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History and Origins of Hainanese Curry Rice 海南咖喱饭

Hainanese-Curry-Rice

If there is one dish that well represent the Nanyang immigrant spirit, one of the first dishes that come to my mind would be Hainanese curry rice.

 

But first, let's set the record straight, right off the bat.

Hainanese curry rice is a fairly recent creation - a dish the Hainanese invented early last century (1900s) in British Malaya (which includes present day Malaysia and Singapore). There is no such dish in China's Hainan island itself. If you go to Hainan today and ask locals about Hainanese curry rice, you will get a blank or head scratching response.

Map showing the location of Hainan Island
Image credit: Wikipedia

Hainanese people come from Hainan island in southern China.

The Hainanese were latecomers to British Malaya with most heading south to Nanyang only after the 1870s to the 1920s. By this time, the other Chinese clans Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka were already well established geographically (territorially) and vocationally (commercially).

Image credit: Wikipedia

When the Hainanese first arrived in Singapore in the 1870s, the other Chinese clans already occupied the "Chinese Campong" west of the Singapore River in accordance with the Raffles Town Plan published in 1828. As such, the Hainanese had to settle in "no man's land" between European Town and "Arab Campong".

View of North Bridge Road looking from Purvis Street. Seah Street is the side street on the left. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

The Hainanese enclave consisted of Seah Street (Hainan First Street), Purvis Street (Hainan Second Street) and Middle Road (Hainan Third Street). Middle Road is the birthplace of Singapore's unofficial national dish, Hainanese chicken rice.

The Hainanese were not only marginalised geographically but also vocationally. Many ended up as cooks in ship galleys, British military bases, hotels and domestic workers in the homes of British officials and wealthy Peranakan families. 

Raffles Hotel in the 1900s. Image Credit: Wikipedia

The resourceful Hainanese quickly learned British and Peranakan dishes from their employers. Not only that, Hainanese were also innovators. Bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the iconic Singapore Sling in 1915 while working at the Raffles Hotel's Long Bar. Raffles Hotel is right at the intersection of Beach Road and Seah Street, at the very edge of the Hainanese enclave - how convenient.

So, it didn't take long for Hainanese cooks to discover that traditional Hainanese stewed dishes, Peranakan curries and British fried cutlets combine perfectly together. Like so many things about food history, there is no known record on when and where this happy union of three cuisines that resulted in Hainanese curry rice, first took place.

 


It's easy to deduce how Hainanese curry rice came about, but we are less certain about the time and place - the dish is found in Hainanese communities in both Singapore and Malaysia. I am still looking for evidence on when Hainanese curry rice first appeared on Hainanese dining tables and when it was first sold commercially.




Hainanese curry rice combines traditional savoury Chinese stews and braised dishes with spicy Peranakan curries. There is an Anglo layer in the form of deep fried chicken and pork cutlets.

At least four types of sauces are splashed over the heap of boiled white rice - the magical cocktail ponding at the bottom of the shallow plate. Traditional Hainanese savoury sweet dark stewing sauce, sweet spicy starchy gooey curry, spicy hot sloshy curry and sharper tasting curry that is almost like sambal chili (but wetter). In the mouth, it is an explosion of layers of spicy, savoury, sweet flavours.

The rice is eaten with lots of side dishes like Hainanese stewed pork belly, braised eggs, braised tofu, Peranakan curry squid, curry chicken, curry prawn, British fried chicken cutlet, fried pork cutlet. Presented together on a long table in the Peranakan Tok Panjang tradition, you can imagine it is quite a feast and celebration of colours and flavours.

 

This interview with Mdm Er, owner of 阿生咖喱饭 Ah Sheng Hainanese curry rice stall at the Central Market in Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia has some leads on the origins of Hainanese curry rice. Founded in 1938, this is probably the oldest Hainanese curry rice stall still in operation anywhere.


Mdm Er's father left Hainan island for Singapore with his father when he was 12 years. Like many of his Hainanese compatriots in Singapore, he worked in a Peranakan family home where he learned how to cook Nyonya dishes. Later he accepted a job offer in Miri and moved to Sarawak. In 1938, he started 阿生咖喱饭 stall. Today, his daughter Mdm Er still runs the popular Hainanese curry rice stall at the Miri Central Market.

Besides Hainanese curry rice, this stall also serves Hainanese chicken rice. Yes, chicken rice stalls are everywhere in Singapore and Malaysia but authentic Hainanese style chicken rice is very rare now.



 

Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice in Tiong Bahru is one of the most popular Hainan curry rice in Singapore. It's a half century old shop. Their signature curry is made with a complex blend of spices, herbs and aromatics like blue ginger, yellow ginger, lemongrass, red onions, and secret ingredients. They still make fried pork cutlets crusted with biscuit crumbs.







Scissors Cut Hainanese Curry Rice is the other famous name in Singapore. Over the white rice they snip all the side dishes like braised pork belly, tofu, curry squid, chicken cutlet etc into bite size pieces with a pair of scissors, hence the name of the shop. Over everything, they splash dark braising stock and different curries until all look like a gooey black, brown, red ugly mess on a red plastic plate.





Another shop you can try in Singapore is third generation old Tian Tian Hainanese Curry Rice in Telok Blangah.




Over in Malacca (Malaysia), the former Jonker Curry Rice now Malim Jaya Curry Rice is an institution away from the tourist hotspots.






Lu San in Muar, Johor (Malaysia) is in the third generation now with 70 years of history which puts it at around 1950s vintage. It has the full complement of Hainanese stews and Malayan curry dishes. Lu San has salted fish inside their curry for a bit of salty savoury undertones. They also have tofu and fish ball soup to complete the meal. 
Fans like the blending of savoury sweet flavour of braising stock and the spicy savoury taste of Lu San's curry which together is a hallmark of Hainanese curry rice.





This Hainanese curry rice stall in Klang's Jalan Goh Hock Huat was founded about 47 years ago i.e. in the 1970s. It's signature is mildly sweet spicy tasting curry thicken with potato starch. The starchy curry is gooey, some say gluey. The curry over rice is eaten with braised egg, tofu sticks, pork belly in a pool of savoury sweet braising stock. Most customers will have a bowl of pork soup with intestine and pork blood curd to complete the meal. Popular with Klangites but folks from out of town might find the gluey sweetish mildly spicy curry an acquired taste.







The search for the origins of Hainanese curry rice continues. Please let me know in the comments, if you have leads or insights.

References:

Singapore Infopedia (By National Library Board)
Loo's Hainanese Curry Rice
Lu San Hainanese Curry Rice

Date: 13 May 2020

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