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Hainanese Chicken Rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Hainanese Chicken Rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

In Singapore, the science of simplicity

  • Like so many things in the world’s most advanced city state, the national dish is an epitome of restraint and efficiency
  • But behind the simplicity of Hainanese chicken rice—as with so many things—is nuance, detail and perfect execution

After starting off late, we had just finished a 45-minute bus-and-train ride en route to the Singapore Science Centre. Instead of getting there by 11am—the original plan—we got there by 1pm. Of course, the eight-year-old was hungry. For $5 (around 250), we bought a plate of Singapore’s national dish, Hainanese chicken rice, which the daughter had grown to love, from a hawker.

Like so many things in the world’s most advanced city state, the dish appeared to be the epitome of restraint and efficiency: fragrant steamed rice, poached chicken, sliced cucumber garnish and a ginger-chilli sauce.

This restraint and efficiency were evident everywhere. A small, barely visible plaque on a wall announced that a mall had been inaugurated by the president. There were no sewage overflows and tap water was safe to drink. The footpaths had no fancy, crumbling tiles as Indian cities do, just even and ubiquitous concrete that senior citizens, cyclists or electric scooters could use easily. Metro cards worked on buses and trains—both air-conditioned—and topping them up was so easy that my daughter did it each time. When we reached Singapore at 4.30 am, she sleepily observed that there were more trees than in Bengaluru. Expressways criss-crossed the city, but banks of trees sprouted amidst interchanges, and bougainvillea adorned the flyovers.

Life seemed so common sense, so simple.

It takes an Indian brain—adapted to chaos—some time to understand that achieving simplicity is a science that involves nuance, detail and perfect execution.

For instance, the efficient water system exists because the government makes a fetish of planning: While I was there, I learnt of a multibillion-dollar, 50km-long underground system being sunk below the subway lines, to funnel and treat the nation’s wastewater, so overground treatment plants could be closed and space freed up. New subway lines were being built, new residences were planned in the shopping heartland of Orchard Road, so it isn’t deserted by night, and in the new housing estates—a picture of order and calm—Chinese, Malays and Indians had no option but to live among each other. The newspapers were full of debates about legislation against hate speech, one of many efforts to ensure that the long peace stays that way in a multiracial, multi-religious state where a hijab-clad Malay woman is the president, a Chinese man the prime minister and a Tamilian the home minister.

In short, you never get to see the effort that goes into ensuring that life is simple for Singapore’s citizens.

I certainly did not imagine that the national dish followed this complex-but-simple philosophy. Brought to Singapore by immigrants from China’s Hainan province, Hainanese chicken rice is available as easily at fancy restaurants as it is at roadside hawkers, who are, of course, hygienic and licensed.

I realized its complexity when I tried to make it for my daughter within a day of returning home. It appeared simple and required few ingredients not already present in my mostly empty fridge. There were no cucumbers though, but we could do without that. All I bought was a whole chicken with skin.

The photograph alongside does the original no justice. My struggles are reflected in the haphazardly cut chicken, which must be poached, ice-cooled and sliced precisely. The chicken itself has no spices, but the garnishes for the bird and the rice are subtle and specific.

Halfway through, I was wild-eyed and sweaty in an unusually steamy Bengaluru—it was hotter than Singapore—and my normally ordered kitchen was littered with spoons, ingredients, broth and chicken skin.

Since she is partial to anything her father makes, my daughter said, “This is good, appa." I looked on disbelievingly, but she was not being kind. She failed the soup. “Don’t mind," she said, “But this isn’t like the one in Singapore."

That could be because I failed to add salt to the broth. The recipes I perused made no mention of salt, and the chicken on our plates did not appear to need it, but the soup did. How did I miss it?

I blame it on Singapore. It makes you take simplicity for granted.

HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE

Serves 6

Ingredients

For the chicken

1 full chicken with skin (mine was 1.4kg, should ideally be smaller)

4-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced

3 spring onions, with shoots

A pot of boiling, salted water

Sea salt

Spring onion shoots, chopped, or fresh coriander

A tub of water with lots of ice. The ice bath will stop the chicken’s cooking process.

For the sesame-soy sauce

5-6 tbsp chicken broth

1 tsp sesame oil

1 tsp light soy sauce

1/2 tsp sugar

Mix all the ingredients and set aside

For the rice

1 cup white rice, washed; soak for 20 minutes, drain for another 20

1/2-inch piece of ginger, finely minced

3 large garlic cloves, finely minced

1 knob butter or 1 tbsp sesame oil

Trimmed fat from the chicken

Method

Clean the chicken and scour with sea salt to remove bits of hair and make the skin smooth. Trim excess fat and set aside. “Exercise" the chicken, letting it hang by the legs for 30 seconds or so to tighten the skin. Do the same with the wings. Stuff the ginger and whole spring onions—fold into half—into the chicken. Use a toothpick to roughly sew the bottom. Leave front open so that water can enter.

Bring water to a boil in a crock pot. Immerse the chicken fully. After a minute and a half, use a hook or gloves to hold the legs and hold partially aloft for half a minute to make the skin taut. Return to boiling water and remove scum with a strainer. After 15 minutes on full boil, switch off the gas, cover the pot and let the chicken stand and continue cooking in the hot broth for 50 minutes. To check if it is cooked, plunge a toothpick into the fattest area of the thigh—it should come out clean. Remove the chicken from broth and plunge into ice bath for 5 minutes or so.

Broth

In a pan, heat butter or oil, sauté ginger and garlic and add excess fat from the chicken and keep aside. In a rice cooker, mix rice with sautéed ginger, garlic, fat and oil. Add enough broth to cover the rice and cook till done.

To assemble

Slice and separate the full leg (with thigh) and debone with L-shaped cut, so that the skin is retained. You can also cut away the breast with skin loosely intact. Chop lengthwise and place on a plate. Season with sesame-soy sauce, adding chopped green chillies to the sauce if you wish. Lightly pack rice into bowl and invert on to a plate. Serve with a cup of broth, sliced cucumber and spring onion shoots.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

@samar11

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