“If you’re going to begin a show in Singapore, it should be in a Hawker Center—in fact, in my opinion, it should be in this [Maxwell Food Centre] hawker center—and you should probably begin with the most beloved dish in Singapore, chicken rice.” – Anthony Bourdain
Here’s a fun game: ask any Singaporean what food they miss the most whenever they go abroad and rush to eat when they first return home. Without skipping a beat and without fail, their eyes will get misty as their lips curl up into a smile and they earnestly respond as though intoning a magic spell, “chicken rice”.
As someone who has never tasted the dish, the nation’s ardent infatuation with chicken rice is perplexing to say the least. At its core, the dish is little more than some chopped boiled chicken laid atop a bed of rice. With the diversity on display in Singapore and the amazingly flavorful dining scene that goes along with it—bowls of fiery laksa, decadent south Indian thali spreads where spices are layered upon one another, tender sticks of nutty satay—why would this basic dish top the list? I get that simple food doesn’t necessarily mean boring or bland food but did I really travel half way around the world for boiled chicken with rice? Seriously?!?
Needless to say, I was extremely dubious about just how good this dish could actually be. I tried to explain away why even international foodie extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain seemed to be drinking what was sure to be insipidly-flavored kool-aid (Maybe he was jet-lagged? Or had a head cold? Or the flu? I could see how if you couldn’t really taste anything anyway or didn’t want a challenging meal, chicken rice could potentially be appealing…), but in the end I knew this wasn’t a dish I could intellectually understand. I was simply going to have to step up to the uninspiring plate and try it for myself.
Chicken + Rice = A Match Made in Heaven?
If I was going to do this, I was determined to do it right, so we headed to our trusty Maxwell Food Centre. Though hawker stands serving up iconic chicken rice are a dime a dozen in Singapore, there is one in particular that has gained accolades that outshine the rest: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. In fact, if one can pinpoint the nexus of Maxwell’s fame, it does not lie simply in a blanket statement of approval for the center as a whole, but rather in this one particular stand. Believe me, the irony of this is not lost upon me.
I had read that Tian Tian rolls down its shutter on Mondays, but then promptly forgot this critical point of trivia, so of course I wound up planning Operation: Eat Chicken Rice for the one day of the week when the stall is locked up tight.
Not willing to concede defeat so easily and having psyched myself up for this quintessential Singapore eating experience, I found a neighboring stall also offering the dish. While some might think it foolish to set up a competing stall in the shadow of a giant, this is a common tactic in Asia where everything from tour companies, to hotels, to even humble chicken rice stands try to piggyback off other successful brands and poach a few of their customers. If a business flagrantly tries to fool you by adopting a similar (or even identical!) name to the original, this often signals bad news as it tries to coast by on name recognition alone. But in other cases, in an attempt to compete, these overlooked business offer an identical or superior product at a fraction of the price.
The stall I chose, Ah Tai, seemed to be doing a respectable amount of business, so I sidled up to the counter and placed my order. The owner turned from me and expertly hacked up a section of chicken and laid it on a plate piled high with a serving of sautéed greens embellished with a sprinkling of crispy shallots. Although chicken rice is generally just eaten as is—the name does, after all, make it pretty clear what the two key components to the dish are and for most Singaporeans anything in addition to that is considered superfluous—I like to get my veggies when I can. A perfect scoop of rice graced a second plate, not a grain out of place.
As I walked back to our table, I had to admit to myself that the food actually looked good. Like, really good. The pieces of chicken were plump and glistening; they certainly looked like they would be tasty.
Although chicken rice comes served with several different condiments (most notably a fiery chili sauce that you can mix with soy sauce infused with fresh ginger), I wanted my first taste of the dish to be completely pure.
My first mouthful of chicken rice was a bit of a shock. You see, although the rice gets served up piping hot, for whatever reason, the chicken is served at room temperature. If there is anything worse than plain boiled chicken, surely it is lukewarm boiled chicken! And I say this as someone who happily eats pizza for breakfast straight out of the fridge.
That said, once I got over the disquieting sensation of a mouthful of tepid poultry and was able to focus on the taste of the dish, things improved immensely: each bite was succulent, rich, and 100% chicken. The flavor of the chicken was far more concentrated and pronounced than I had anticipated, and was even better when doctored up with the potent one-two knockout punch of soy and chili. The only thing that I wasn’t really impressed with was the rice, which I found to pretty much taste like your average plate of rice, despite being cooked in renderings from the poached chicken. Chicken rice definitely seems to be a dish that is all about subtlety of flavors, so it’s possible that my palate just simply isn’t sufficiently refined to appreciate all the delicate yet complex aspects of the rice
Giving Tian Tian a Try
Against all odds, my first experience with chicken rice was more success than failure! Though I couldn’t imagine myself waxing rhapsodic about the dish, it was sufficiently appetizing that I decided I needed to come back and try Tian Tian and see if it was markedly better than the first iteration I had tried. Plus, it’s not like we weren’t always visiting Maxwell to stuff ourselves stupid anyway, so this decision was really no hardship and required no extra effort on my part.
Our return for Tian Tian took place on a Sunday after having wandered the streets for an hour only to find that many restaurants and stores were closed. Lucky for us, however, Maxwell does booming business every day of the week.
Before we even made it inside, we saw a long line snaking out of the building… sure enough, this was the line for Tian Tian. Apparently it’s a common practice for Singaporeans visiting hawker centers at which they don’t already have their own personal favorite stalls to simply find whichever one has the longest line and join it. I’m all for eating at places that seem popular, but given that the line for Tian Tian was at least 30 people deep, if I hadn’t already heard that it was the holy grail of chicken rice, I don’t know that I would have bothered waiting in such a long line when there were at least 100 other stalls on offer. Nevertheless, we joined the queue.
We wound up waiting for about half an hour to reach the counter, which seemed fast all things considered. Of course there were a few annoying people who, despite having been in line for 30 minutes, managed to have no idea what they wanted to eat when it came time to place their orders, but once the orders were in, the speed at which plates of food were delivered was pretty astounding. Unlike the stall we had visited earlier, a one-man show, Tian Tian was like the clown car of hawker stalls with five people crammed into its tiny confines: one person to take the orders, one person to take the money, one person on chicken duty, one person on rice, one person for the dipping sauces and various other accouterments. Working with the precision of a well-oiled machine, in less than a minute after placing our order, our plate of world-famous chicken rice (accompanied with a bowl of complementary broth) was in our hands.
I’ll cut to the chase: this was a good plate of food. That’s not to say it was the best thing I have ever eaten, but the chicken was tender & moist, though I wouldn’t say it was appreciably better than the first plate of chicken we had tried. And yes, the meat was still served slightly cool to the touch. The one way in which I think Tian Tian might have outshone the previous offering was with the rice—it was light and fluffy and the faint aroma of chicken infused into every bite was much more apparent. They’ll probably kick me out of Asia for saying so, but rice doesn’t exactly make my pulse race—not even when it’s cooked in chicken stock—so while I did think this rice was a stronger showing, I cannot say that I was in ecstasies over it. This version cost slightly more than the Ah Tai plate (minus the greens), but whether slightly better rice is worth an extra 80 cents and a much longer wait is really a matter of personal preference, I suppose. I later discovered that Ah Tai is run by a former disgruntled Tian-Tian chef, so perhaps that explains why the two plates of chicken rice we tried were so closely matched.
Having tried what is purportedly the best iteration of Singapore’s most beloved dish as well as one of its competitors, here’s what I ultimately thought about chicken rice: it’s completely and totally fine. It didn’t offend me and it wasn’t as bland or tasteless as I had feared, especially when you throw the condiments into the mix.
But if I’m being completely honest, I still stand by my initially gut reaction that Singapore has so many exciting flavor-packed dishes on offer, and in comparison, chicken rice is definitely on the boring end of the spectrum. Would I like it more if the chicken were served warm (or even hot!) instead of cold? Undoubtedly, but I still think I’d find the dish somewhat uninspiring.
I have often heard that it is the simplest dishes that are the most difficult to make, which is why in most western kitchens they test out applicants by having them do a basic egg dish or maybe a soup of some kind because they don’t give chefs any places to hide weak skills. Maybe chicken rice is the Singapore equivalent of an omelet and is actually deceptively tricky to pull off. This I cannot say. All I know is that even at its very best, even appreciating the skill behind it, it wasn’t a dish I loved, nor could I ever see myself craving it unless I was sick and wanted a plate of food just marginally more adventurous than dry toast or Saltine crackers. Perhaps if I had grown up eating chicken rice I would have a nostalgic fondness for it; I can very much see how this is a perfect example of comfort food: it is undemanding, it soothes, it nourishes. However, as a late in life adopter, there are far too many other culinary home runs in Singapore for me to devote too much stomach space to what feels like the food equivalent of a bunt.
I doubt my failure to fall in love with chicken rice will ruffle too many feathers. Singaporeans are proud of their food, and rightly so, but at the end of the day, this just means there will be one fewer person in line at Tian Tian and more chicken rice for them.
Tell us: Have you ever tried Singapore chicken rice? If so, what did you think? If not, do you think this is the kind of dish you would enjoy?