In Singapore, you know it’s a good place to eat when the cab driver gets off at the same hawker centre as you. Not that Chinatown’s Maxwell Road Food Centre is in want of endorsements. Local legend aside, chef Anthony Bourdain has been here, and just this May, The New York Times (NYT) featured it in a list promisingly titled “10 Restaurants Worth Leaving the Ship for”.
It is an unlikely mention. On the list are such names as Selene (Santorini) and Fiskebar (Copenhagen), names that conjure up images far removed from the reality of a Singaporean hawker centre—mildly claustrophobic food courts drenched in the combined smells of fish balls, soy sauce and steaming noodles. Maxwell pulses with the energy of its hole-in-the-wall stalls—over 70—constantly clanging woks, banging cleavers and pushing plates. Rows of roasted ducks hang by their twisted necks next to nude chickens glistening with fat, as their feet are diced, salted and cooked to deep-fried perfection. It all looks like it’s part of some exotic travel show, except the sounds, smells and food are all trying to invade your every pore. For those expecting to find the familiar clinical calm and aseptic hygiene of Singapore inside a hawker centre like Maxwell, it can all be a bit overwhelming, especially if you don’t know what you want.
I, of course, had done my research and knew exactly what I was looking for: the same stall that Bourdain drooled at and Sara Dickerman (author of the NYT article) had come in search of, the stall where celebrity chef Tetsuya Wakuda found the “best chilli sauce in the world”, the stall that evokes national pride and inflames passions in this otherwise genteel city—Stall No. 10, Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice.
Plate of the matter: (clockwise from top) The Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown ( Flickr.com/Photos/Kansk); the famous Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice (Patrick Kennedy/flickr.com/photos/32473600@N04); and Khao Mun Kai, the national dish (Wikimedia Commons).
For a rather frugal dish (it really is just steamed chicken served with rice cooked in the stock and chilli dip by the side), it is incredible how obsessed everyone is with chicken rice. Along with wet markets, Singlish and kopitiams (the rough equivalent of a Kolkata coffee house), chicken rice is among the few remaining Singaporean things in this country of immigrants and imports. To a question on “how to find the real Singapore”, a local friend had wisely quipped: “To know Singapore is to know its food—and what is food but the perfection of chicken rice!”
Also See | Trip Planner / Singapore (PDF)
To be fair, even chicken rice traces its fragrant roots back to China, through a Hainanese immigrant named Wong Yi Guan, who arrived in this southern island in the 1920s. Wong settled down to a hawker’s life selling an adaptation of a chicken and rice dish he cooked back home. He wrapped his rice balls in banana leaves and sold them for a cent each on Hylam Street. It seems to have worked for him, for he upgraded, moving to a kopitiam down the same road. An attentive helper, Swee, learnt to make the same dish, only better, starting his own Swee Kee Chicken Rice stall on Middle Road. And thus Singapore’s national dish was born.
Today, Hylam Street is tucked away inside an air-conditioned mall (Bugis Junction) with faux shophouses filled with trinkets that share no history (or resemblance) with the lively Hainanese and Japanese communities that once called it their home. Swee Kee’s Chicken Rice, of course, is long gone. Stand-alone hawkers and old shophouses with marble-topped tables and straight-backed teakwood chairs have given way to the glam and glitter that characterizes Singapore.
Purvis Street’s Yet Con is perhaps the only establishment left that can claim to have retained a slice of history that Wong and Swee made. If you stay at the Raffles Hotel—another historic remnant that has tidied itself up to offer the packaged charms of colonial-era Singapore—Yet Con is literally across the street. Walk past the chic Garibaldi (excellent Italian wines) and Gunther’s (modern French cooking) to arrive at Yet Con’s cataract-cloudy glass door with faded Chinese calligraphy, collapsible gates blocking a direct view of the duck and chicken cadavers lining its shopfront.
I am the only non-local here, and I feel like I am in a scene out of a cyan-tinted movie that I saw at the Singapore National Museum—about chicken rice being a bond that bridges generations. The cashier, an ancient-looking man, seems terribly busy totalling up bills with his abacus. My server, who looks much younger, maybe all of 70, decides I should have the chicken rice before I can order, and walks away shouting instructions to the kitchen in Mandarin.
In a few minutes I am staring at the white chicken, the champagne brown rice, the casually red chilli sauce, and the dark soy sauce. It tastes quite ordinary, or “honest and homemade” in travel-writing lingo, and I have to remind myself that 50 years ago, in a Singapore where median incomes were far far away from the current Singapore dollars (S) $2,400 (around Rs 91,530) per month, it was indeed quite special to bring home a capon, or even better, an old hen, and have it with rice cooked in its rich stock. Every family had its own recipes, and though none likely tasted dramatically different, each meal was sealed with the wholesome goodness of family lore and togetherness.
Chain restaurants such as Boon Tong Kee have successfully built a business model around this sentimentality. Growing from a small stall in Chinatown, it opened its first outlet in Balestier—the definitive Boon Tong Kee location—and is today the first name in casual chicken-rice dining. Any day of the week, its modern air-conditioned interiors welcome locals and expats alike to try its “famous” chicken rice. In purely technical terms, Boon Tong Kee is Cantonese, not Hainanese chicken rice, but the only difference I could tell was the particular succulence of the chicken.
Chatterbox at the Mandarin Orchard takes off from where Boon Tong Kee tries to go. At S$25 a pop, this is the most expensive chicken rice you will find on the island, which in itself justifies trying it out. Being a sucker for street-side authenticity, I am bored by its non-greasy flavours and pretentious presentation, but in its defence, it does have a legion of fans who swear by its taste (and its location —the heart of Orchard Road).
My personal favourite turns out to be the Wee Nam Kee chicken rice house in Novena. In most places, your chicken rice comes with an incidental bowl of terribly bland clear soup. Wee Nam Kee’s soup is divine and full-bodied, coursing with untold flavours. Also, the bed of sesame sauce in which the steamed chicken arrives is a welcome change from the regular light soy sauce elsewhere. The rice is visibly rich with chicken fat, which is how I am sure Wong and Swee meant it to be.
Polishing off yet another plate of chicken rice, I come to the conclusion that as Singapore sifts through its history, selectively preserving and obliterating, the continued popularity of chicken rice is really an act of resistance. Where rapidly changing demographics change the face of the city, the ability of a rice ball to get everyone to buy —and bite—into it offers hope that Singapore might yet save its soul. If that means I must order another one, so be it.
The perfect chicken rice
Chicken rice is really four separate dishes—the chicken, the rice, the chilli sauce and the soup—each with its own ‘perfect’ recipe
The chicken: An old hen, ideally plucked off a farm, and cooked in water that has been brought to boil over hours. The magic trick is the immediate ice-water dunking it gets after it’s done—just so—in the hot water.
The rice: Fragrant, coarse rice cooked in the chicken stock along with chicken fat (crucial), pandan leaves, ginger and garlic
The chilli sauce: This is what makes “Hainanese” chicken rice Singaporean, and it’s the make or break factor in serving a perfect plate of chicken rice. Freshly pounded red chillies, knobs of ginger, garlic, lime juice, salt and sugar are blended together to achieve perfection.
The soup: This is really just a vegetable, typically cabbage, soup. Unless you have the secret Wee Nam Kee recipe, this will just be a warm watery spring onion-strewn accompaniment to the chicken rice.
Write to email@example.com