Hainanese Cuisine & Tradition In Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur August 12, 2012 7:11 pm

We were in a queue outside a Kuala Lumpur restaurant again. I think it was the 3rd time that weekend.

“What sucks about this, is that if it was me and Elysia alone, I would have no way of finding a place like this. How do you do it? What’s the trick for someone that isn’t a local?”, I ask Brendon.

His answer is snappy and confident. “You follow the crowds”, he says.

And follow the crowd we had. An hour through Sunday traffic in Kuala Lumpur, to a worn down, hole in the wall that’s like a beehive of Chinese Malaysians, aggressively filtering in and out as though on a mission from their queen.

The cuisine is Hainanese. The story – in brief – goes like this…

Earlier in the 20th century, many Hainanese (Chinese from the province of Hainan) came to be employed as chefs for the British in colonial Malaysia. They had to cook British foods for them. But inevitably, as the Chinese have done all around the world, they did so with their own influence.

The result is a fusion of Chinese and British foods. Like the dish that people come to this place for: the Chop.

You can choose either Chicken Chop or or the Pork Chop. It’s both what you expect when you hear the name… and simultaneously not.

It’s a chop. A flat, pounded cut of lightly colored meat, coated by an egg batter, then fried. (Apparently the coating of the chop can be breadcrumbs or batter, depending on where you are. But at this place it was decidedly batter).

That’s plonked down in a pool of gravy with some veggies and it’s delivered to your table – I still don’t know how – within about 5 minutes.

Sounds like it could be Sunday at your local English Pub… but it’s not.

The thickness and texture of the batter is distinctly un British. The amount of oil it required would almost certainly come under the scrutiny of public health officials before long.

Not to mention we’re sitting at a communal table, in a sweltering open air room, with ceiling fans ablaze. I’ve lived almost 2 years in London and I’m completely confident that ceiling fans don’t exist there.

We’re hacking away, exuding intermittent pleasure groans amongst a flurry of chewing and swallowing, with the occasional pause for some comment like “This is ridiculous”… when Brendon stops.

“See that old guy’s picture on the wall?” He points to a group of photos high up on the wall, behind the counter. It looks like 3 photos of the same Chinese guy, but taken as though he existed in 3 different eras. The first one is black and white. The second, old but retouched in color, the last one modern and somewhat recent.

“Yeah?” I reply, eager for the story that will follow.

“That’s the guy who started this place. Then there below, that’s his son who took over the shop. Now look at the guy at the counter”

I twist my head further to get a good glimpse of the guy running the show here. A possibly 30 something Chinese guy with a healthy gut under his plane black t shirt, and mandatory eye glasses.

“Now look at that last photo.”

Sure enough, he’s the dude.

The dude who’s family has run this place through 3 generations. The dude who’s taken on the burden of a tradition that lasts almost 100 years, and who under that burden – you only need to look around the room to see – has flourished.

This place had already won my heart well before the fusion French toast.

Hold up…

The what?

Yes, a similarly Chinese/European version of the breakfast favourite. The crescendo of this experience was upon us.

It gets to this table and it’s the same kind of deal. You can see it’s French toast… but there’s no way you’re going to get served it after asking for French toast in France… or in England… or probably anywhere for that matter.

It’s a soft sweet slice of bread, battered and FRIED. Some French toast borders on soggy… this bad boy was CRISPY with batter on the outside, but as soft as any of it’s European counterparts on the inside.

And to provide the sweet nectary topping? Yeah, you guessed it. There is no trace of maple syrup up in this place.

It’s called Kaya, and it is hands down the best food my sweet tooth has discovered this year. That is if it can be called a “food”. I’m only doing so because to label it a “condiment” or a “preserve” of some kind would be to persecute it horribly.

Kaya is “a coconut jam made from coconut milk, duck or chicken eggs which are flavored by pandan leaf and sweetened with sugar.” It is light brown in colour, about the thickness of a strawberry jam in consistency, but with a texture that is creamy, and an intense sweetness of coconut, sugar, condensed milk, and something else that… I just don’t know how to describe (that apparently is the flavor given by the pandan leaf… common in Malaysian cuisine).

A fried crispy French toast with the aforementioned spread on top… The speed at which I ate it was offensive. I lost who I was while consuming it. I forgot we were with friends. I lost sight of what’s important in my life. It reduced me to my animal instincts in a way that only the richest of sweet foods can.

And when it was over, there was a hole in me somewhere. A whole that now only this one thing could fill.

We get up to pay the family tree behind the counter. I feel as though my gratitude for the meal has to span an entire lineage.

Then finally – as if everything we’d already eaten weren’t enough – those old men on the wall reached out to me – perhaps spiritually – through the ages. They spoke through their current incarnation as he counted our change…

“We have Kaya for sale also”, he says casually as he points to a stack of small plastic containers to the side of the counter, filled with the creamy sweet deliciousness.

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