Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

Kway Chap - Popular Singapore Hawker Dish & Chinese Military History 潮州粿汁的历史

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History

Kway chap 粿汁 as it is called in Singapore is not a pretty or glamorous dish. Almost every hawker centre and many coffee shops have a kway chap stall though it hasn't made the leap to 5 Star hotels unlike compatriots like chicken rice, laksa etc. Still, the ancient kway chap remains a popular dish even among the young.


Image credit: Wikipedia
The dish kway chap come from the Teochew district of Guangzhou province in southern China.

Image credit: Wikipedia
After Raffles founded the port of Singapore in 1819, it attracted many people from Guangzhou and Fujian to come to Singapore for work. It was also a time of much chaos and poverty in China as the Qing dynasty which ruled China since 1644 was collapsing. It had become corrupt and incompetent. Teochew people brought kway chap along when they came to Singapore.

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History

Kway chap is a humble comfort dish. It has three main components - kway 粿 (the rice sheets), chap 汁 (braising liquid), braised meat & offal 卤料 etc.



If you go to Chaoshan 潮汕 today, this is the kway chap you will get.


Singapore_Kway_Chap_History
Covent Garden Kway Chap
Pork offal (maw, intestines), pork belly, meat, skin, chicken eggs, tau pok (fried dried tofu), etc., are stewed in a braising liquid made of dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, Chinese 5 spice (cinnamon, star anise, clove, fennel seed, peppercorn), sugar, etc.

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History
Covent Garden Kway Chap
Through hours of slow stewing, the offal and meat will infuse the flavours of the dark braising liquid which in turn will also absorb the natural flavours which flow from the meat's juices.

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History

The best kway chap hawkers clean their pork offal very well, many starting work in the wee hours of the morning. The resulting braised meats are tender-soft and well infused with savoury subtly herbal flavours of the braising liquid but still allow the natural sweetness of the meat to shine. There is no off-putting taste or smell at all.

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Ah... imagine the layers of savoury and sweet flavours in the braising liquid, the soul of kway chap.

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History

The kway are broad rice sheets served in the boiling water used to cook the kway and flavoured (plus darken) with a splash of chap (the savoury braising liquid). You will smell the aroma of rice and taste the rice sweetness underlying the savoury sweetness of the chap (braising liquid). Fried garlic or fried shallot infused oil is splashed in to provide another layer of aroma and flavour to the soupy bowl of kway.





Ming dynasty General Qi Ji Guang 戚繼光 (1528 - 1588) was credited with bringing kway to southern China. The Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644) was constantly fighting off marauding nomadic tribes on its northern frontier and sea pirates on its south coast. Gen Qi was assigned the mission to eliminate Japanese sea pirates who were pillaging Fujian, Guangzhou and Zhejiang. 

In marching his army from their home bases in Shandong province in the north to the front line in the south, Gen Qi was concerned about food supplies. Gen Qi wanted to supply his soldiers with food they were familiar with i.e. comfort food, so he wanted to bring hometown food down to the south.

One day while pondering this problem, Gen Qi stumbled upon an old lady making 鼎邊糊 ding bian hu which was milled rice made into a paste with water, spread thinly on a hot flat griddle and seared into a thin rice sheet. The paper thin rice sheet was then cut into squares and stored for future consumption.

To eat, the thin rice squares were simply blanched in boiling water. The soft and smooth rice sheets were eaten with preserved meat and vegetables. Dried rice sheets and preserved meat/ vegetables were exactly the solution Gen Qi was looking for.

The battle formation which Qi Ji Guang used to defeat the samurai and their long sword. Image credit: Wikipedia
So, Gen Qi brought ding bian hu down to Fujian and Guangzhou with his army. Sea pirates defeated, Gen Qi's army returned home but ding bian hu remained in southern China and is now known as kway. The locals in the south ate kway with braised fresh meat instead of preserved meat thus creating kway chap.

Gen Qi's soldiers must be quite grateful as he seemed determined to feed them well. Gen Qi Ji Guang is also credited with the invention of Guang bing or kompia

Singapore_Kway_Chap_History

Nice kway is thin, soft and smooth but does not tear easily. Its surface picks up the soup, and therefore flavours well. Some stalls in Chaoshan still make their own kway today but in Singapore all kway are factory made.


Singapore_Kway_Chap_History
Hwee Kee Kway Chap
Old school kway chap is still popular even among the young but the hawkers tend to be older and near retirement. Selling kway chap is hard and long hours of work which does not commensurate with the income, so we don't find many next generation hawkers taking over the baton.


Please share with us your favourite kway chap



Wang Sa Ya Feng, the popular comedic duo of old Singapore. Kway chap hasn't changed much since the 1960s, neither has its place in the Singaporean heart.



Many people in Singapore have a special attachment to the humble kway chap.


Written by Tony Boey on 10 Sep 2020

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