Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Eating Singapore: Hainanese Chicken Rice

Anthony Bourdain calls Hainanese chicken rice "the national dish" of Singapore, "a light and beautiful thing."  With a commendation like that, how could we not make room for this dish on our culinary tour of the Straits?  Of course, we couldn't just eat any plate of Hainanese chicken rice; we had to get our hands on the very plate of chicken rice that rocked Bourdain's world.

Okay, not the exact plate.  He ate that one.  But in our effort to try the best specimen of Hainanese chicken rice, we went to Tian Tian Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Food Centre, Bourdain's favorite chicken rice stall.  

And oh was it good.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Eating at Tian Tian involved an arduous, sometimes heartbreaking journey.  It required commitment, dedication, perseverance.  

We showed up to the Maxwell Food Centre on a Monday evening, expecting to fill our bellies with chicken rice.  Alas, while all the other hawker stands around it were open, Tian Tian was very much not.  Although I checked its hours of operation, it never occurred to me to figure out its days of operation.  Turns out it's closed on Mondays.  Maybe that's the day it offers sacrifices to the poultry gods.

Not ones to be easily deterred, we showed up again the next day.  This time, we had already eaten lunch, but I'd heard that Tian Tian at lunch hour resembles a Soviet bread line, so I figured showing up a little later would be wise.  But even at 3 pm on a random Tuesday afternoon, the queue for Tian Tian stretched around the storefront.  And even though they had several hours of business left to go, they'd already run out of dark meat.

But that was fine, because after watching everyone around us happily shoving chicken rice into their mouths, we were excited to eat any part of the chicken.  Heck, as you can see in the above photo, my sister was about to eat any person standing in close proximity to the chicken.

At Tian Tian, you place your order at the first window, and as the guys inside the tiny kitchen fill a platter with rice and chicken, you wait under the poster of Bourdain, drooling as plate after plate of chicken rice leaves the kitchen for some lucky fool who got there before you.  After receiving the rice and chicken, you can deal with the condiments, putting the thick soy sauce and house-made chili sauce either directly on the platter of rice or in little plastic condiment cups. 

I'm not huge fan of Chinese-style steamed chicken, but Tian Tian's chicken was darn good. Chicken for Hainanese chicken rice is always served room temperature.  From what I understand, the secret to Tian Tian's recipe is that they boil the chicken whole, plunge it immediately into an ice bath to separate the skin from the meat, and then pour a healthy amount of intense, fatty chicken stock on the chicken right as they serve it (hence the glossiness of the chicken).  I don't know what Bourdain meant by "light," because this is not a diet meal.

My mom, who never met a chicken bit she didn't like, also ordered a plate of non-descriptly named "chicken parts," which I think included chicken gizzards and liver.  It's not my cup of tea -- er, plate of chicken -- but Tian Tian's condiments (see below) were so good that I welcomed having another reason to funnel chili sauce in my mouth.

While the chicken and its assorted bits were good, the rice is the star of the show.  The rice is made with chicken stock and chicken fat; it's coated in flavorful, almost buttery goodness, and is, as Bourdain said, "so flavorful and delicious that it can be eaten on its own."

Well, not exactly on its own.  To transform it from great to outstanding, pour a generous amount of sweet dark soy sauce and the house-made chili, garlic, and ginger sauce all over the rice.  Then spoon a generous amount of all of it into you mouth.  Chew, swallow, smile.  Repeat.

The rice was so good that we ordered a second plate of it (and this is after we'd already had a full lunch, remember?).  

Up until we went to Tian Tian, I never quite got the appeal of Hainanese chicken rice.  It's a dish I've had many times in the U.S. and Hong Kong, but it always seemed kinda meh.  But now I totally get the mystique of this dish: it's humble, homey, comforting food, as personal as it is national.  The Straits' equivalent of apple pie.

I have to go lick the screen now.  Stay tuned for my next post, which will be on Singaporean snacks.


Micah and Catherine January 5, 2011 at 11:05 AM  

I saw Anthony eat this and thought it looked really plain but then I think of some of the dumplings I love and how ordinary they look on the outside. I really want to go to Singapore and try this!

lavenderpug January 5, 2011 at 11:52 AM  

stop it! stop it! stop it with the mouthwatering food posts! you're breaking my heart--BREAKING...

Try Anything Once Terri January 5, 2011 at 12:28 PM  

I am LOVING this series. Keep it comin'! I had my first Hainanese (spelling?) chicken experience with Big Apple Nosh last summer. I liked it a lot, but I am big flavored rice fan. I can only imagine how good it must be in Singapore.

lavenderpug January 5, 2011 at 2:24 PM  

oh, just to clarify, i meant you're breaking my heart in a good way. i ache for all this delicious-looking food!

BigAppleNosh January 5, 2011 at 3:07 PM  

Love. Love love love chicken rice. I'm counting down the days to Singapore!

(By the way, props for using queue in true Sg fashion)

Karen January 6, 2011 at 1:28 PM  

Dear HC,

You know I adore your blog & anything you write & am so glad you enjoyed your travels & food adventures- but I really really need you to get back to "ewish" in Chewish now. Maybe a nice Jewish Apple Cake or a kugel for Shabbos? ;-)

Ramat Gan

Mrs. Hot Cocoa January 6, 2011 at 3:21 PM  

@ Micah and Catherine: I know -- it seems so plain, but when done right it's sooo good. It's sort of like the difference between a decent fried egg and a gorgeous fried egg, you know?

@ lavenderpug: Ha! I'm breaking the scales here, so I feel your pain.

@ Try Anything Once Terri: Serena is also a chicken rice connoisseur, so you had great company!

@ BigAppleNosh: Thank you, thank you. I am trying not to end all my sentences with "lah" or "loh."

@ Karen: Aw, thanks for the push to get me back to my roots. I promise that there will be more "ewish" soon enough; I've been making the same Zuni chicken recipe almost every shabbat, and I'm almost -- just almost -- getting bored with it.

Sandy January 7, 2011 at 6:05 AM  

this is perhaps my favorite dish. my husband doesn't get it, i love it b/c it's so simple and i love adding spices to the chicken.

Karen January 7, 2011 at 9:55 AM  

You are so sweet...waiting patiently. Based on your recommendation, think I will try the Zuni chicken next Friday when my soldier-son comes home for the weekend.
שבת שלום.

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