Singapore’s Hawker Heritage: Chicken Rice

Last week, I attended STORM magazine’s Keep It Going conference that discussed, debated and divined how sustainability in Singapore might unfurl and be harnessed. (I am a frequent contributor to the quarterly literary journal captained by rock star veteran journalist Kannan Chandran.) Covering the “Feeding The Hunger Of The Masses” panel, I was struck by these words from chef/restaurant design consultant/World Gourmet Summit mastermind/thought provocateur Peter Knipp: “Singapore is a food nation… but do you know the history of your food? And who’s behind it?” I do, but I wanted to know more. Basing this little project on a recent list by CNN Travel on “40 Singapore Foods We Can’t Live Without,” I decided to satiate some curiosity pangs.

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here's Yeo Keng Nam's roasted varietal. © Desiree Koh

For Singaporeans, the chicken rice always comes first. Here’s the roasted version at Yeo Keng Nam in Braddell – they’ve been winging it for more than 50 years. © Desiree Koh

To say my mother is Hainanese and a gifted cook is like saying Singaporeans love to eat. Growing up in Hougang’s Hainanese kampong (village) community on my great-grandmother’s chicken rice (fowl fattened for the grand sacrifice, rice steamed in its fat, its glistening skin the outlying ingredient of the chilli sauce), very few renditions pass my mom’s taste test.

Chicken rice is succulent chicken infused with ginger, then either poached or slung into a furnace and roasted. Expertly sliced with a flourish that’s Shaolin monk to the sushi master’s Samurai precision, the beautifully splayed meat is served atop rice first fried in chicken fat before being steamed in the poultry’s juices, pandan and ginger to fragrant heaven. Which means a visitor from China’s Hainan island would absolutely not recognize one of his or her native dishes.

There, a skinny fowl is accompanied by oily rice and ground green chilli, and a pork stock is used in the preparation. When chicken rice arrived from Hainan, fresh off the junk boat in the colonial 1850s, the Cantonese (oh, those mighty master chefs of Chinese cuisine!) introduced kalamansi into the chilli sauce. They also turned it red, effectively giving chicken rice its Singaporean citizenship with the immigration of these local Southeast Asian ingredients into the recipe. The dish took on a more curvaceous shape with tender young chickens, and started growing in popularity from the downtown Hainanese enclaves of Middle Road, Purvis Street and Sea Street in the early 1900s. Street peddlers shaped the rice by hand into softball-shaped balls before wrapping them in banana leaves for quicker and more seamless transactions.

At stalwarts such as Yet Con, Chin Chin and Yeo Keng Nam, dark soy sauce and an elixir of freshly ground ginger and garlic complete the condiment tray; Hainanese purists drizzle the dark soy sauce over their perfectly round mound of rice, and mix the ginger/garlic dip into the chilli. Like most Singaporean dishes, the spice makes or breaks its case for epicurean euphoria – weak sauce can render a chicken rice non-existent. Make your request for breast, wing or drumstick portions, topping off with add-ons of gizzard, liver and intestines (best to go with a group, so you can pick every damned part clean).

There are lots of big name chicken rice stalls, such as the Bour(roll eyes)dain-worshipped Tian Tian, Wee Nam Kee and Boon Tong Kee, but for chicken rice with soul, Delicious Boneless Chicken Rice at Katong Shopping Centre (865 Mountbatten Road), Five Star Hainanese Chicken Rice (191 East Coast Road) and Yeo Keng Nam (8 Braddell Road) are where you’ll find my mom digging into her favorite thigh-and-gizzard combo.

chickenriceChicken rice is one of our commemorative SG50 icons.

Distinctive, Distinguished and Disgruntled

Eating at The Disgruntled Chef generally leaves me bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

See, I have a problem with small plates. It works for tapas (bar food – free pass) and dim sum (tradition – no fight), and I get the concept of variety and conviviality and intimacy, but seriously, it’s lame. If you want to chow, you go all the way. I hate having to mask my sincerity when I say, “You have the last bite” of a really tasty something wonderful. I hate having to carve something out of a nothing foamy swirl. I hate getting the plate when almost all of a much-needed dab of 24-hour reduction has been sopped up. Most times, I want a huge slab of apple pie with all my buttered crumbs intact and vanilla bean ice cream not yet deconstructed by not Grant Achatz.

But the first time we sidled past not having reservations at Saturday prime brunch time and slid up to the marble-slabbed bar at Daniel Sia’s place, I was reminded that there is a reason for everything. First, a sprawling counter to fit all the small plates you want (there will be many); also front row seats to one of the best shows in the house, the showy flows of cocktails (gentleman’s pours – just right for mischievous madams.). Like Sia’s cuisine, the drinks don’t mess with tradition – they keep the provenance intact, then make things even better. It’s like the serif flourish of John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

On the crabcakes, I really liked the tomato chili jam – remou-who? – for cutting through the fine crumb crust.

Which makes sense, when you think about how Sia left The White Rabbit as executive chef two years ago to open his own shop, having worked his way up the line from a junior chef at Les Amis. And that’s a cause for celebration, so two weekends ago, we were gathered in the restaurant’s corner of Dempsey Hill by the very kind invitation of The Disgruntled Chef, to do what we do best there – eat, drink, convive.

The baked bone marrow was not on the birthday menu, but buttery and slippery, it begins at the tip of your tongue and slides nonchalantly down as seamlessly as an ice cube, except with nothing but warmth and love.

If the dinner was a greatest hits of regular favorites and a preview of a new record, then it’s not too different from Bruce Springsteen’s current “Wrecking Ball” tour. I came to a truce with the restaurant’s small plates concept when I saw how they took pride in serving your order in courses, thoughtfully shepherding the flow of a meal with your tasting pleasure in consideration – as carefully crafted as the Boss’s set lists and yes, that Sunday evening was also a marathonal mastication.

Immacandcheeseculate.

However, I’m going to eat my words and jump straight to what has always been the marquee dish for me at The Disgruntled Chef – the crayfish mac & cheese. Do you know what it’s like to miss New Orleans? I do, because it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and Sia has dragged crawdaddies, one of its best things, from the muck and made it even more illicit. It’s like macaroni eloped with creamy white cheese during Mardi Gras in Treme. It makes lobsters roll in their graves and wish they could ditch Nantucket for Nawlins. You want to toss your silverware aside and claw into this. Let the cheese streak through the air, you slurping up gravity-defying strands, like tugging at heartstrings.

The best of the rest:

And so, the small plates once again proved me wrong, happily, and while nothing else could fit into my gastro-intestinal tract, there was plenty of room on my happy cloud for the splendid service by manager Shireen Sheikh and the delightful service team, on top of marketer Bethany Chuah’s enthusiastic hospitality. Clue: they all know their food and drink extremely well.

Walking out and thanking Chef Sia, I don’t think he looked disgruntled at all.

Holey Communion

To find the only authentic New Yawk bagels in Singapore, I had to wander through Sarnies, a cafe modeled after Melbourne’s finest, where a flat white is a coffee order and not a Studio 54 bathroom purchase.

I was there to witness the birthing of Mama Bagel’s babies, hole-somely dense, chewy yeasted dough that cuts no corners in rounding up the tedious process of their gestation, a term more eventful than Elliott Spitzer’s governorship.

Striptease.

First, ringleader Mama Bagel (Jennifer Harrison, if you’re yeasty) mixes and kneads her dough, a finger-crunching technique that’s like the Swedish sports massage of baking. By hand, this used to take her 15 minutes to craft six bagels – the industrial mixer in the Sarnies kitchen now does the job in eight to 10 minutes for a batch of 30. Then, she lets the dough rest.

Pulling bagel resources.

Next, the dough is portioned out. Rest. Then, it’s shaped by hand into that bagel ring ding-a-ling. Rest. After which they’re whisked into boiling water and fished out. Rest.

Bagel bagel, toil and trouble, 100 percent worth it.

(At this point, you might be asking, “With so many rest stops… are we there yet??” Ya know what? Nobody gets to the promised land in 60 seconds.) Fresh out of the boiling water, they are steamy, wistful, very willow-o’-the-wisp – like they have just woken up from a beautiful dream.

Hot and hydrated.

Into the oven they go, pasty white, wan and wrinkly like Prince Charles’ scalp; and out they pop, bronzed, sculpted studs of Olympian lord of the rings. If you want to celebrate with a cigar, you should. Yeah, yo Mama Bagels so ugly, they be the real thing.

It’s a bagel!

I first found Mama Bagel at the Loewen Gardens farmer’s market, where I was attracted to her seedy nature. Because poppy seeds are illegal in Singapore – high, heady times, for sure – Mama Bagel’s alternative is to sprinkle organic chia seeds from Mexico for that springy, gelatinous crunch with a nutty taste that complements the bagel chaw so well. When I think “bagel” and “chia seeds,” I think running and Tarahumara, that Mexican ultra-running tribe, and the next thing I know, I’m wondering if I’ve found the perfect pre-long run fuel. Energy boosting, full of omega-3 acids, anti-oxidants, protein, fiber, calcium, and unprocessed, these whole grains are like a runner’s hole in one. Some girls like diamonds on top of their rings – I like chia seeds on mine. What pleases me most is that Mama Bagels are completely without chemicals, preservatives, fat nor eggs – they make me feel like a natural woman.

Bagelfast of champions.

The first time I took Mama Bagel on a test drive, I topped the chia seed bagel with almond butter and organic, all-natural sugarless cherry jam, and cruised through an hour and 45 minutes on the MacRitchie trails. The same bagel belly bump gassed the Energizer 18K Night Trail Race, and I revved to the finish in 2:07 without needing to pop an energy gel at my usual 1:45 re-fueling point. This weekend, the pedal was pushed to the 2:30 trail mettle, and although this time it was a sesame bagel with the same shmears, I still didn’t need to pit stop. Wow. That’s a really, really great situation to be in, especially in a race.

Mama Bagels also come in cinnamon-raisin, plain and onion – the gold standard of New Yawk delis – and I’m slowly making my way across the flavors. You don’t want to keep something like this under lox and key – everyone needs to know that great bagels in Singapore are not a lost cause, as the Mets have been for many seasons. For Big Applers in town, Mama Bagels are your lifesavers, although you won’t be getting any deli sass with that. For everyone else, they are ring king of the hill, top of the list, head of the heap. Start spreading the news.

The hole shebang.

Mama Bagel bakes them fresh with sass on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Sarnies (136 Telok Ayer Street) and sells them with aplomb at the Loewen Gardens Farmers Market (second and fourth Saturday of the month).