Takeaway level: Singapore
Tucked away in an indoor building on Maxwell Road, right at the edge of quaint Chinatown, lies a busy hawker stall selling a dish that has become synonymous with Singapore. The humble food offered by this stall, considered to be the best by many connoisseurs, may just define what the country is all about – a little mild, a tad fiery and whole lot fragrant – in other words, a melting pot of ethnicities.
I speak of the largely modest and yet exhilaratingly delicious Hainanese Chicken Rice, or just chicken rice, if you please.
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In Singapore, food is a passion. This is a place where you are allowed to insolently pursue your love for food. A place right after my heart, where I could talk nineteen to a dozen about the various cuisines on offer. A place where the whole world would be on my platter, and for half the price that I might be expected to shell out. For, my dining options would most certainly be centred around hawker centres or food courts, rather than restaurants. Just as a local Singaporean would expect me to.
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I can imagine a genial, kindly uncle guide me towards Maxwell Food Centre.
“Tian Tian Chicken rice,” he would tell me with a gleam in his eye. “Eat.”
Inside the food court, I would be met with the sight of a long queue at Tian Tian, an unassuming hawker stall. It is a family owned business that, due to its popularity, has expanded to several more locations within Singapore. The one at Maxwell Food Centre is the original, and has not changed much since the time it first opened. I have been told that the average waiting time at Tian Tian is around twenty minutes. Twenty excruciating minutes for a cherished culinary pleasure. Life is not that easy, is it?
But the long wait will seem worthwhile once the plateful of deliciousness is handed over. To top it all, a decent portion of chicken rice along with a bowl of chicken broth costs just 3.50 Singapore dollars. Essentially, it is the usual price for any hawker foods in Singapore, though Tian Tian’s price is a steal for its good quality and taste. The cooking of the chicken itself is an interesting method. Apparently, the chicken is gently poached in sub-boiling temperatures in a pork and chicken bone stock, reusing the broth over and over and only topping it up with water when needed. The chicken is then chopped by hand and served with rice, which has been cooked in broth and chicken fat, making the rice incredibly flavorsome.
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When the time comes to taste the chicken rice, eat as a Singaporean would. Drizzle a generous amount of dark soy sauce, dig your fork through the juicy meat 'dressed' in chilli sauce, scoop up some rice and fresh ginger juliennes and savour the concoction – letting all the flavors burst in your mouth. The velvety meat is almost melt-in-your-mouth tender, just as the rice is lusciously fragrant with a rich and intense chicken taste. The accompanying sauces play a big role in complimenting the chicken rice as well. The chicken itself is pretty mild, but the hot chilli dip and dark soy sauce turn up the deliciousness to another level altogether.
While I have tasted variations of Hainanese Chicken Rice here in India, I know that they are nowhere close to the real thing, going by larger view. Perhaps a little wait is in order till I get to savor this beautiful Singaporean national dish. Till then....