Singapore hawker hunting with food blogger Leslie Tay

Singapore hawker hunting with food blogger Leslie Tay

The full time doctor and nighttime author of ieatishootipost tracks down the elusive Hainanese curry rice

Tian TianLeslie Tay (left) with the Booi family who've kept the tradition of Hainanese curry rice alive for four generations. Hawker fare is one of Singapore’s most hotly debated topics and no one knows this better than author/blogger/doctor/CNNGo Best Eats judge Leslie Tay from ieatishootipost.sg.

The doctor-by-day, blogger-by-night with the motto “never waste your calories on yucky food” has spent the last few years searching out the best hawker food in Singapore, documenting it on his blog which attracts more than 400,000 page views per month.

With a Facebook following of more than 16,000 fans, Tay clearly knows his char kway teow from satay bee hoon, and the wok hei skills that make a simple S$3 plate of  noodles worth an hour's queuing.

While Tay counts hokkien mee, satay, char kway teow, fish soup and hor fun as some of his top 10 hawker dishes, it is Singapore’s fast disappearing Hainanese curry rice that he highlights.

His venue of choice: Tian Tian Curry Rice (Tian Tian) at Bukit Merah.

“Hainanese curry rice is a style of cooking that blossomed in Singapore when the British colonized Singapore,” says Tay. “Hainanese people were excellent cooks and often employed as home chefs by the British and affluent Peranakan families.”

Tay explains that while this brand of Hainanese cuisine was influenced largely by the Peranakan cuisine -- evidenced by the the clutch of classic dishes such as curry chicken, chap chye (mixed vegetables) and kong bak (braised pork) -- it also includes British nuances such as pork chops.

Don’t go to Hainan expecting Hainanese curry rice

Pork ChopKeep the ketchup away from this pork chop. “You will never find Hainanese curry rice if you go to Hainan Island,” says Tay, “Hainanese curry rice has a uniquely Singaporean history but most people do not know about it.”

He says that not many stalls serve authentic Hainanese curry rice, most end up “selling economy rice rather than pure Hainanese curry rice.”

For Tay, a big part of the culinary experience hedges on the quality of the Hainanese style pork chop.

While it is not the only star dish in Hainanese curry rice stalls, it is an important one and when done in true Hainanese style -- as it is at Tian Tian -- should be doused in a pea and onion sauce, and made with a reduced pan sauce from pork chop marinade, rather than a sauce made from tomato ketchup.

Char siewThe Booi family prefers to marinate and braise its char siew.“The other item unique item at Tian Tian is the char siew,” says Tay. “Here, the pork is simply marinated and braised -- rather than roasted -- in a scarlet gravy, but when it is eaten with the brown gravy, curry and braised cabbage gravy, it just adds a layer of sweetness to an otherwise savory mix of flavours.”

Tracking down an almost lost food form

It was over a lunch of Hainanese curry rice with Tay and Aloysious Booi, Tian Tian’s fourth-generation owner that we tracked down the history of Tian Tian.

It was started almost 80 years ago by Booi’s great-grandfather as a pushcart business. Back then, Hainanese curry rice was served with only a handful of dishes such as fried pork chop, chap chye, braised char siew and lor bak (braised pork).

Today, the offerings at Tian Tian have expanded to almost 30 different items and the sauce that accompanies your rice is not just one but a mix of five different curries and sauces.

Still, Tian Tian continues to serve Hainanese curry rice prepared with traditional recipes despite the expanded menu.

Curry RiceTracking down an authentic plate of Hainanese curry rice will take some hunting. “Our curries, pork chop, braised char siew, stews and vegetables are still cooked as how they were being done in the old days,” says Booi, “That’s how we stand out from the modern-day economy rice, we have a rich history.”

So confident is the university graduate and former banker in his family’s culinary prowess that he has expanded the family business into Orchard Road with the opening of an outlet at ION food court.

“Many people, especially the younger generation, do not know the history of our cuisine,” says Booi, who is now based at the family’s ION stall. “I try my best to explain the history of Hainanese cuisine to my diverse clientele passing through our ION stall and I always encourage them to sample the traditional favorites.”

While cuisines evolve with time and Hainanese curry rice is no exception, Tay is not fretting too much because when the craving for Hainanese-style deep fried pork chop hits, he’ll sniff his way to Tian Tian’s flagship at Bukit Merah for his fix of this battered pork loin doused in a savory onion and pea sauce.

“When you order Tian Tian’s pork chop, ask them to serve the gravy in a separate bowl,” says Tay. “Dip the pork chop into the gravy right before eating. That way, you get a wonderfully crispy pork chop which soaks in the savory gravy -- it’s a match made in heaven!”

“The End of Char Kway Teow and Other Hawker Mysteries” a summary of all Tay’s foodie scribblings is available at all good bookstores.

Tian Tian Curry Rice

#01-253 Henly Huat Drinks Food Court, Blk 116 Bukit Merah View, +65 9821 0200

Evelyn Chen traded her frequent flyer miles from her jet-setting corporate days for a critic's pen, and has been eating and drinking on the job ever since. She is a former Time Out food critic and current editor of Zagat Guide; her food and travel features have published in Destin Asian, Travel + Leisure SEA and Conde Nast Traveller. For a collection of her gourmet jaunts, visit www.bibikgourmand.com.

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