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The dish worth a 15-hour flight

Hainanese chicken rice is the chickeniest chicken dish one can find in the chicken-eating world. Don’t believe me? Picture this: sitting in front of me at the Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown was a tray filled with a pile of boiled chicken, a mound of rice cooked in chicken broth and a small dipping bowl of chilli sauce infused with – yes, you guessed it – chicken. And just to out-chicken every other chicken dish on the planet, the ensemble included a bowl of chicken soup. I figured I’d probably be clucking by the end of the meal.

在这个吃鸡世界里的鸡肉菜中,海南鸡饭算是鸡肉味最正最足的一道菜了。不相信我吗?想象一下这样的场景:身处(Maxwell Food Centre)麦士威路熟食中心的唐人街上,在我面前的是一只装满了成堆白斩鸡的托盘,一小碗在鸡汤中煮过的米饭,还有一小碗辣椒酱,里面浸泡着——是的,你没猜错——鸡肉。而只是为了在鸡肉味上赶超地球上的其它鸡肉菜,这个套餐中还包括了一碗鸡汤。我想,吃完这一餐,我可能都会咯咯叫了。

I specifically came to Maxwell to eat at 30-year-old food stall Tian Tian (1 Kadayanallur St), a spot renowned for its Hainanese chicken rice that has gotten praise from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay. Just as I was about to shove spoonfuls of delicious-smelling food into my mouth, the owner, Madam Foo Kui Lian, wandered over.

为了品尝这道菜,我专程前往麦士威路的天天鸡饭(地址位于Kadayanallur街1号)。这是一家具有30年历史的大排档,因其供应的海南鸡饭而远近闻名,连安东尼•伯尔顿(Anthony Bourdain)和戈登•拉姆齐(Gordon Ramsay)这样的美食家都对其赞不绝口。正当我要把一勺勺香喷喷的美味塞进嘴里时,这家店的老板Foo KuiLian(符桂莲)女士走了过来。


She explained that Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s national dishes, is deceptively simple – which is good, because on paper it sounds awfully boring. But you just have to try it when you’re in Singapore. I combined delicate pieces of chicken thigh – which had a thin layer of gelatinous fat between the skin and meat – with ginger-and-lemongrass-fragrant rice and chilli sauce, and then took a bite. The flavours set my taste buds ablaze with delight. You know when something is so good it’s sublime: when it hits your palate, you feel every molecule in your body jump and you can’t help but close your eyes and savour the moment. This was one of those moments.


Although I can find chicken rice back home in New York City, this version was the kind of transcendent dish I’d fly 15 hours just to eat. Despite its dull-seeming appearance and lack of colour, it was phenomenal. But, what perplexed me was why?

虽然我在家乡纽约也能找到鸡饭,但是这才是我愿为它坐 15 个小时的飞机而品尝的佳肴。尽管它的外观看似平淡无奇,色彩也并不鲜艳,但它的美味真是令人叫绝。然而,令我困惑不解的是:是什么令它如此美味?

Let’s start with how it’s made. According to Madame Foo, you boil the chicken for about an hour. Then you plunge it into ice. “This traps the flavour in and also preserves the skin,” she said. After it sits in the ice for about 30 minutes, you hang dry it for half an hour. “Because the outside of the chicken is cold from the ice, the inside is still cooking.”


In the meantime, you take the leftover broth from cooking the chicken and use it to boil the rice, make the chicken soup and enhance the chilli sauce. The leftover chicken fat often ends up in a soy-sesame sauce that is slathered over the chicken before being plated. In total, the whole dish takes about two hours to complete.


But what makes Tian Tian so good – and so popular – among the myriad “food courts” sprinkled throughout this city-state? “It’s our secret sauce,” said Madam Foo, referring to the brownish liquid lightly poured over the chicken. I spooned some up from the bottom of the bowl. “Soy sauce, oyster sauce… and maybe chicken lard?” I said. Madame Foo just laughed and shook her head, not ready to reveal the ancient Singaporean secret just yet.


In my attempt to figure out just what makes this seemingly plain dish so abundantly delicious, I stopped at Chatterbox – an upscale eatery near posh Orchard Road that has continuously won awards for its Hainanese chicken rice – and sat down with chef Liew Tian Heong. At first glance, his chicken rice didn’t look too different than Tian Tian’s version, except that it was plated in expensive bowls – which led me to ask the chef what set it apart from the ultra-affordable, government-subsidised hawker centre versions, like at Maxwell Food Centre.

我努力想找到这道看似平淡无奇却醇厚可口的菜的美味秘诀。在此期间,我拜访了Chatterbox,这是一家高档餐厅,靠近豪华的乌节路(Orchard Road),这家餐厅因其制作的海南鸡饭而屡获大奖.我坐下来与餐厅的大厨刘殿雄(Liew Tian Heong)畅谈。乍一看之下,他的鸡饭与天天所供应的鸡饭并没有太大区别,除了盛放鸡饭的碗价格不菲,这让我不禁询问刘厨师:是什么使它有别于那些超级实惠、享受政府补贴的小贩聚集地的海南鸡饭,就像麦士威路熟食中心的那种海南鸡饭。

“The most important part of chicken rice,” Liew said, “is not the chicken, but the rice. It has to be fragrant.” He picked up the bowl of grains and gave it a whiff, his eyes closed as he savoured the smell. “Lemongrass, ginger, garlic and pandan leaf. The rice has to be good enough to eat on its own.”


The chicken rice at Chatterbox was excellent and exuded all the qualities of Tian Tian – even if it was four times more expensive. For the higher price you get a bigger portion, an elegant dining room, and, as Liew noted, their special breed of chicken from Malaysia. The fowl was softer and more tender than the others I’d tried, so maybe there’s something to having the luxury of your very 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 immigrating to Singapore around the middle of the 19th Century, they were marginalised because their dialect prevented them from fully communicating with other Chinese immigrants and because most of the lucrative industries were dominated by mainland Chinese who were already established in Singapore. This relegated them to being servants for the British colonialists or to working in the food service industry, which sometimes was the same thing. The Hainanese served the British chicken rice, thinking the seemingly non-exotic boiled chicken would be acceptable to their palates.


But the fact that the chicken flavour is so pervasive throughout the dish suggests something surprising. Liew explained it best: “People would use the old mother hen for chicken rice when she couldn’t lay any more eggs. And so they would make sure they got the most out of it by stretching out the flavour of the chicken – via the broth and the rice and so on – as much as possible.”


Chicken rice is a full meal born out of the frugality that comes with strife and a battle to survive, as the Hainanese struggled to establish themselves in Singapore.


And then everything began to change with the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II – when the British were forced out and the Hainanese people lost their source of income. This was when the first chicken rice restaurant opened. As local food blogger Tony Boey explained to me, “Before that, the Hainanese just prepared it in the home, but during and after the occupation, they were looking for new ways to make money.”

随后不久,二战爆发,日本人占领了新加坡,一切都开始发生改变。日本人把英国人赶出新加坡,海南人因而失去了收入来源。也就在这个时候,第一家鸡饭餐厅开业了。正如当地美食博主托尼·博埃(Tony Boey)告诉我的那样,“在此之前,海南人只在自家家里制作鸡饭,但在日占期及之后的岁月里,他们是在寻找新的生财之道。”

One of those early places to open was Yet Con (25 Purvis St), established in the early 1940s. It’s still there, serving up the same chicken rice.

位于巴米士街(Purvis St)25号的“逸群鸡饭”便是早期的鸡饭餐厅之一。它于20世纪40年代初开业,现今仍在那里营业,供应同样的鸡饭。

I recruited a local chef friend, Vivian Pei, to accompany me there. When we walked in, around 5 pm, the owners gave us a dirty look. We were not only there between meals, but were there during their own dinner. They reluctantly allowed us to sit down.

我邀请了一位当地的厨师朋友薇薇安·裴(Vivian Pei)一同前往探店。我们大概是下午5点左右抵达目的地,此时正值两餐之间,我们的到来打断了店主家的晚餐时光。他们给了我们一副臭脸,很不情愿地让我们坐下。

And so here I was, sitting at one of a handful of marble tables scattered about the room. The no-frills mid-century ambience – with plain light-blue walls and a tiled floor – gave the restaurant an archaic feel.


When the chicken arrived at our table, something seemed strange. “There’s no sauce on the chicken,” said Pei.


Sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s, chicken rice cooks began drizzling the soy-sesame sauce on the cooked chicken. But Yet Con, apparently, still cooks up chicken like it’s 1949 – meaning sans sauce, giving the fowl an especially bland look.


The other big difference, Pei pointed out, was that Yet Con lets the chicken dry naturally and eschews the whole ice-dipping technique. She took a bite. “It’s a bit dry.” Perhaps it wasn’t always viewed as dry, but as new techniques have evolved to make chicken more tender – such as dropping it in ice – this version seemed woefully behind the times.


“I think the key to excellent chicken rice,” Pei said, “is that everything must be balanced. If one thing is not good then it brings down the dish.” Like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, chicken rice suffers if one element is mediocre. In the case of  Yet Con, the “weak link” was the chicken itself.


It wasn’t the best way to end my week of eating chicken rice, but it didn’t matter. I said goodbye to Pei – she had a cooking class to teach and I had a few hours to kill before my flight – and I strolled in the direction of the airport. Before I hailed a cab, I savoured my remaining time in a city-state where a seemingly boring dish can – most of the times – be elevated into something so sapid and comforting that my memories of it alone will sustain me until my next visit.

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