Tasting Hainanese chicken rice – One of the most Singaporean famous dish
Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s national cuisines, may appear to be easy. But it’s the type of meal you’d go across countries to try.
The chickens chicken dish in the chicken-eating world is Hainanese chicken rice. Do you still not believe me? Consider this: in front of me in Singapore’s Chinatown’s Maxwell Food Centre was a tray piled high with boiled chicken, a mound of rice cooked in chicken broth, and a little dipping dish of chilli sauce infused with–you got it–chicken. The outfit also featured a bowl of chicken soup to out-chicken every other chicken dish on the globe. I imagined by the end of the dinner, I’d be clucking.
I came to Maxwell especially to dine at Tian Tian (1 Kadayanallur St), a 30-year-old food stall known for its Hainanese chicken rice, which has received acclaim from Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay. Madam Foo Kui Lian, the proprietor, came over just as I was ready to put spoonfuls of delicious-smelling food into my lips.
She said that Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s national dishes, is deceptively easy – which is a good thing because it seems terribly dull on paper.
But you must taste it if you are in Singapore. I took a taste after combining exquisite slices of chicken thigh – which had a thin coating of gelatinous fat between the skin and flesh – with ginger-and-lemongrass-fragrant rice and chilli sauce. My taste receptors were ablaze with joy as a result of the flavors. When something is so delicious it’s divine, every atom in your body jumps and you can’t help but close your eyes and savor the moment. This was one of such instances.
Although I can get chicken rice in New York City, this version was so good that I’d fly 15 hours just to eat it. Despite its unappealing look and lack of color, it was fantastic. But why was this so perplexing to me?
Let’s begin with how it’s manufactured. Madame Foo recommends boiling the chicken for approximately an hour. Then you immerse it in ice. “This keeps the flavor in while still preserving the skin,” she explained. After around 30 minutes in the ice, hang it to dry for half an hour. “The interior of the chicken is still cooking since the outside is chilly from the ice.”
In the meantime, use the remaining liquid from the chicken to cook the rice, prepare the chicken soup, and flavor the chilli sauce. The remaining chicken fat is frequently used to make a soy-sesame sauce, which is smeared over the chicken before plating. The entire meal takes around two hours to prepare.
But what makes Tian Tian so excellent – and so popular – amid the city-numerous state’s “food courts”? “It’s our secret sauce,” Madam Foo explained, referring to the brownish liquid that was delicately drizzled over the chicken. I drew some from the bottom of the bowl using a spoon. “Soy sauce, oyster sauce… perhaps chicken lard?” I stated. Madame Foo only chuckled and shook her head, not quite ready to disclose the ancient Singaporean secret.
In order to figure out what makes this seemingly simple meal so wonderful, I went to Chatterbox — an upmarket cafe near affluent Orchard Road that has consistently received accolades for its Hainanese chicken rice – and met down with chef Liew Tian Heong. At first sight, his chicken rice appeared to be similar to Tian Tian’s, except that it was served in more costly bowls – prompting me to ask the chef what distinguished it from the ultra-affordable, government-subsidized hawker centre versions, such as those at Maxwell Food Centre.
“The most essential element of chicken rice is not the chicken, but the rice,” Liew explained. It must have a pleasant aroma.” He took up the bowl of grains and sniffed it, his eyes closing as he savored the aroma. “Pandan leaf, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. The rice must be delicious enough to eat on its own.”
Even though it was four times the price, the chicken rice at Chatterbox was superb and radiated all of the characteristics of Tian Tian.
For a premium price, you get a larger quantity, a nice dining area, and, as Liew mentioned, their rare Malaysian breed of chicken.
The bird was softer and more delicate than the others I’d eaten, so perhaps there’s something to having your own breed.
However, when considering its origins, there’s an irony to people forking over a lot of money or waiting in line for a quality version of Singapore’s national dish.
When the Hainanese people from the south Chinese island of Hainan began to immigrate to Singapore in the mid-nineteenth century, they were marginalized because their dialect prevented them from fully communicating with other Chinese immigrants and because most lucrative industries were dominated by mainland Chinese who were already established in Singapore. This confined them to working as servants for British colonialists or in the food service sector, which was sometimes the same thing. The Hainanese offered the British chicken rice, believing that the seemingly unremarkable cooked chicken would appeal to their palates.
However, the fact that the chicken flavor pervades the entire meal implies something unexpected. Liew said it best: “When the elderly mother hen couldn’t lay any more eggs, they would utilize her for chicken rice.” As a result, they would make the most of it by extending the flavor of the chicken as much as possible through the broth, rice, and so on.”
Chicken rice is a complete meal that arose from the austerity that comes with hardship and survival as the Hainanese tried to establish themselves in Singapore.
Then came the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II, when the British were driven out and the Hainanese people lost their source of income. This was the year when the first chicken rice restaurant opened its doors. “Before that, the Hainanese only made it at home,” local food blogger Tony Boey noted, “but during and after the occupation, they were searching for new ways to generate money.”
Yet Con (25 Purvis St), which opened in the early 1940s, was one among those early establishments. It’s still open and offering the same chicken rice.
I enlisted the help of a local chef friend, Vivian Pei, to join me there. The proprietors gave us a nasty look when we went in about 5 p.m. We were not only present between meals, but also during their dinner. They hesitantly permitted us to take a seat.
So here I was, seated at one of a few marble tables strewn about the area. The restaurant’s no-frills mid-century decor — simple light-blue walls and a tiled floor – gave it an antiquated air.
Something felt weird when the chicken came at our table. “There is no sauce on the chicken,” Pei pointed out.
Chicken rice chefs began pouring the soy-sesame sauce on the cooked chicken sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s. However, Con appears to still cook chicken like it’s 1949 – sans sauce, giving the poultry an unusually bland appearance.
Another significant distinction, according to Pei, is that Yet Con allows the chicken to dry naturally rather than using the ice-dipping process. She chewed into it. “It’s a little dry.” Perhaps it wasn’t always considered dry, but when new techniques for making chicken more supple – such as freezing it – emerged, this rendition appeared hopelessly out of step.
“I believe the key to good chicken rice is that everything must be balanced,” Pei explained. If one item isn’t right, it drags the whole thing down.” Chicken rice suffers if one of its components is subpar, just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The “weak link” in Yet Con’s instance was the chicken itself.
It wasn’t the ideal way to cap off a week of eating chicken rice, but it didn’t matter. I said my goodbyes to Pei – she had a culinary class to teach, and I had a few hours until my departure – and went towards the airport. Before hailing a cab, I savored my remaining time in a city-state where a seemingly mundane meal can – most of the time – be raised into something so sapid and comfortable that my recollections of it would last me till my next return.