Favorite Chicken Rice in Singapore

I have purposely titled this ‘favorite’ rather than best chicken rice in Singapore, mindful that I am a New Zealander married to a Chinese Malaysian and while fairly well assimilated, out of respect for the highly attuned indigenous palate here, the emphasis is on my personal choice, rather than a critique.

Food is a national sport in Singapore and right at the very top of the games program is chicken rice, or Hainanese chicken rice, Singaporean style. It is so popular that it vies with Singapore chili crab as the national dish.

Needless to say, opinions on who has the best chicken rice run high and you could spend a year getting around the numerous hawker stalls and restaurants, as many people do, including the indefatigable Makansutra team www.makansutra.com, the indispensible local food guide.

I must confess that I am not involved in any exhaustive chicken rice stall research although having tried most of the well-known ones, I consider myself reasonably well acquainted on the subject, moreover cook it myself at home.

Indeed, on my first trip to Singapore in the early 1990s as a guest presenter for a food and wine event at the Mandarin Hotel on Orchard Road, I practically lived in their famous chicken rice restaurant, Chatterbox, our unofficial working office and canteen. I even had chicken rice there one lunchtime with two Thai army generals and a Singapore army colonel, who were more intent on absorbing as much of Singapore’s best food that anything military.

Chicken rice for Saturday lunch has become a ritual in our family, all of us craving it by the weekend, my daughter and I sometimes sneaking off after school for a mid-week fix.

We were loyal to a chicken rice establishment in Upper Thompson Road for a number of years, the quality certainly meriting this. However, the owners were such a mournful bunch and the service so surly, it was like a training ground for Changi Prison wardens and it was getting depressing going there.

I am somewhat intrigued by the habitual churlish restaurant service nature in Chinese culture. It almost seems it’s a matter of principal or a matter of ‘face’, that to serve means to abuse and inflict a sense of authority over the customer. What’s impressive is it comes naturally. Not like the French, who have to put on an act – well, most of the time, to have the upper hand on the diner.

Geography also influenced change as my daughter took up karate and on Saturday and Sunday mornings to which we travel past Novena Ville on the way to her karate school in McNair Road. And as any local savvy chicken rice aficionado will know, Novena is where the famous Wee Nam Kee chicken rice hawker is located.

They say location can be everything and I am sure this is an influencing factor on people’s preference for certain hawker stalls in Singapore; the convenience effect impacting on their judgement. There is also a degree of rivalry here, like any sport, a certain pride in the local entity, in this case neighbourhood food courts and hawker stalls, with a tribal resistance outside of their environs.

That said, Singaporeans will travel across the island to have good food. Granted it’s a 20km by 40km country and anything more than an hour's car travel time you had best have your passport with you, but it’s all relative and location here is not the panacea for success in the restaurant business.

Admittedly our patronage of Wee Nam Kee is largely da-bao (takeaway) although this doesn’t diminish our customer ranking, having struck up a good relationship with the staff. Such status is not easily earned. Like any Chinese eatery worthy of going to, the service here is brutal, although the difference here is there is an underlying sense of joviality and humility.

The place is wonderfully chaotic, so much so you can understand why expatriates are conspicuous in their absence. Personally, I love restaurant theatre. The frenzy of hungry people and buzz of a packed restaurant is intoxicating and vital to the experience, moreover a sure sign the food is excellent. Rule number 1, avoid quiet Chinese restaurants.

Adding to the ambience and energy of Wee Nam Kee is the open service-kitchen with enticing roasted and steamed chickens hanging in rows and an enormous stainless steel fan tong of wonderfully perfumed rice cooked in chicken stock engulfing the senses.

There are two lively cooks wielding razor sharp cleavers, dismembering and chopping up chooks with such speed and expertise that even Hannibal Lecter would be impressed. There is a palpable sense of pride in their monotonous work, like the precision and dedication of Japanese sushi chefs. There is dignity in technique and maintaining impeccably high standards.

On my first few visits, I struck the normal Chinese resistance and communicating my order was difficult however, with a few words of Mandarin and a good deal of patience, a rapport was starting to build. Perhaps the icebreaker here was my stainless steel five-dish Tiffin and soup tin that was cause for great amusement amongst the staff.

I am still the only person among the thousands of takeaway customers here weekly to bring my own containers, having a strong aversion to polystyrene and plastic. It is mindboggling to think how much completely avoidable rubbish is generated on this island.

Even more obvious, I am noticeably usually the only Ang Mo in the place, save for the occasional tourist. I know it’s a bit of rhetoric with me, but I cannot understand why expatriates do not frequent these places, especially when they continually complain about the cost of living and yet chicken rice is one of the most affordable, satisfying and nutritious meals you can have.

So, what’s the fuss about this boiled chicken? Like anything glaringly simple in gastronomy, it is the purity and clarity of flavor, the texture and integrity of ingredients. The chicken literally melts in the mouth and the combination of the oily rice is simply addictive.

The chicken is not actually boiled, rather immersed in hot water along with some concentrated chicken stock, sesame oil, light soy sauce, salt, chopped fresh ginger and garlic (some add Pandan leaf) and gently steamed within the water, just below simmering point. It only takes about 30 minutes to cook a 1.5kg bird, the chicken dunked in cool water immediately after for a few minutes to stop the cooking process to ensure the meat stays tender.

It is strategic to cook the rice in the resultant chicken stock and I’m told additional chicken fat and shallot oil, perhaps not entirely healthy, but it sure tastes good and infinitely superior to any steamed white rice you will ever have.

For some, it is the soy sauce drizzled over the chopped chicken that is strategic although personally we prefer no soy sauce as in our opinion it adulterates the purity of the subtle chicken flavours. Also the chili sauce accompanying it is seen as equally important, although again I personally much prefer the ground fresh ginger and garlic that most serve as an option.

We also usually order breast meat only, which is effortlessly carved away by our expert choppers, although I know many people prefer other cuts, bone and all, as the theory goes the meat is most flavoursome near the bone.

Notwithstanding our devotion to chicken rice or questioning the integrity of the purveyors, it is somewhat mind-boggling that in the chicken capital of the world, a nation obsessed with the quality of chicken rice and many other chicken dishes, you cannot buy a free-range, organic bird, unless it is frozen and only from the United States.

I know it sounds preposterous, but the reality is that everyone is eating battery-raised, intensively farmed chicken, which is a far cry in quality and flavor from a free-range and organic poultry, not to mention ethically and nutritionally questionable.

I don’t want to labor the point in this piece, but if you want the truth of the matter, and also find out about the excellent Sakura Chicken, read more at http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/a-happy-chook-is-a-tasty-chook/

Wee Nam Kee is located at 275 Thomson Road #01-05 Novena Vile (opposite Novena Church) open every day between 10.15am-1.30am. You can call through your takeaway orders on 6333 9830. I would try to avoid peak lunch hours as it gets pretty chaotic.