On paper, it appears bowl-of-cereal simple: boil the water, drop the chicken, cook the rice, pile one on top of the other. It’s a starving-student construction, what one turns to when the cupboards are bare and inspiration is past its expiration date.
Indeed, the first time I encountered chicken rice I was hungry and broke, on my final day of a Southeast Asian bender and down to my last three Singaporean dollars. The sexier items—fish head curry, crab claws slathered in crimson chili sauce—all came with adult price tags, and after a desperate calories-for-cash calculation, I landed on this prosaic dish, unaware of its immigrant origins, ignorant of its cultural importance, and uninitiated in the complex charms of the world of flavors trapped within.
In the years since that first encounter I’ve often found myself crunching numbers, trying to figure out how something so elemental—a piece of lukewarm protein, a pile of unadorned carbs—could deliver the kinds of flavors that burrow into your memory bank and never find their way back out. 1 + 1 = 10? The math in my mind just didn’t check out.
A decade later, brought back to Singapore—that great and bizarre and unsettling metropolis of culinary decadence and authoritarian order—on eating business, there was no question where the bulk of calories and stomach real estate would be allotted. After a few warm-up rounds across the city-state, I headed into Maxwell Street Hawker Center, arguably the most famous of the island’s fleet of hawker centers, the lion’s den of chicken rice obsession.