Do the Michelin inspectors’ opinions on hawker food even mean much? While I’ve deliberated arguments from both sides of this strung-out debate, I take a centrist stance that a nod from Michelin is a nice sign of acknowledgement even if it’s not the end-all-be-all of food opinions.
I’m especially happy that Hainan Zi, one of my favourite stalls in Yishun, was given a Michelin Bib Gourmand in this year’s edition. The hard truth is that the food industry is deeply entrenched in marketing, if Michelin can help to drive traffic to our hawkers, more power to them.
Especially with hidden gems like Hainan Zi that might only be known to residents in the area—if my grandparents did not stay in Yishun, I would have been ignorant of this under-the-radar stall at Chong Pang Market too.
It’s a stall with its familiar regulars—the queue is never too long but the wok is always fired up, save for the post-meal lull. And the clanging of the wok is music to any food lover’s ears. Just by looking at the smoke wafting through the cramped stall, you know that Yishun’s first Michelin Bib Gourmand entrant’s dishes burst with wok hei.
What I tried
Ironically, the dish that the Michelin inspectors waxed lyrical about was one that I seldom ordered at Hainan Zi—their Char Kway Teow (S$3.50S$/S$4.50). After this plate, I had to beat myself up for not ordering it more often before this.
It’s exactly the profile of local char kway teow that enamours me. Unlike many die-hard defenders of the sweeter, richer profile of dark-sauce-loaded char kway teow, I always found my palate more thoroughly pleased by the smoke-filled versions that are only propped up by traces of that sweetness.
I found myself quite enchanted by the intoxicating smoke that pervaded the entire dish, while the silky sheets of kway teow easily slid down the gullet, even if traces of grease did slightly coat the mouth.
Besides having smoke in spades, the subdued richness of the dark sauce, the creeping heat from the chilli, and smoky chunks of Chinese sausage resulted in an explosion of the most boisterous flavours. While I wouldn’t dare to say it reaches the balanced perfection of something like Outram Park Fried Kway Teow Mee—my gold standard—Hainan Zi definitely displayed finesse in this balancing act.
But when it comes to my childhood favourites, I still can’t get over my first love of Carrot Cake (S$3/S$4/S$5). Confession: I grew up only eating black carrot cake—I was young and foolish, forgive me. However, unlike many other places’ renditions of the classic dish, Hainan Zi’s black carrot cake did not use the black sauce merely as a crutch to add flavour to limp, flavourless starch-blocks.
They made full use of the wok and enriched the dish with blissful bursts of caramelisation, atop the fluffy, eggy amalgam of starch and radish. Sweet-averse individuals need not be too weary as well—the sweetness was subdued, with just the right amount to pair with the smoke.
Conversely, the white half of the plate didn’t possess the same depth of richness but made up for it with a blanket of eggs with a gentle crisp that complemented the fluffy insides. Hainan Zi’s rendition reminded me somewhat of He Zhong’s, for fans of the popular Bukit Timah establishment.
On the other hand, their Fried Oyster (S$5/S$8/S$10) wasn’t quite the same sinful indulgence it once was, it definitely isn’t worth the calories anymore. Maybe it’s a change of chefs or perhaps I’d just built up a disdain for overtly greasy food as I aged, but this was too greasy for my liking.
Admittedly though, this is exactly one of the dishes many prefer to be drenched in grease for maximum flavour. If you’re one of those, you won’t be sick of the slick starchy batter that’s punctuated with smoky, crackling bits and plump oysters. It’s imperative to take a swig of the sprightly chilli though—its oodles of bright zestiness really help take off a lot of the tedium that the grease induces on the palate.
Is this one of the best stalls I’ve had for char kway teow, carrot cake, or oyster omelette? Definitely not. But does it have to be? Hainan Zi is a gem for many staying in Yishun, pushing out great quality dishes that can be compared with many of the most popular around town.
Just don’t buy into the hype. A Michelin Bib Gourmand is nothing more than a courtesy nod at the hawker’s dedication. Go in expecting a hearty, indulgent meal and you won’t leave Yishun satisfied—provided you don’t get trapped in the upside-down world of Yishun forever.
Expected damage: S$3.50 – S$8 per pax
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