If “Hainan” and “rice” came up in a word association game, the response triggered in most Singaporeans would inevitably be “chicken”. However, Hainanese rice prowess goes far beyond the iconic poultry dish. Take, for example, yi buah, which pairs ginger-spiked coconut, brown sugar, peanut and sesame filling with glutinous rice skin. Both the skin and the filling are combined in various shapes and formats to make a related suite of sweet dumplings, seldom seen outside of Hainanese coffee shops and hawker stalls.
Still less common than yi buah, and holding precious symbolic meaning for the Hainanese, is larp (also spelt “lup” or “lap”). It belongs to the wider family of Chinese leaf-wrapped dumplings, but differ by being intricately swaddled in coconut palm fronds, rather than bamboo or banana leaves. In fact, you might be forgiven for mistaking a larp at first glance for the more familiar Malay ketupat, but these woven fronds cradle a Hainan heart. Originally filled simply with glutinous rice, larp variations have since evolved to include other ingredients such as dried shrimp and cubed pork.
As it can be made only by hand, larp is most often prepared in home kitchens rather than in commercial enterprises, explaining its rarity. “We make and eat larp at special events, to celebrate occasions such as weddings, moving house and births,” says business development director Simon Goh, whose hawker stall Hainan Xiao Chi at Toa Payoh specialises in traditional Hainanese confections and snacks.
Given as gifts to express affection, and convey blessing and comfort, larp is also eaten during difficult times, to ward off calamity, soothe troubled spirits and encourage positive emotions. The precise significance and use varies slightly from village to village in Hainan and between different Hainanese communities.
“We Hainanese have a lot more food to be proud of other than chicken rice, kaya toast, beef noodle and curry rice,” says Bryan Wong, a young restaurateur.
“Like many of my generation, I didn’t used to know anything about larp, or our other traditional snacks such as yi bua, chin deh (sesame rice balls), kweh dai jian (herb-flavoured rice noodles in syrup, aka ‘chicken poop dessert’), or su yam biah (mooncakes). In our school days, these were not so ‘cool’, just food that you would have only during festive seasons.”
He is hopeful for a revival of interest in such classic fare. “With so many nostalgia-themed events such as the Heritage Fest, many young Singaporeans have been trying to get in touch with their roots. Some of my friends are very keen to pick up the Hainanese dialect… Many of them visit Hainan Island with their family annually,” he says.
“My first time learning to weave a larp case was two years ago, when I attended a session at The Hainanese Association… after two hours, I didn’t even manage to complete a case,” adds Wong, who assisted larp experts Jessie Ow and Ho Soo Pong in a larp demonstration at Slow Food Singapore’s Kueh Association Day 2016, during the Singapore Food Festival.
“On my second try, with (Ow and Ho’s) guidance, I was extremely excited to finally weave a larp case after four hours, though I definitely need a lot more practice. I’ve told Jessie to call me whenever she is making larp,” he says with a smile. “Hopefully, someday I can pass this skill to other Singaporean Hainanese, keeping our traditions alive.”
SAME SAME, BUT DIFFERENT
Intricately crafted larp is a rare treat these days, as it’s highly time consuming to prepare.