Food & Drink

What Is Hainanese Western Food, and Why Are We Obsessed With It?

Rooted in the melting-pot history of Singapore, Hainanese Western food is a must-try for visiting foodies. Here's what it is and why we can't get enough.

Colbar

"The menu at Colbar is vast. I like to sample Chinese favorites like fried mee in gravy (pictured) or ho fun noodles and sweet-and-sour pork." -- Faris Mustafa

Story and photographs by Faris Mustafa

Aug 31, 2021

ON MY FIRST TRIP to Singapore, I was introduced to Hainanese Western food in one of the country’s numerous hawker centers. Being British, I was struck by the familiarity of dishes like “chicken merry land”: a hearty portion of fried chicken, fried banana, fried egg, fried bacon, fried potatoes, and baked beans. This cuisine emerged at the turn of the 20th century, when immigrants from the Chinese island of Hainan arrived in British-occupied Singapore, taking jobs as cooks in military canteens, hotels and wealthy European households. By the 1930s, many were opening their own restaurants and kopitiams (coffee shops), adopting cooking styles from those Western kitchens.

Today, as anyone who’s been to the Lion City knows, dishes like Hainanese pork chop are considered as Singaporean as chili crab. When I moved here last year, I explored this culinary subculture with camera in tow, documenting the people and places keeping this tradition alive. 

Colbar

Colbar was opened by the Lim family in 1953, initially serving the British military personnel who lived in the neighboring Wessex Estate, a colonial residential district.

Colbar

The menu at Colbar also includes standard British dishes (such as these cucumber sandwiches) and fish-and-chips.

British Hainan

Pop-culture artifacts—including a slot machine and posters of Elvis, Princess Diana and Xi Jinping— serve as decoration at the restaurant British Hainan, run by Frederick Puah, whose Hainanese father worked as a cook for a British family.

British Hainan

At British Hainan, I always order the house special, a classic of the Hainanese-Western genre: oxtail stew.

Wow Wow West

Wow Wow West Genuine is a popular stall run by Elizabeth Huang and her husband, Jayden Cheong, both second-generation hawkers.

Wow Wow West

Portions at Wow Wow West Genuine are generous: the chicken cutlet comes with sausage, fries and coleslaw.

The Western Barbecue

The Western Barbeque hawker stall was founded in the 1970s. Their chicken chop with fries makes a satisfying lunch.

The Western Barbecue

In addition to the standard packets of ketchup and chili sauce, an essential accompaniment at Western Barbeque is their famous secret-recipe garlic sauce.

Ye Lai Xiang Tasty

I visited Ye Lai Xiang Tasty Barbecue—a stall founded in 1971 by hawker Joel Leong’s late father, a onetime cook for the British navy—for an excellent sirloin steak.

Where to Eat Hainanese Western Food in Singapore 

British Hainan
75 Carpmael Rd.; mains S$15–$40. 

Colbar 
9A Whitchurch Rd.; mains S$4–$30. 

Western Barbeque
Old Airport Road Food Centre, No. 01-53, 51 Old Airport Rd.; mains S$7–$11. 

Wow Wow West Genuine
ABC Brickworks, No. 01-133, 6 Jalan Bukit Merah; mains S$3–$12. 

Ye Lai Xiang Tasty Barbecue
Maxwell Food Centre, 1 Kadayanallur St.; mains S$8–$22. 

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