The first Hainanese person recorded in Singapore was Lim Chong Jin, who stepped ashore in 1841. Ever since then, the Hainanese (who hailed from Hainan island off the southern coast of China) have been emigrating to Singapore and came to dominate its food industry.
The Hainanese precinct in Singapore was Middle Road, then known as Hainan First Street, followed by Purvis Street (Hainan Second Street) and Seah Street (Hainan Third Street) which bordered on Raffles Hotel. The hotel then was the epicentre of social life in Singapore, and the Hainanese who were employed there settled in the streets close to the hotel, creating their own ethnic enclave. Ngiam Tong Boon, the Hainanese bartender at the Raffles Hotel, invented the eponymous “Singapore Sling” cocktail in 1915.
Yet Con on Purvis Street was opened by a Hainanese émigré, Mr Foo Tse Guan, as a kopitiam in 1940, offering Hainanese hotpot (called “steamboat” in Singapore/Malaysia) and other cooked dishes. There was also a chicken rice stall in there, run by stallowner-chef, Wong Yi Guan, and his apprentice, Moh Kee Twee. They had improved upon the traditional Wen Chang poached chicken-and-rice dish from their native Hainan homeland to come up with the famous Hainanese chicken rice rendition which we know today.
The chicken rice duo moved out of Yet Con kopitiam in 1949 and operated in their own shophouse, naming their enterprise Swee Kee at 51 Middle Road. Swee Kee became the best-known Hainanese chicken rice spot in Singapore, but closed down in 1997 when the Land Transport Authority of Singapore earmarked a row of old shophouses, which included its premises, for demolition to widen Middle Road. Sadly, Swee Kee never reopened as the chief “chicken chopper” decided to call it a day (he was already in his 70s then).
Over at Yet Con, Hainanese-style chicken rice continued to be offered, together with roast pork, and a variety of Hainanese cooked dishes. Yet Con has sadly allowed its standards to slide in the last 6-7 years. The old chef in-charge of cooked dishes had retired, without a successor to take over. These pictures are from 10 years ago, the last time we were still able to order our favourite cooked dishes like the stir-fried fish-maw with Napa cabbage, and the glass noodles with dried cuttlefish and dark soy-sauce. Today, one only gets to order the Hainanese poached chicken and crisp-skinned roast pork to go with their marvellous chicken rice.
- Hainanese-style poached chicken - unlike the Cantonese-style of preparation, where the whole chicken were par-boiled, then doused in cold water, then into hot water again to attain its smooth texture, the Hainanese poached the chicken then allowed it to simply cool to room temperature.
Singapore-style Hainanese poached chicken is stuffed with ginger, garlic and scallions before poaching, whereas the original Hainanese version in Wen Chang only called for stuffing the chicken with ginger and coarse salt.
It takes skill to time the poaching perfectly, so the chicken remained moist, yet silken-smooth in texture. The chicken is rubbed with a light drizzle of sesame oil & soy-sauce dressing before being served on-the-bone, usually on a bed of freshly-cut cucumber wedges:
Hainanese-style chicken rice - this glossy, richly-flavoured rice is prepared by first frying uncooked rice grains in rendered chicken fat, before adding chicken stock (obtained from the chicken poaching process earlier). Salt is added and, in Singapore/Malaysia, fragrant pandanus leaves (which is not present in the original Hainan island/Wen Chang version).
Prepared properly, as in the case of most Hainan chicken restaurants in Singapore, the rice is flavourful enough to be eaten on its own, even without any accompaniments.
Crisp-skinned roast pork - this is Yet Con’s claim-to-fame for the longest time: served drizzled with thick dark molasses, and sweet mustard leaf pickles.
Stir-fried fish maw, chicken, pork, shrimps, squid, fish, Chinese white cabbage (Napa cabbage), scallions, and egg - this native Hainanese dish was truly exquisite, savoury from the garlicky, savoury chicken stock, and a perfect medley of textures from the chopped Napa cabbage, the spongey fish maw, and the seafood & meats.
Stir-fried glass noodles with dried cuttlefish, pork, shrimps and scallions - another classic Hainanese stir-fry: the use of dried cuttlefish lent a salty tang and a very assertive fragrance from the cuttlefish. Pork strips and scallions were added, and dark soy-sauce added for its trademark dark hue.
Egg foo yung - I always loved this classic Cantonese egg omelette dish. “Foo yung” means lotus flower in the Cantonese dialect and, correctly prepared, one’s omelette should actually resemble a lotus bloom. The version we had today looked like a car-crash - we surmise that the chef added too much chicken stock into the egg mixture during the cooking process, causing the whole concoction to disintegrate. A proper egg foo yung recipe is provided by Rasa Malaysia.
Exactly 80 years old this year, Yet Con is the last of my 3 favourite Hainanese chicken rice places in Singapore that remains today: Swee Kee closed in 1997, whereas Bee Tien Guan at Battery Road went defunct when the little row of shophouses where it was located was pulled down around 1994, to build the office tower, Republic Plaza.
25 Purvis Street
Tel: +65 6337 6819
Opening hours: 11.30am to 6pm Mon-Fri, 11.30am to 6.30pm on weekends.