements of what came to be known in Malaysia as Hainanese cuisine.
Yut Kee embodies the Hainanese gastronomic odyssey. “My dad was born in Hainan in 1887 and came to Malaysia when he was in his teens,” says Yut Kee’s son Jack Lee late one afternoon as his busy shops begins to quiet down. Sixty-six year-old Jack runs Yut Kee with his own son Mervyn, who will carry on the family business when Jack is ready to step down.
Yut Kee looks as if it has hardly changed since Jack’s father opened its doors in 1928. It occupies a typically long and narrow Malaysian Chinese shop house open across the front on the ground floor with a kitchen in the back and living quarters upstairs. Ceiling fans rotate lazily over the always-crowded dining room, where Malaysian regulars and tourists (Yut Kee’s reputation has spread well beyond Malaysia) sit in bent timber chairs at marble-topped tables arranged on a green and white tiled floor.
Hainanese cooks mastered not only Western savories, but sweets as well. Displayed near the cash register, in a vintage wood and glass case, are Yut Kee’s desserts: marble cake and fat logs of ethereally light butter cake rolled around a filling of kaya, a rich caramel-ish coconut milk-and-egg “jam”. Yut Kee’s signature inky coffee is made the old-fashioned way -- by pouring boiling water over grounds in a cotton “sock” filter suspended from a metal ring -- in a cubby hole just off the rear of the dining room. Cloudy mirrors on opposite walls maintain good feng shui. Hanging on a wall near the middle of the shop is a large photograph of a young Yut Kee, the spitting image of Jack and Mervyn with his rounded cheeks and upturned nose.
Jack Lee during a rare quiet moment at Yut Kee
Yut Kee died just three years after Jack was born, so “everything I know about Dad I heard from my mothers,” he says. Multiple wives wasn’t so unusual in Yut Kee’s day, and after he died his three wives ran the business, dividing duties amongst themselves: one took charge of the coffee area, another oversaw the cash register and the third, Jack’s birth mother, kept the kitchen humming. Today Yut Kee opens for breakfast at 7am and closes, after the last customer has taken his or her beer and chicken chop or cup of coffee and kaya roll, around 5 or 6 in the evening. In Yut Kee’s time the place operated as a full restaurant – the “in” place for night clubbers, Jack winks -- and didn’t close its doors till 3 or 4 in the morning.
Jack grew up in the shop. “I worked a bit in the kitchen, but I wasn’t sure if I would keep with it,” he remembers. But in 1970, when his mothers were getting on and the day-to-day became a challenge for them, he took over. “They had put so much effort into the business, so I thought, ‘Let me continue with it.”
Today much of what’s served at Yut Kee is true to the original menu. Though cutlets (prawn, crab, and pork) and Jack’s father’s signature steamed fish with cream sauce are no more, chicken curry -- tender bone-in pieces in a fiery sauce flecked with fresh curry leaves – spicy-sou asam fish, perfectly prepared chops, Hailam mee (noodles with prawns and pork), and toast served with kaya remain. When he took over Jack added a few items such as beef stew and rice stir-fried with belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste) to the menu.
Yut Kee is perhaps best known for its roti babi (“pork bread” in Malay), an over-the-top, eat-with-your-hands snack consisting of a thick slab of white bread stuffed with pork and crabmeat, coated in egg, and shallow-fried. Visit Yut Kee anytime after 10am and you’ll find at least one order on every single table.
Butter cake and chops, noodles and a mish-mash east-west dish like roti babi. What exactly is Hainanese food? A “fusion of confusion,” in Jack’s words. But as far as he’s concerned there’s no doubt which Chinese Malaysian cooks can lay claim to the chop:
“You certainly won’t find any Hokkienese, Teochew, or Cantonese chicken chops!”
Arundel, on Fraser's Hill
While many Hainanese cooks transported their skills from colonial-era homes to their own coffee shop, others stayed in private kitchens . The fruits of their culinary prowess can still be enjoyed in a few hotels and bungalows found in colonial hill stations dotted around peninsular Malaysia.
With its polished plank floors, wood-paned windows, stuffed sofa and chairs, and clipped lawn bordered by temperate blooming flowers and shrubs, Arundel would be right at home in the English countryside. Instead the four-bedroom black-and-white bungalow sits at 1,500 meters two hours outside of Kuala Lumpur on Fraser’s Hill, a former tin-ore trading post turned British hill station in 1922. Set amidst pristine forest threaded with walking trails and often shrouded in fog or rain clouds, the former hill station is a popular weekend and school holiday getaway for Malaysians, who come to take in the clean, cool air and enjoy the green and quiet.
But I’ve come to Arundel, one of two early 20th-century houses sharing a prime spot of land at the end of a cul-de-sac, to experience Malaysian Hainanese cooking in situ. For almost 50 years the bungalow’s kitchen was the domain of Tan Kee Tain, a Hainanese cook who arrived in Malaysia in the 1920s. Four and a half years ago Tan died at the age of 82, but not before passing his culinary knowledge on to his daughter-in-law Lam Foong Ling.
Teatime at Arundel: freshly baked scones and a photograph of a young Mr. Tan
Over tea, homemade scones, and jam in Arundel’s sitting room Mr. Tan’s daughter Nancy Yap, who supervises the bungalow, shares memories of her father. “He didn’t come to cooking naturally – at first it was just a job,” she tells me. Nancy’s father held a number of jobs around British Malaya before making his way to Fraser’s Hill, where some of his relatives worked in other bungalow kitchens.
“But once he began cooking, he really enjoyed it.” As if to illustrate her point she shows me photos: a lean, young Mr. Tan sitting with a big grin on a curb outside the bungalow and another of a middle-aged Mr. Tan showing off a chicken pot pie with a mile-high puff pastry crust. Then there's a snapshot of white-haired, septuagenarian Mr. Tan in Arundel’s kitchen, demonstrating the art of bread-making to a half-circle of enraptured Malaysian housewives.
Madam Foong, Mr. Tan’s daughter-in-law, mimics her teacher’s savvy with dough and sweet breads; our scones are rich and buttery, golden outside, a light crumb within. She began to study with Mr. Tan a decade ago. “My kids had left home and I had nothing to do. I always liked to cook. He said, ‘Why don’t you come and work in the kitchen?’ And I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’”
Hailam mee at Arundel
Over two days at Arundel I dine on a parade of exquisitely prepared Hainanese classics: crispy pork cutlets bathed in a Chinese sweet rice wine and soy sauce-spiked gravy, Hailam noodles with sliced pork and briny shrimp, garnished with crispy caramelized sliced shallot and perfectly poached Hainan chicken made with a free-range bird and served with zesty fresh ginger and chili sauces. Every meal is accompanied by green vegetables – slender string beans, perky leaf lettuce, crispy baby bok choy – plucked fresh from Arundel’s kitchen garden and stir-fried with Madam Foong’s expert touch. Teatime brings baked goods -- scones of course, and one of Mr. Tan’s specialties: tender, chewy twists of potato-enriched dough sprinkled with sugar and grated orange rind.
Asked what she most enjoys about cooking, Madam Foong smiles wide and answers quickly: “Roast lamb. I love cooking Western dishes.” Mr. Tan's Hainanese culinary legacy is alive and well on Fraser's Hill.
In the kitchen at Yut Kee
Back at Yut Kee, Jack has promised to show me how to make the shop’s iconic dish: roti babi. But when I arrive after lunch on a Thursday he’s had a change of heart. “Let Mervyn do it,” Jack says, with a nod to his son, who’s standing behind the cash register adding up receipts. “Mervyn’s coming up now. He’s the new generation.”
Like his father, 30-year-old Mervyn grew up in Yut Kee. After earning a university degree in the United States he returned to Malaysia and joined the business. Putting his knack for systems management to use, Mervyn is adding polish to Yut Kee’s inner operations. But his attachment to the place comes from the heart, all but guaranteeing that the spirit of Yut Kee won't change.
Mervyn also knows his way around Yut Kee’s well-worn, sometimes bordering-on-chaotic kitchen. I watch as he minces pork by hand and carefully cuts pockets into two thick slices of bread. After stir-frying sliced onion, Chinese sausage and pork with Worcestershire sauce for the roti babi filling he adds jicama, instructing “The jicama goes in last because I like to keep it a little bit crispy.”
Then the secret of Yut Kee’s version of roti babi is revealed: instead of beating whole eggs for dipping the bread Mervyn separates yolks and whites, beats the latter to stiff peaks and then gently folds them into the beaten yolks. When the stuffed bread is dipped into the mixture it emerges with an impossibly thick layer of egg that browns beautifully, flawlessly, in the oiled skillet.
What emerges from the pan is an almost oil-free fluffy bread pocket spilling tender pork and a touch of crab meat. The Worcestershire is a barely detectable back note, a hint of sweetness and salt that plays off the richness of the pork and shellfish. While the onions are soft and caramelized the jicama retains a bit of bite, offering a welcome bit of textural contrast.
After plating his roti babi Mervyn heads back out to the cash register. Jack sits at his usual spot, near a table at the entrance, gabbing with regulars and wishing passers-by a pleasant evening. In downtown Kuala Lumpur, as on Fraser’s Hill, Hainanese cuisine is alive and well.
HAINAN CHICKEN RICE
According to Mr. Tan’s daughter Nancy this is one of the few Malaysian Hainanese dishes that can also be found on Hainan, in her father’s home of Wenchang. This simple preparation demands the best ingredients, so if you can, use a free-range bird. The mark of a good Hainan chicken is flesh that is just barely cooked; you don’t want the meat to get tough.
The chicken, rice, and dipping sauces can comprise an entire meal, but you might also serve a light soup of green leaves (bok choy perhaps, or choi sum) cooked in diluted chicken broth with a slice or two of ginger.
FOR THE CHICKEN:
And approximately 2-kilo chicken, preferably free range
2-inch piece old ginger
- Bring a pot of water (large enough to accommodate the whole chicken) to the boil.Wash and dry the chicken. Drop a few pinches of salt into the body cavity, along with the ginger.
- Place the chicken into the pot, laying it breast up. Bring the water back to the boil, then lower to a slow simmer and place a lid on the pot. After 20 minutes turn the chicken over. Continue to simmer for another 20 minutes. In the meantime, fill another pot (or large bowl) – also large enough to accommodate the whole chicken – with cold water.
- After about 40 minutes remove the chicken from the pot, reserving the broth, and plunge it into the cold water. Leave for 20 minutes. Remove and gently pat dry with paper towels. Set aside, propping the chicken up so that any water in the body cavity can drain out.
FOR THE GINGER SAUCE:
2 inches old ginger
2 green onions, white part only
Reserved chicken stock
Salt to taste
Sesame oil – scant 1/4 tsp (optional)
- Chop and pound in mortar (or whir in blender or food processor) the ginger and the onions. The result should be a barely lumpy puree.
- Remove to a small bowl and stir in approximately a tablespoon of stock from boiling the chicken (try to include some of the chicken fat as well) and salt to taste. If you like, add just a couple drops of sesame oil.
FOR THE CHILI SAUCE:
2 cloves garlic
2 small fresh hot red chilis
2 large mild fresh red chilis
½ inch old ginger
Chicken fat skimmed from stock
2 kalamansi or ½-1 whole lime
Salt to taste
- Chop and pound in a mortar (or whir in blender or food processor) the garlic, chilies, and ginger. The result should be a barely lumpy puree.
- Remove to a small bowl and stir in a bit of chicken fat from the boiling stock, and the juice of 2 kalamansi or ½ whole lime. Taste and adjust for salt and kalamansi/lime juice. The dipping sauce should be hot and tart, but not overwhelmingly sour. It’s meant to balance the richness of the chicken meat and rice.
FOR THE RICE:
2 red shallots
2 cloves garlic
2 1/2 cups rice
3 3/4-4 cups stock from boiling chicken
2 pinches salt
black soy sauce
1 pandan leaf (if available)
- Finely mince shallots and garlic, and quickly fry in a dry wok or pan just until they begin to color. Remove from the pan and place in a rice cooker, along with the rice, chicken stock, salt, soy sauce, and pandan leaf. Turn the rice cooker on cook as usual.
1 cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
2 green onions (scallion), white and green part, thinly sliced lengthwise
fresh cilantro sprigs
- Arrange the cucumber slices on a platter in a single layer
- Prepare the chicken: If you prefer, remove the skin from the breasts and legs and thighs. Separate legs and thighs and cut each of the four pieces in half with a cleaver or sharp knife. Carefully remove the breast meat from the bone and cut into 1 ½-inch thick slices.
- Arrange the breasts and legs/thighs neatly on top of the cucumber. Lightly toss the shallot slivers and cilantro sprigs together with your fingers and place them on top of the chicken.
- Serve the chicken with the two sauces, the rice and any leftover broth, reheated (or a light soup of green leaves parboiled in diluted broth).
Mr. Tan's -- and now Madam Foong's -- orange twists
These light, not-too-sweet orange-fragrant rolls are frequent accompaniments to afternoon tea at Arundel and Bunge. Fresh milk was hard to come by on Fraser's Hill, thus the use of powdered milk..
According to Nancy Tan her father learned this recipe from an American who stayed at Arundel many decades ago. After experimenting with the dough he began to use it for other baked goods as well. Madam Foong advises that the finished dough can be halved, with one half used the same day for these orange twists and the other refrigerated and used within three days for fried donuts, cinnamon buns, or dinner rolls. (If you go this route be sure to use only half the amounts specified when you make the filling)
Makes approximately 34 twists
FOR THE DOUGH:
2 scant Tbsp dry yeast
6 oz. warm water
¼ tsp sugar
2 cups hot water
3 Tbsp milk powder
1 ½ cups vegetable shortening
1 cup white sugar
½ Tbsp salt
1 cup mashed potato
8 – 8 ½ cups plain flour
Flour for kneading
FOR THE FILLING:
8 Tbsp butter, softened
4 Tbsp sugar
Grated zest of 3 oranges
- Dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water. Set aside for yeast to rise, about 15 mins. Dissolve milk powder in hot water. Set aside to cool slightly.
- Cream shortening with white sugar. Stir in salt. Pass mashed potato through fine sieve into dough. Stir to combine.
- Beat the eggs and stir them into the water/milk powder mixture. Add to dough and stir to combine thoroughly. Sift flour into dough and stir to combine. Start with 8 cups and add more if necessary – the dough should be smooth and no longer sticky. Place dough in bowl and cover with a damp towel. Place in refrigerator for one hour.
- Remove dough from refrigerator and turn it out onto smooth surface lightly dusted with flour. Flatten and knead lightly for several minutes. Return to bowl and place back into refrigerator for at least 1 and not more than 6 hours.
- Grease two large cookie sheets. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide in two. Set one piece aside and cover with a damp cloth. Knead the other lightly for several minutes and then use a rolling pin to flatten it into an approximately 24-inch by 12 inch rectangle.
- Spread the rectangle of dough with 4 Tbsp soft butter and sprinkle evenly with 2 Tbsp sugar and half the orange zest. Slide a floured knife underneath the dough’s perimeter to loosen it from the rolling surface.
- Bring one long side of the dough up and fold it over, so that its edge lays at the rectangle’s center. Repeat with the opposite side. The two sides should barely overlap in the center of the. Lightly pat the surface of the new, narrower rectangle, then use a knife to divide it crosswise into 16 1 1/2-inch strips. Twist each strip into a loose ‘rope’ and lay the ropes side-by-side on a cookie sheet. Cover with a damp hot towel and set aside. Repeat with the other piece of dough. Leave the twists aside, under a damp cloth, to rise for 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 and bake the twists on racks set at the oven’s center. Check after 15 minutes – if they’re not finished reverse the trays and bake for an additional 5 minutes, until golden brown.
- While the twists are baking prepare the icing, if using: stir icing sugar, starting with 1 Tbsp, into orange juice until you have a liquid the consistency of pouring cream.
- Drizzle the hot twists with the icing (don’t overdo it) as soon as they come out of the oven.
Dusk on Fraser's Hill