You can ask any Singaporean, whether in their high-rise office, on the streets or in their kitchen whipping up a batch of fresh cookies, and they will tell you that the dish which best represents their country and their people is none other than the chicken rice.
I was unfamiliar with chicken rice before I came to Singapore and when my friend said that it was absolutely something that I had to try, I was intrigued. What is it with the dish, which makes it an absolute must-have for anyone visiting or passing through Singapore? What is it with the chicken? How is it cooked? Is it the ingredients?
My first sight of chicken rice was a stall with hanging cooked chicken waiting to be sliced. It didn’t look that appealing to me at first but I was pleasantly surprised after my first spoonful. The chicken was tender and cooked to perfection and the rice aromatic.
I never thought that such a simple dish can be so flavourful. I thought of the cook who lovingly prepared it for his usual patrons, as well as new customers. The many hours he spent slaving away in the kitchen and making sure that the chicken rice tasted as best as it possibly could.
Since then I have eaten many chicken rice dishes in various places all throughout the Singapore that I could not count them anymore. There are numerous variations of the chicken rice dish in this part of the world. In the Philippines it is called lechon manok; in Thailand it is called khao man kai and in Malaysia, it is known as chicken rice balls because it is served with, you guessed it, ball-shaped rice. Chicken rice is sumptuous and popular that its variations lend it more mystery and intrigue, heightening the first-timer’s anticipation of all its flavorful goodness.
The chicken rice in Singapore will give you the taste of succulent and tender chicken with fragrant rice cooked in chicken stock with pandan leaves, some dark or light soy cause and spicy chili and ginger to cap it all off. It can be ordered with braised dark soy hard-boiled egg or braised dark soy firm tofu.
No other dish has inspired debates from both the young and old; as well as men and women. If you were to ask locals which place in the city serves the best chicken rice, you will get a variety of answers. Some will tell you to head East while others will tell you to go South. If you were to ask Singaporeans how best to eat the dish, some will tell you to dip the chicken in the chili sauce while others will tell you that it is best eaten with the chili on the rice and not on the chicken.
You will also hear people say that you should get a spoonful of rice first and before you eat the chicken while others will say that you are to eat the chicken and rice together. Well, there is no proper way to eat chicken rice. Whatever makes you happy, go for it, even if it means eating it with your bare hands! Personally I prefer eating the chicken and rice together with no chili.
For many foreigners who have lived in the city, it is the first dish they order when they see a Singaporean restaurant somewhere. Chicken rice is also something which locals order after a trip or a long stay abroad because it reminds them of home, its comforts, its smells, and its tastes.
Chicken rice not only fills your craving for good food; it also fills your soul. It is something that you will come to love and something that you will miss when you leave the country.
This article first appeared on lets-eat.sg in March 2015