Wee Nam Kee: Hainanese Surprise

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Chinoiserie is the tasteful blend of European artistic styles and Chinese aesthetics, reimagined into a fanciful, capricious look that seems distinctly Asian and yet not – an aura prevalent throughout Wee Nam Kee Restaurant at the Shangri-La Plaza Mall.

China blue porcelain flower wallpaper lines the sides of the ubiquitous Neocolonial doors. Meanwhile, a wet bar mimics the classic teahouse look with a more modern flair, with plump boiled chickens hung suspended behind a glass pane separating the kitchen from the bar’s apothecary-like panels that one would expect to house esoteric herbs and ancient curatives.

Speaking of curatives, as many practitioners of holistic healing say, food in the right doses is medicine, and Wee Nam Kee’s latest offerings are a balm for the soul as well as the belly. “We’re offering thirty brand new dishes,” expounds Bobby Vallar, marketing manager for the Relish Group, the company responsible for bringing the quarter-century old family-owned restaurant to the Philippines. “Although we opened here in 2010, it took us a while to get permission to add new dishes as the Singaporeans are pretty happy with the line-up. But Filipinos like variety, so they sent us their head chef, Chef Ah Xu, to develop some new dishes. This stuff is so new that not even Wee Nam Kee Singapore has these dishes yet!”

I could understand his enthusiasm– normally a restaurant would unveil a couple of dishes every few months, but thirty dishes? That would be like Prince releasing three new albums in the span of a year (which he actually did, but that’s another story). I was, however, grateful that we didn’t sample all of them, or else we probably would’ve needed a wheelbarrow to haul my bursting gut out of the restaurant.

The bacchanalia began humbly enough with Crispy Mantou Bread with Condensed Milk and a side of hot chicken broth. Don’t let its simplicity fool you – the mantou was fried so delicately and crackled nicely on the surface, yet its doughy center was almost as soft as sponge cake and remained so for hours. If the mantou was a delight, then the Prawn Paste Chicken Wings was also an eye-opener. The salty prawn paste was solicitously mixed in with a thinly spread batter that gave both a crunch and an exquisitely mild umami flavor that will unceremoniously knock the socks off any Buffalo Wing enthusiast. A toothsome plate of Salted Egg Chinese Style Fried Chicken followed – I had long known that Hong Kong and Taiwanese foodies love having salted egg on practically everything they consume but the fluffy chicken morsels held a lovely, sandy crunch with an uncommonly mellow saltiness, not the sharp bite on your tongue that you’d expect. To balance all those batter-fried treats were the Spicy Sambal Rice Noodles, an upscale version of a street food staple – a steaming bowl of vermicelli rice noodles with green capsicum, bean sprouts, and tofu dusted with ground peanuts.

However, it became clearer to me that Singaporeans, like the Scots, really enjoy having their food covered in batter and fried, which was quite fine by me. Once again, the smorgasbord continued with some Wok-Fried Chicken with Cashews and Sun Dried Chili. The decidedly sweet sauce had added depth and a hint of nuttiness provided by the cashew nuts. Although by itself a relatively genial dish, all that was needed for the chicken to gain eyebrows earing piquancy to it was to crush one of the intimidatingly long chili peppers lying sedately on top. Now, if caffeine is more your style, then the Cashew Coffee Spareribs won’t disappoint. Smothered in a rich molasses-like sauce comprised of finely ground genuine Singaporean kopi beans, the (yet again) batter-coated ribs were juicy and was a fine counterpoint for the heady coffee flavor. Even the seafood wasn’t spared the batter treatment – a dainty dish of Prawns with Lychee and Peaches was brought to our attention. Although similar to the perennial Chinese favorite, the sweet-and-sour pork/shrimp/whatever-is available-and-edible, the lychee and peach combination made the puffy shrimp dumplings possess profusely different characteristics. If Chinese sweet and sour were a coquettish tween, then the lychee and peach prawns were closer to a fresh, confident twentysomething.

Of course, the frying extended even to the rice, and the Pineapple Fried Rice with Pork Floss was a convivial partner to all the viands on display. A hodgepodge of mixed vegetables, bits of roast pork, pineapple cubes, and fried egg, the rice was also generously topped with a tousled mound of cotton candy-like pork floss. Personally, I’d have preferred fragrant plain rice to accompany our repast as its simplicity serves to bring out the essence of all the tasty victuals we supped on. Admittedly though, the pineapple fried rice with pork floss did marry many tastes and scents together in an altogether interesting and gratifying way.

Washing the whole feast down was initially a simple affair with a cup of hot jasmine tea but then a Cucumber Lime Refresher served in a tall glass was served up. With swirling bits of finely chopped cucumber, the tonic was a mix of soda and cucumber juice, lime and a hint of mint that would be welcome in the cold months and irresistibly addictive during the summer.

Luscious Laksa

Your normal Hainanese Chicken dish is usually served with rice, a bowl of hot chicken broth, a bit of boiled egg and some ginger dipping sauce. For a more progressive and adventurous take on the dish, try the Hainanese Chicken Curry Noodles. The traditional Hainanese chicken broth is mixed with coconut milk and curry, turning the soup into a creamy laksa with soft, Empress Hair Thai rice noodles and chockfull of chicken slices, carrot slivers, beansprouts, Taiwan pechay and tofu loaves fried to perfection, served in a huge bowl meant for sharing. This mouthwatering mélange does have a tendency to absorb the laksa so a teapot is always on hand to replenish the soup, keeping the goodies warm, swimming lissome and loose. Lightly seasoned with chili pepper flakes, the Hainanese Chicken Curry Noodles is considerably mild for people who aren’t too fond of spicy cuisine, but I’m sure the chef can be made to adjust for more ironclad palates.

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