Comfort Food, Singapore Style

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.

If you listen to the Singapore press, there’s a chicken rice war going down in Maxwell. Ever since Tony Bourdain waltzed into the Chinatown food court in 2008 and lost his mind on camera over a plate of Tian Tian’s chicken rice, the family-owned vendor has claimed the title of Singapore’s chicken rice king. But this reign has not been without turbulence. After 20 years of blanching chicken and boiling rice, one of Tian Tian’s star cooks, Wong Liang Tai, was dismissed after a quarrel with the chicken rice chieftains. Not content to slink quietly off into the Singapore sunset, Tai decided to open his own stand just three stalls down from his former employer, using the same magical formula that had made Tian Tian so famous (a formula that Tai has argued he helped invent).

Chicken rice is originally a Chinese creation, a deceptively sophisticated preparation from the southern island of Hainan involving poached chicken and rice cooked in fragrant, fatty chicken stock. The staple traveled south to Singapore with the wave of Hainanese immigrants and promptly became a star of the street food scene around the city. You’ll find chicken rice up and down the Malaysian peninsula, but Singaporeans have claimed it as their own national dish, and cook it as if they eat nothing else.

I may have been ignorant to the power of chicken rice the first time around, but I would not make the same mistake twice. So I solicited the help of one of Singapore’s most respected eaters, Leslie Tay, a full-time pediatrician who moonlights as the insatiable force behind the food blog ieatishootipost.sg. Dr. Tay has spent many years cataloging the best of Singapore’s hawker food and has an incredible ability to drill right down to heart of a dish.

“First of all, look at the rice. The grains should be plump and unbroken with a nice fragrance. There should be a gelatinous layer of fat just beneath the skin. If I see the gelatin, I know the cook has put in the proper effort.”

Dr. Tay says that condiment craftsmanship is nearly as vital as the dish itself.

“Smell the chili sauce. Do you smell calamansi lime or do you small vinegar, a cheap short cut? And a good black sauce should have the thickness and complexity of an aged balsamic vinegar.”

The more I talk to the good doctor, the more it becomes apparent that there is likely no one on earth more serious about food than Singaporeans. They queue up for hours at a time, plan meals like chess moves, and remain fiercely loyal to the cooks who know how to make their bellies dance. For further proof of how deep the food love runs, you need only check out Chicken Rice War, a bizarre adaption of Romeo and Juliet in which the Montagues and Capulets are replaced by the Wongs and Changs, two families of warring chicken rice hawkers. These days in Maxwell Center, it seems life is imitating art.

I arrive at 11 am, before the lunch crush has set in, and head straight to Tian Tian stand, where a healthy queue has already formed. Clouds of chicken steam and the thwack of butchers’ knives act like appetizers for the hungry masses. When I finally sit down to my plate, I work through Dr. Tay’s qualitative cues. The rice, tinted a gentle brown from its poultry bath, emits a heady fragrance of ginger and herbs. A sheen of rendered chicken fat coats the grains and gives the rice the moist sparkle of a good sushi rice. The dark soy-based sauce clings to the tines of my fork; the chili sauce next to it smells like citrus peel and is so red it almost glows.

Then there is the bird itself, served at room temperature, wobbling gently atop the mound of rice. With one glance you can tell that the cooks here have captured that exalted state of slipperiness, the fat gently rendered and shocked into a semi-solid jelly by plunging the cooked chickens directly into a frigid ice bath. Before you go crazy with the condiments, before you begin to mix protein and carb and ground chili into some gloriously abstract salad, take a bite of that chicken: This is what chicken tasted like before everything else tasted like chicken.

After Tian Tian, I walked the 15 paces down the aisle to Ah-Tai Chicken Rice and repeated the process. And what I found at the former employer’s stand was noble and delicious and deserving of the small queue it claimed, but it was not Tian Tian. I’d love to say that the hype is an exaggeration, that Bourdain was merely hamming it up for the camera, that in a sling shot battle, David slays Goliath nine times out of ten. But with the infintesimal knowledge and experience that I have in these matters, I can say that Tian Tian is in a different league than most chicken rice stalls in Singapore.

This is by no means a comprehensive judgment of Tian Tian’s chicken rice supremacy across Singapore; I talked to a dozen different cabbies during my time in town and everyone offered a different take on the best purveyor: Five Star, Loy Kee, Boon Tong Kee.

I can’t say much about those places; those will have to wait for another visit. I can say, without hesitation, that if I was stranded in Singapore and down to my last $3, I’d head to Maxwell and take my place in the queue.

Matt Goulding
Matt Goulding is the co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms. He is also the former food editor at Men's Health and the author of the New York Times bestselling series Eat This, Not That. You can follow him at @mdgoulding.
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