Among Australia’s neighbours, Singapore is perhaps the safest and least audacious. Of the millions of travellers who pass through the republic each year, less than half leave Changi Airport’s sliding doors for the languid efficiency outside. It’s the perfect place for anyone who likes their cultural experiences proximal.
Taking advantage of Singapore’s policy of allowing Covid-vaccinated Australians to venture outside between connecting flights, and safe in the knowledge that in a country this small it is impossible to be more than a 30-minute drive from the airport, I hail a cab and make for the nearest hawker centre. I have several hours, and the urge to eat one thing: Hainanese chicken rice.
“If you want to find a national dish of Singapore,” said celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain, “then few would disagree that this deceptively simple-looking meal of boiled, room-temperature chicken on top of white rice is it.”
More specifically, a chicken, usually of the Wenchang variety, is poached and then plunged into iced water to create a layer of jelly underneath the skin. The fat is skimmed from the boiled water and some of the stock is used to cook the rice. The chicken is coated in sesame oil, hung, then hacked into thick slices, ideally sized for dunking into the small dishes of sauces that join it on the table. A bowl of broth is taken from the boiled stock and served alongside the chicken; its flavour spread throughout the meal, the bird is reunified by the dish.
Chicken rice was the creation of migrants from the southern Chinese province of Hainan in the 1800s, either as an adaptation of a dish from home using local ingredients or as an invention intended to please the comparatively bland palates of their colonial occupiers. Over the next two centuries, the dish became one of the few that could be found at hole-in-the-wall takeaways and on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants with little variation. What makes it much more than the name suggests is the way it has been taken, in all its incarnations of flavouring, family traditions, accompaniments and clinking side dishes, to represent a nation as ethnically complex as Singapore.
“Ahh, Australia,” says my taxi driver as we barrel away from the airport. “Your passport is good but we have the best in the world,” he adds, laughing. “We can go almost anywhere. Singaporeans love to travel, and people love to come here. We are very open, very welcoming.”
When I explain that I’m travelling to try this dish, he seems surprised but glad to have a chance to talk about food.
“The place you’re going, the Old Airport hawker centre, is still okay,” he says. “Unless you’re looking for a food court which has air-conditioning. Chicken rice is maybe two or three times more expensive there.”
I ask him why the dish is so beloved. “Well, it’s not always good,” he says as I silently marvel at the rich green of the verges and the flowering trees reaching over the pristine highway. “The problem is they’re not handled by locals. A lot of them are handled by the Chinese people or even sometimes Myanmarese or Filipinos. They don’t know how to blend the taste. This is always a problem.”
“So, the only people who should be making Singaporean food are Singaporeans who have been taught by other Singaporeans?” I ask.
A silence breaks our conversation as I ponder this, the gulf filled by the car radio. Before he continues, Cher has mounted a strong argument for believing in life after love, and LeAnn Rimes has set the scene for her boyfriend to lose a fight against the moonlight.
“Other countries have their own versions, and it is possible for them to be good,” he concedes. “But locals know the kind of ingredients they put in. The Myanmarese, they know the Myanmarese dishes. Even the Vietnamese, they have their own chicken rice, it’s totally different.”
“And the knowledge cannot be shared?” I ask.
“The problem is their boss says, ‘Oh you just add this, add this, that’s it’. They don’t even know what it’s meant to taste like. Even in Melbourne this is a problem,” he says, shifting gears and merging into an exit lane. “I went to Melbourne and had Vietnamese food there.”
He sucks his breath in as if debating whether I’ll be offended by his imminent honesty. “It was very expensive for not much food. And the taste is, ahh,” he laughs nervously, “it’s not so great. Maybe you use different ingredients. Here they cook the soup with bones to add the flavour in it. Maybe they don’t have these kinds of bones over there in Melbourne.”
Inside the Old Airport Road Food Centre the air is thick with steam, scents and the noise of more than 150 kitchens. Booths are either busy or shut. Queues wind between numbered plastic tables and chairs and the bustle is relentless. Crowds merge like at a Tokyo crosswalk; couples and groups peel away to join one of many trailing queues, join a table or find the nearest exit, bags laden with plastic containers opaque with fragrant steam. Vacant tables are hastily claimed by chattering families. Cleaners work invisibly and with an unhurried efficiency. There is no shouting, no hustling. Everyone is dressed for the airless heat of the early evening.
Many stalls specialise in single dishes. Fish head curry, congee, dumplings, steamboat, char kway teow, soybean drinks and chilli crab are all competing for your senses. Muscular elderly women in loose, patterned dresses push sugarcane stalks through juicers, ripping out the long strips of fibrous pith. What immediately strikes me is that the people working behind the stalls are almost all old. In the airport lounge a few hours later, I learnt there is an exodus from the industry, with the next generation seeing little appeal in taking over the family stall.
Following the notion that a stall specialising in one dish probably does it well, and one with a queue is a good sign, I find the end of a line to a stall named Kheng Hai Hui Boneless Chicken Rice.
Once there, I point to a picture of slices of pale chicken on a white plate, pay extra for vegetables and hand over the equivalent of $3.50.
Chicken rice splits flavours across the bowls. The jolt of the chilli, the salty brunt of the broth, the crush of the cucumber, the ferric tang of the marrow reinforcing the oleaginous film that binds the rice and resurrects the richness of the chicken. Alongside these, Kheng Hai Hui adds a blend of ginger and garlic, spring onion and coriander leaf. It’s a combination that ties the food with geography. The clamour of competing sounds and scents in the air is resolved in harmony on the plate.
That the plate, the table and the chair are all plastic and the delivery perfunctory also seems an appropriate way to experience chicken rice. There is no delicate way to eat it, and while there might be familiar and “right” ways to move between the dishes, just for a moment you can feel as though you are not in transit and that you can contribute to the diversity of an already thrillingly complex place.
Outside, in the evening heat and quickening dark, the roads gradually hush and the city glows. In Geylang, in the Malay part of town, a light breeze merges the scents from nearby restaurants: Penang laksa, herbal soup, and noodle shops filled with animated conversations. Boys lean on bicycles, friends hang on street corners, relaxing in what is still, for the time being, one of the best places in the world to find a meal. With three hours to spare before my flight, I walk back towards the airport satisfied but longing for another day and the chance to feel anchored somewhere new, if only for a little while.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Gate to gourmet".
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