Tuesday, October 05, 2004
As Singaporean As Chicken Rice
If you visit Singapore, you must try Hainanese chicken rice. This modest yet delectable dish is so popular among visitors and locals that it's become our unofficial national dish. And it's a true-blue local culinary invention too, born on these very shores.
Its appearance is deceptively nondescript. Served on a plate, a mound of rice is topped with boiled chicken and some slices of raw cucumber. On the side is a bowl of clear chicken soup and a dish of reddish-orange chili sauce.
But its unique fragrance hints of greatness ahead. You won't be disappointed. You see, fragrant Thai rice is cooked in chicken stock, whole garlic cloves, ginger slices, and pandan leaves. All these ingredients give the rice a wonderful flavor and delicate fragrance. A whole, fresh chicken is cooked in boiling water. This step is not easy as you need to cook the chicken for just the right amount of time. The cooked chicken is immediately dunked into cool water to prevent overcooking and firm up the meat. After being cooled and drained, sesame oil and soy sauce is brushed all over to flavor the chicken before it is chopped into slices. The special chili sauce is a must-have when eating chicken rice. In fact, it's another local invention concocted just for chicken rice.
As only fresh chicken is used, locals here had been going without our favorite dish for a few weeks due to the ban on fresh poultry imports. (Singapore gets its supply of fresh poultry and eggs from Malaysia. Due to the bird flu virus outbreak in Kelantan, Malaysia, these imports were banned for more than a month. The ban was partially lifted last Thursday.) So on Saturday, R. and I, together with other fellow citizens, showed our support for the comeback of our national dish.
Chicken rice (large). S$3.00. Regular size available for S$2.00.
Although chicken rice is sold in almost every foodcourt and hawker center here, not every stall does a good version. This version we had at Tiong Bahru Market Food Centre (Temporary) didn't disappoint. The rice was very fragrant, not too oily, and had just the right amount of salt. The chicken was also perfect. I liked the fact that it was thoroughly cooked, yet it was very tender and moist (even though I was given the breast meat). Some stallholders slightly undercook the chicken to maintain the tenderness of the flesh, but that results in pink juices flowing from pinkish chicken meat. Yuck!
Top: Dark soy sauce. Bottom: Garlic ginger chili sauce.
Whoa! This stall's chili sauce is potent! Just a dip delivers a big, spicy kick. This sauce is a complex mix of red chilies, garlic, ginger, chicken stock, salt, sugar and lime juice. Very aromatic, and goes extremely well with the plain chicken meat.
Tiong Bahru Market & Food Centre (Temporary)
This was where we had dinner, from a stall, named Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice. The Hainanese are an ethnic Chinese group that speak the dialect Hainanese. Their ancestors came to S'pore from Hainan, China. But if you go to Hainan, you won't find chicken rice there. This is a Singapore dish, invented by the Hainanese immigrants. It's now popular even among people of other ethnic groups in S'pore. It's priced from S$2.00 to $18.00, found in humble food centres to 5-star hotels. How amazing, that this simple arrangement of rice, chicken, cucumber, chili sauce and soup has transcended the boundaries of race, language, and social class. As for me, the wonderful aroma of chicken rice never fails to invoke a sense of warmth, and of course, never fails to make my mouth water.