Saturday, May 31, 2014

Yet Con - The Last Bastion of Authentic Hainanese Restaurants

Mention Chin Chin and Swee Kee and the older generation will muster a wry smile as these were the legendary foundations of authentic Hainanese cuisine.

They were also the early establishments of what had become common fare then, with the likes of Hainanese chicken rice, Hainanese pork chops and chap chye.

They were also frequently found along Seah and Purvis streets. Alas, both institutions have closed their operations, and though Chin Chin and Swee Kee still operate there today, they are not of the original founders.

One, however, remains. And that is Yet Con, and they are still there in their original premises along Purvis street. Talk a walk inside, and nothing has changed much since they first started in 1940.
They still have the classic pay counters, and there is still an elderly Hainanese man presiding over it like a hawk. Upfront, the steamed chickens are still being hung for display and chopped to order on the spot.

The clientele these days are mostly working folks from surrounding offices. Their menu only shows you the items, but not the pricing. Which is really fun as it leaves you guessing as to how much you will pay in the end.

A lot of folks come here for the zhe char and steamboat, and I guess this will appease the larger crowds. Seriously though, there are just that 3 things that you should savor here. Chicken rice, chap chye and pork chops.

Chicken Rice

The aromatic chicken flavored rice is one of the best around. Every grain is visible and nicely cooked to a perfect texture. Perfumed by the classic combination of shallots and ginger, and lightly oiled by either chicken fat or stock, it is so good that you can eat this on its own.

Hainanese Steamed Chicken

The chicken served here is visibly different from the ones you get in commercial chicken rice stalls elsewhere. It looks and tastes drier and that is largely due to the absence of soy and sesame seasoning. The chicken is salted on the skin, and that is all that is required to flavor the meat.

Because of the lack of seasoning, the chicken flavor is more pronounced and has a greater intensity. And contrary to some presumed expert opinion, the chicken pieces are nicely chopped to retain both the moistness and the flavors. As such, there is a moderate tenderness to the flesh that gives it the perfect texture to bite into.

Coupled with the aromatic rice, this is how the old school way of eating chicken rice is supposed to be. Complimented with slices of cool cucumber to balance the richness, it is both a nostalgic and comforting way to consume this dish.

Hainanese Pork Chops

Another staple of Hainanese home cuisine is this very comforting plate of pork chops. Now, there has been some unnecessary debate over whether tomato ketchup is supposed to be used instead of HP sauce or otherwise. From the color of the photo, it is obvious this one elected to bypass the tomato ketchup route.

The pork slices were nicely fried with a crusty exterior. The meat was still moist and slightly tender, and garnished with fried onions and potatoes. I liked how the sauce was not too acidic, nor too sweet and had the right balance of savory.

Irregardless of whether its using tomato ketchup, HP sauce or some secret recipe brew, the point is that if a plate of pork chops is cooked properly, and the right techniques are applied, it will taste great. It certainly does not need a thousand year old mandarin peel to boost the flavors. Wink.

Hainanese Chap Chye

Hainanese chap chye is slightly different from its Nyonya counterpart. From the plate served at Yet Con, it looked to be more stir fried than braised, and had a subtle hint of wok hei infused flavor throughout the dish. Every bit of the mixed vegetables was fried to a textural perfection and the flavors were coaxed out of each ingredient to its maximum potential.

You can argue that the younger generation are losing sight of these older forms of dishes that still resonate very strongly with the older crowd. And perhaps, Yet Con will one day close its doors for good too.

The rustic, dimly lit interiors of the restaurant is not something that a young couple will turn to for a romantic evening out. But, the flavors and the atmosphere of what is on offer here will bring a sense of nostalgia to those who still favor such cuisine.

We may not agree on everything foodwise, but there is a suspicion that we can at least agree that certain things need to be kept alive for as long as it can. The old school food will eventually give way to modern eateries, so things will invariably change as time passes.

Who knows, a century from now .... there might still be some remnants of classic Teochew, Hokkien and Hainanese cuisine working their way around this island. For better or for worse, an east wind will always come our way.

Whilst savoring the familiarity of Yet Con, one must also be able to embrace change and learn to evolve through everything that has come before. And I am not just talking about the food. Double wink.

Yet Con Restaurant
25 Purvis Street

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