The Myth of Hainanese Cuisine in South East Asia
I read a review of a new book, “The Hungry Empire” (published in U.S. as “The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World”). Here is a brief summary of the book:
“The glamorous daughter of an African chief shares a pineapple with a slave trader… Surveyors in British Columbia eat tinned Australian rabbit… Diamond prospectors in Guyana prepare an iguana curry…
In twenty meals The Hungry Empire tells the story of how the British created a global network of commerce and trade in foodstuffs that moved people and plants from one continent to another, re-shaping landscapes and culinary tastes.
To be British was to eat the world.The Empire allowed Britain to harness the globe’s edible resources from cod fish and salt beef to spices, tea and sugar. By the twentieth century the wheat to make the working man’s loaf of bread was supplied by Canada and his Sunday leg of lamb had been fattened on New Zealand’s grasslands.
Lizzie Collingham takes us on a wide-ranging culinary journey, charting the rise of sugar to its dominant position in our diets and locating the origins of the food industry in the imperial trade in provisions. Her innovative approach brings a fresh perspective to the making of the Empire, uncovering its decisive role in the shaping of the modern diet and revealing how virtually every meal we eat still contains a taste of empire.”
It got me thinking about our food heritage in Malaysia and Singapore. As a former colony known as British Malaya, which of our local dishes that exist today can be traced, directly and indirectly, to our former colonial masters and their eating habits? What are the stories behind them?
And so I asked around office: “What would be the first dish that come to your mind that was influenced by the British during the colonial period?”
One of the replies that came back was: “Hainanese Pork Chops”.
An rather common dish that can be found in many coffee shops in Singapore (particularly if they also offer Chicken Rice on the menu- more on that later), the “Hainanse Pork Chop” looks more like Japanese Tonkatsu than the conventional pan-fried pork chop on the western menu.
So how did the dish come about and what would have been the British influence?
To really answer this question, we need to look into the background of the term “Hainanese” and its ubiquity in many South-East-Asia dishes and cuisine in general. Particularly interesting is that many of these Hainanese items (Hainanese Chicken Rice, Hainanese Curry Rice, Hainanese Coffee, etc) are no where to be found nor documented, be it past or present, in Hainan Island itself.
What is this myth of Hainanese Cuisine in South-East-Asia, then? I shall explore the origin and briefly introduce a few of these dishes in the next few posts.