Yut Kee on a Saturday morning is a blend of chaos and restlessness as customers linger outside the 84-year old Hainanese coffee shop, waiting for a table. This is how it usually works: You surrender your name at the counter and much like a bank, your turn is called chronologically. When you finally get a table, you’ll most likely be sharing it with a noisy family or a pair of teenage lovebirds.
Once the food hits the table, however, the initial stress becomes worthwhile. Yut Kee’s pièce de résistance is the chicken chop, a preserved recipe from 1928 consisting of a slab of deep fried chicken drenched in rich caramel-coloured onion gravy. The chicken is consistently well-battered and is served with a wholesome side of potatoes, carrots and peas. A tinge of Worcestershire sauce gives the gravy a subtle lift, which tastes sublime slathered over the crispy chicken.
While Yut Kee’s chicken chop is one of the more famous in the Klang Valley, they are not the only purveyors of the dish, widely known as “Hainanese chicken chop.” But how exactly did chicken chop in an onion gravy become a Hainanese speciality?
Hainanese communities first migrated to Malaysia from the Chinese island of Hainan in the mid-19th century. Although they form only a small Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, their kopitiams soon spread their distinctive cooking style through the country. Many of the Hainanese cooks and coffee shop operators were under the service of the British colonial masters, and since meat and potatoes were popular mealtime options for the British, the Hainanese chicken chop was born: a fusion of both Chinese and Western flavours.
Despite the British inspiration, it’s difficult to track down the chicken chop in Western countries – or indeed in China. So can we call it a national creation? Like nasi lemak or roti canai, can the Hainanese chicken chop be deemed authentically Malaysian?
When Mervyn travelled to Qionghai, Hainan, he failed to find the chicken chop or anyone who knew about its existence
Mervyn Lee, the diligent 33-year grandson of Yut Kee who currently runs the shop, assures me that the chicken chop is as authentic as our Protons. “For what it’s worth, Hainanese chicken chop is definitely a Malaysian thing. You will not eat this in Hainan either,” he says. When Mervyn travelled to Qionghai, Hainan, five years ago to visit his ancestral home, he failed to find the chicken chop or anyone who knew about its existence. “It was purely created to cater to the target audience, in this case, the Mat Sallehs.”
But why chicken, over pork or lamp chops? “It’s the mere fact that chicken was widely available at the time. If you go to London or whatever, you see pork chops but not so much chicken chops,” Mervyn says. “I could be wrong, but I think chicken was the more commonly available meat here.”
That’s not the only difference. If you dine at Western joints here, you’ll find your meat chop is simply grilled and served (sometimes with corn on the cob). The Hainanese chicken chop, however, is thickly battered and usually ‘drowned’ in sauce. Rice is a common accompaniment to the Hainanese version. However, in more ‘modernised’ coffee shops, crinkle-cut chips, steamed carrots and coleslaw can also be served on the side.
Chicken chop wasn’t the only product of this fusion of cultures. Yut Kee’s famous marble cake, for example, is a firm favourite among regulars. These plump, buttery cakes are a treat with a cup of their thick homemade coffee and you’ll usually find suited patrons committing to the double sins in the middle of weekday afternoons. “When you talk about Chinese desserts, you talk about the Chinese pancakes or maybe steamed cakes,” says Mervyn. “Our marble cake is still colonial in nature but the recipe is handed down from my grandfather.”
It just goes to show that “authenticity” is always subjective. A grandfather’s recipe can lead to a colonial dish being transformed into a local favourite, still going strong generations later. While it’s not quite typical of Malaysian Chinese food, the Hainanese chicken chop is certainly a national speciality. Just ask the throng of customers outside Yut Kee on a Saturday morning. They’ll tell you: it’s got chops.
Find it: Yut Kee, 35 Jalan Dang Wangi, KL (03 2698 8108). Tues-Sun, 7.30am-5pm
Photos by Stacy Liu