What the Gals Eat

Singapore is famous for many things, but the thing our country is most famous for is its food. And of all the wonderful local dishes that people love eating here, no one dish may be more beloved than "chicken rice". I have to admit that while I like chicken rice tremendously, it's not my favourite local food -- I'd rather have char kuay teow or fish head curry. But it has been the preferred local food of almost every local woman I've dated, including my beloved wife S. Sometimes, it even feels like the only thing Singaporean girls want to eat is chicken rice. The first girl I dated here didn't want to eat anything else when we went out. For another, chicken rice was comfort food, something to eat when she needed a pick-me-up or a taste of home. S loves chicken rice for its simple, delicate and delicious flavours. She also likes it because, compared to a lot of other local dishes (like the ones I love), it's relatively healthy. Well, at least the chicken is. After all, it's boiled.

For the uninitiated, chicken rice is boiled chicken, served at room temperature, paired with rice that's been cooked with chicken stock, sesame oil, ginger and garlic. The chicken and rice are eaten with 2 sauces, dark soy sauce and a chili sauce that's been flavoured with freshly minced ginger.

Our favourite chicken rice purveyor is what S calls, "the great undiscovered chicken rice stall". Because while it is popular, it is not one of the more well-known or famous ones. It has also not, as far as we know, been written up or included in any of the major guides to Singapore. It does, though, serve up what we feel is the best chicken rice in town. We've brought several major foodies, both amateur and professional, to try it and all have been impressed. Some have also become regulars. The chicken served at the unimaginatively-named Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice is tender and juicy. It's served with a bit of the chicken's natural juices (some say that this addition is very Cantonese), which keeps everything moist. In addition to the chicken meat, S always asks for an order of chicken livers. These are done beautifully here. Unlike most other places that overcook their livers, these are served deliciously tender, almost creamy. One food writer we shared these with likened it to a platter of low-cost foie gras. The rice here is also good, well-flavored and aromatic. Another local food writer liked it so much he ate two bowls on his very first visit. For those of you intending to drop by, we recommend having your chicken rice with an avocado shake. There are two stalls in the same lane that prepare this rich, creamy and yummy drink.

Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice
Alexandra Village, Blk 120
Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-15
Singapore 150120

For readers further afield, I recommend trying to make your own chicken rice. Below is the recipe S included in Lonely Planet's World Food Guide: Malaysia & Singapore. It's based on a recipe that a friend passed her and that she's been tweaking over the years. Enjoy!

Hainanese chicken rice
Serves 4

1 fresh whole chicken (about 1kg)
1 tsp salt
1 Tbs light soya sauce
1 tsp Chinese rice wine
2 pieces of ginger, each 1-inch thick, lightly bruised with the back of a knife
1 garlic clove, peeled and lightly bruised
1 spring onion
1 tsp sesame oil

For the rice
2 cups long grain jasmine rice
2 1/2 cups chicken stock (obtained from cooking the chicken; see recipe)
chicken fat (from preparing the whole chicken; see recipe)
1 Tbs finely minced ginger
5 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp salt
1 pandanus leaf, tied into a knot

Chilli and ginger sambal
10 fresh red chillies, seeds removed from half, chopped
10 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
2 Tbs peeled and chopped ginger
1 Tbs vegetable oil
1Tbs chicken stock (obtained from cooking the chicken; see recipe)
salt, to taste
sugar, to taste
calamansi juice, to taste

To serve
1 cucumber, halved length-wise and thinly sliced
sprigs of coriander
dark soy sauce
salt
ground white pepper
2 spring onions, finely sliced

Remove the fat from the cavity of the chicken and set aside for use in flavouring the rice later. Vigorously rub the cavity and exterior with salt. Then rub the chicken cavity with 1/2 tablespoon of the soy sauce and all of the rice wine. Stuff the cavity with ginger, garlic and spring onion. Set aside for 1 hour (not in the fridge).

Bring a deep stockpot, filled with enough water to cover the chicken, to the boil. Lower the chicken into the pot—it should be completely immersed. Immediately turn off the heat, cover, and leave to stand for 1 hour. At 15-minute intervals, lift the chicken and drain the water from the cavity to ensure that the chicken cooks inside as well. At the 30-minute mark, reheat the water almost to boiling point, then turn the heat off. Never having been allowed to boil, the chicken should be cooked to succulent and juicy perfection.

At the end of the hour, remove the chicken from the pot, and plunge into a large bowl of iced water to arrest further cooking. Once cool (about 15 to 20 minutes), drain the chicken thoroughly. Rub it down with the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of soy sauce and sesame oil. Snip off the chicken wing tips, neck, and legs. Toss these into the liquid left in the stockpot. Set the chicken aside, covered, until ready to serve.

To prepare the rice, rinse it in a sieve under cold running water until the water runs clear. Drain thoroughly. Bring the pot with the chicken stock to the boil, simmering until the liquid is reduced to about 5 cups, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Strain the stock. Measure out 2 1/2 cups for cooking the rice. Set the rest aside. Place the chicken fat set aside earlier in a medium saucepan. Cook on a low heat to render the fat (there should be about 3 tablespoons worth). Add the ginger and garlic, and fry gently until aromatic without browning. Add the drained rice and sesame oil, stirring well to coat each grain with fat. Add the 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock to the rice, and bring to the boil. Add the pandanus leaf and salt. Simmer briskly until there is no water left on the surface of the rice. Clamp the lid of the saucepan on tightly, and immediately reduce the heat to the lowest. Leave for about 10 minutes. Turn the heat off, and allow the rice to stand for another 10 minutes before uncovering. Alternatively, after frying the rice, place it in a rice cooker with the pandanus leaf and salt. Substitute chicken stock for the amount of water you would ordinarily add to cook the same amount of rice.

For the chilli and ginger sambal, process or blend the chillies, garlic and ginger to a fine paste, adding the oil and chicken stock (from what was reserved earlier) to facilitate the process. Scrape into a bowl. Stir in salt, sugar and lime juice to taste. Dish some into 4 individual saucers.

When ready to serve, chop the chicken Chinese-style into bite-sized pieces with skin and bone intact. Place on a serving platter over the sliced cucumber. Garnish with sprigs of coriander. Dish some dark soy sauce into 4 individual saucers. Bring the remaining chicken stock back to the boil. Season to taste with salt and ground white pepper. Ladle into 4 small soup bowls and garnish with the sliced spring onions. For each serving, pack a small bowl with rice, then invert rice onto a plate. Each person gets a plate of aromatic rice, a bowl of shimmering chicken broth, and 2 small dishes of dipping sauces—the chilli and ginger sambal, and the dark soy sauce. Everyone helps himself or herself to the platter of Hainanese chicken placed in the centre of the table.

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