It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, there is a knock on the door, the maid scurries in, put down a tray, whispers friendly „Enjoy your Hainanese breakfast“ and disappears. On the tray is a pot of strong black coffee, a glas of freshly squeezed orange juice, an exotic fruit platter and a soft-boiled egg peeled and served in a glass. Wrapped in a linen napkin is hot toast with a caramel-coloured spread.
We are at the Majestic Hotel Kuala Lumpur, the historic hotel in British colonial style and were served a traditional breakfast Hainan style.
Hainan is an island in the South China Sea, part of China, but located in the Bay of Tonkin right off the Vietnamese coast. The fact, that there exists a Hainan cuisine in Malaysia was not yet known to us. Only the night before Alvin Khoo Heng Peng, F&B manager of the Majestic Hotel had made it familiar to us.
Since the early 15th century Chinese immigrants came in several waves to Malaysia. The economic situation in China deteriorated dramatically after the Second Opium War. Therefore in 1900 began the second great wave of emigration, in which many residents of Hainan Island came to Malaysia in the 1920s. However many jobs in the rubber plantations and tin mines, were already occupied by their fellow countrymen. So the Hainan Chinese often found work as cooks, servants and domestic workers in the households of the British colonialists or established themselves as coffeehouse owners.
To keep their masters satisfied they prepared their favorite dishes from the British motherland. Of course, they used the local ingredients available in Malaysia, especially the spices and adjusted the dishes to Malay cuisine. The result was an intriguing and exciting blend of classical British cuisine with a „Malay Twist“. One of the iconic dishes of this unique cuisine is the famous „Chicken Chop“, a cracker-crumbed deepfried chicken, served in a glossy Worcestershire-Sauce seasoned onion-tomato gravy and sprinkled with young garden peas and hand-cut fries. An authentic British-Malay colonial creation.
Also the succulent „Hainanese Chicken Rice“ famous throughout whole Southeast Asia is a landmark of Hainanese cuisine. A whole chicken is gently poached and served the meat sliced, accompanied by a dipping sauce made of fragrant ginger and hot chillis. Served with rice steamed in oily enriched chicken stock and shaped in golf-ball sized orbs.
At the Majestic Colonial Café we enjoyed these dishes as part of a Hainanese dinner. It started with a „Traditional Hainanese boiled beef“, a hearty beef broth with tender cuts, followed by a „Chicken Chop“ and an „Oldstyle Hainanese Chicken Rice Ball“. These closely-guarded family recipes have been handed down through 3 generations by the owners of the Majestic.
The Majestic hotel has managed to keep alive the charm and tradition of the colonial era into modern times. First opened in 1932 it was built by a Dutch architect in a mix of Art Deco and neo-Renaissance style. At that time the Majestic was the first choice for travellers coming to Kuala Lumpur. But time went by, new modern hotels with more comfort were built and eventually it had to close it’s doors after 50 years in 1983.
Not until 2012 the owners succeded to bring the hotel under the roof of the YTL Hotel Cooperation. The historic building has been completely renovated as Majestic Wing, whereas the newbuilt Tower wing was architecturally designed in the style of the 1930s.
Back to our breakfast Hainanese style. What’s so special about it?
In the British households in Malaysia a classical English breakfast was served with toast and bitter Orange Jam. The Hainanese cooks working there as domestics created as a substitute a spread for the warm, buttered toast and called it „Kaya“. It’s made of caramelized sugar, boiled down with thick coconut milk and scented with a Pandan leaf. Finally a beaten egg is mixed in, then the mixture is boiled till slighty thickened and blended in a mixer to a fine puree. „Kaya“ is spread on buttered toast and served together with a soft boiled and peeled egg in a glass, seasoned with soy sauce and pepper. It matches well with a strong black coffee.
Nowadays you get the Hainanese breakfast in many Malaysian coffee houses – Kopitiam called – which are mostly operated by Hainanese. A typical example is the Coliseum Cafe in Kuala Lumpur. Opened in 1921, it was the place to go for British officers and administrative officials. Somerset Maugham also took his coffee break at the Coliseum. The decor has remained largely unchanged. The kitchen has this exquisite blend of British and Malaysian cuisine, just Hainanese cuisine. In any case, the Coliseum is worth a visit when you’re in Kuala Lumpur.