Thank You, Anthony Bourdain & TIVO
We travel. As much as we can. We travel to eat. As much as we can, and as authentically as we can – to a point. Though I generally stop short of emulating Andrew Zimmeran, I do try to follow the recommendations of Anthony Bourdain. Accordingly, when we began planning our trip to Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo, our trusty TIVO was put to good use taping shows on our exotic destinations. Low and behold, TIVO tracks down Anthony in Singapore. (See the episode on YouTube.)
As so I was introduced to Hainanese Chicken Rice. Like hamburgers to Americans, fish and chips to the Brits, and taco’s to Mexicans, this is the national food of Singapore. On our first full day in Singapore, we set out to have lunch at Tian Tian, just as Anthony instructed. Locating Tian Tian in the Maxwell Food Center might have been difficult. It’s one small stall that looks no different than the other 70 non-descript stalls, except for one thing: The long queue of people waiting to get this one simple, cheap dish of boiled chicken and white rice with some hot chili and dark, syrupy soy sauce on the side.
We dutifully joined the queue, happy to find that most of the others diners were locals. Tourists like us whispered Anthony’s name with a reverence usually reserved for church. (Appropriate, given that hawker stands are the churches of choice to foodies.) One of our group ran off to grab an empty table and track down some bottled water and beer. Finally, we reached the front of the line and received the Holy Grail of Singaporean Cuisine.
We tasted. We savored. We wondered out loud how such a simple preparation can infuse chicken meat and skin with such a subtle yet deep flavor. We all agreed we could distinctly taste the ginger, but argued whether we tasted scallion or garlic. We marveled at how each grain of rice was totally separate from the next. With pleasure and abandon, we singed our tongues on the chili sauce that accompanied every plate.
The simplicity of its preparation defies the logic of why this dish tastes so complex. We were totally unable to comprehend how this Plain Jane Boiled Chicken tasted so good. At one point, we mused that perhaps we were hypnotized by the Bourdain effect.
Luckily, a local took pity on our uneducated tourist palettes. Hui Min explained that the dish made its way to Singapore when the Chinese emigrated from the little island of Hainan, China. The traditional Hainanese method requires boiling the entire chicken in a stock made from pork and chicken bones. The broth is reused over and over, topping it off with water only when necessary, creating an incredibly rich, flavorful stock. Some cooks would stuff bits of ginger, garlic and scallions inside the chicken, while others kept their add-ins a secret. Some chose to use this rich broth to flavor the rice, while others use a more simple chicken broth, but all use extra chicken fat in the broth which adds flavor and produces a slight oily slick on each grain of rice resulting in these magically non-sticky grains.
As we talked with Hui Min, we were surprised to discover that we had actually had variations of Hainanese Chicken Rice in other regions of Asia. Thailand serves it up with a bit of vinegar, extra garlic, fish sauce and a garnish of cucumber and cilantro. Malaysian style may have coconut milk added to the rice. Before visiting Singapore, we had stopped in the old seaside city of Melaka where we had eaten Chicken Rice Balls, not even realizing this was a plate of Hainanese Chicken Rice molded into something the size and shape of a tennis ball.
I’ve tried to recreate the dish at home, mistakenly believing that its simplicity would make it an easy dish to duplicate. Nonsense. Maybe it’s the mysterious contents of the broth, or the diet of Singaporean chickens. Perhaps it’s not being surrounded by the clatter of hawker stalls and throngs of people. Maybe if Anthony comes over for dinner, I’ll ask him to show me how to make it taste like it did in Singapore. I’m betting he doesn’t know how they do it either.
Would you like to learn about great gourmet gifts, wine accessories and kitchen gadgets? Jeanette Hauser is the founder of the third largest gift basket business in Phoenix, AZ. She has been a frequent guest on the radio, discussing gourmet gifts, restaurants and food related travel, and has been honored to be a judge at the International Fancy Food Show. Visit Anything Goes Gourmet for great discussions, gourmet gift suggestions, and free wine and food reports.