SINGAPORE, Jan 25 — One of the most recognisable street food in Singapore that’s not easily found across the Straits in Malaysia is the Hainanese curry rice; something which I was not accustomed to back when I was growing up in Ipoh. I first
had my taste of the rice with its ensemble of dishes about a decade ago around Port Klang, where the tradition still lives in renewed and reimagined ventures.
What transpired from the Hainanese folks’ high learning agility and creativity in adopting various culinary influences, from the Western-inspired pork and chicken chops to meddling (albeit to some degree of considerable success) of the Peranakan curries, the Hainanese curry rice was believed to be a poor man’s fuel to stave off hunger pangs.
In the earlier days, Hainanese curry rice peddlers used to roam the streets of Singapore. Their dishes were somewhat imaginative yet limited; the selection largely limited to the ubiquitous batter-coated pork chops (authenticity matters here, some still use crumbled cream crackers, while most stick to bread crumbs), boiled to a softened pulp cabbage aka ‘chap chye’, fried egg with a dash of dark soy sauce, and a few curry dishes (remember the Peranakan or possibly Malay/Indian influences?).
Fast forward a few decades later and the tradition still lives on with quite a handful of these ambitious and enduring start-ups still being run by the original proprietors or at least, the passionate next generation youngsters. One of the more popular Hainanese curry rice stalls in Singapore still remains nameless even after 25 years in business; located in an equally nondescript coffee shop named Ho Pin Hng at Block 40 Beo Crescent (HDB flats).
This stall is still run by the same owners since 1990, and has not changed much. Even the stall looks a shade too old and barren; the dishes are not even lighted by fluorescent lamps unlike the conventional economy rice stalls. Well, maybe lending more insights to the dishes is deemed unnecessary, as they almost always whip up the same repertoire of dishes.
I was told that the queue during peak lunch hours can be intimidating. A common phenomenon just like any other famous (or at times, over-hyped) hawker food stall on the island. But the service is still relatively rapid, since the modus operandi is pretty simple; you walk over to the counter and pick your dishes and then voila! They will carry the food to your table if you order side dishes with the curry-drenched rice, but you are always welcome to help them out if you are eating an individual portion by yourself.
While waiting patiently in line, if you are unfortunate enough to be number 30 or so in line, you are free to surf on your mobile, post on Instagram some of the shots of your deadpan hungry face with a thousand hashtags to spice someone’s Sunday up, admire the selection of interesting yet very homely breads and cakes at the confectionery adjacent to the coffee shop, or plan in advance what you want to eat.
As you inch closer to the glass display counter, you had better be making up your mind. Although this may not prove to be a challenge, the dishes number about a dozen or so, mostly repeats on an everyday basis.
As a rule of thumb, in case you are new to Hainanese curry rice, you do NOT need to order any specific curry dishes to relish in the experience. In fact, you can even order a plate of white rice and ask for the curries. They would know what to do; drenching the rice with ladles of curries, braised black sauce (a bit sweetish and sticky) and broth from the boiled cabbage. Of course, unless you are that broke, don’t hold back on the dishes. Seriously.
The signature crispy Hainanese pork chop here is literally to-die-for. If you are a fan of Japanese food, you must have stumbled across a tonkatsu dish at least once in your life. Think along the same league, yet crispier, thinner and less meaty. And definitely no sauce for this, but you are free to customise your portion with any curry or gravy within sight.
The other must-have when one eats at Hainanese curry rice stalls is the boiled cabbage or ‘chap chye’. The cabbage is usually left to simmer in a pot of gravy that’s a cross between savoury and sweet, bland if eaten on its own but when mixed with the curry rice, the sweetness elevates the overall experience. In fact, the curry rice (like your nasi kandar with kuah campur) should usually be tasty enough on its own; combining a diverse range of salty, sweet and spicy flavours.
If fried food is not up your alley, try the steamed minced pork patty with bits of fried minced garlic. Juicy, tender and definitely pleasant to both the young and the old, the patty is served with a few spoonfuls of the broth, which is redolent with umami flavours.
Some of the other dishes to complement the curry rice would be braised pork belly, braised hard boiled eggs, and even a simple fried egg with a few drops of dark soy sauce. Other patrons from neighbouring tables were devouring chewy bites of curried squid, while they sometimes serve curry chicken as well.
Needless to say, although the range of dishes may not match up to your neighbourhood ‘chap fan’ (mixed rice) stall, the authenticity, taste and price will draw you back for subsequent visits no doubt. A meal for two with the dishes mentioned above came to below $10 (RM27) in total.
Nameless Hainanese Curry Rice Stall
Beo Crescent Block 40
(next to Beo Crescent Market & Food Centre)
Opens from 6.30am onwards, until 3pm
Closed on Wednesdays
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)