November 17, 2006
Six Singapore Hainanese Chicken Rice in 60 Hours
As Singapore's de facto national dish, Hainanese chicken rice (or, as the locals call it, simply "chicken rice") can be enjoyed from literally hundreds of places—from dedicated chicken rice hawkers to fancy restaurants, and everything in between. I had a little under 3 days to find the best chicken rice in the Lion City. So, with the help of Singapore's famous food bible, Makansutra, I vetted a list of chicken rice places I wanted to try during my short stay.
I ended up eating 6 chicken rice from 5 establishments (one place I went twice) in a span of about 60 hours.
Out of the five places, two were mind-bendingly amazing, two were extremely good, and one was decent. None bad. And all better than the chicken rice I used to enjoy so much back in NYC. In all likelihood, I've ruined enjoying chicken rice anywhere outside of Singapore for myself. The only chicken rice I've had outside of Singapore that belongs on this list would be the one from the Grand Café inside Hong Kong's Grand Hyatt (and that one would probably rank near the middle of this list).
Unless otherwise noted, almost all the rice in the five places surveyed were excellent. Fagrant, not oily, full of chicken flavor. It would be silly to compare the minutiae of how they differ because unless eaten side-by-side, it is just impossible to tell which one is definitively better than the other.
Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice & Fish Porridge/新記馳名雞飯魚生粥
Mei Chin Road Market & Cooked Food Centre #02-89G, Block 159, Mei Chin Road, 11am - 8pm (closed Mondays)
S$3.00/US$1.92. I had this less than half an hour after tasting the best chicken rice of the survey (see below) so its problems were especially pronounced. The chicken was bland and tough, like boiled chicken breast usually taste like (which is what Hainanese chicken basically is). The other Hainanese chicken chefs on this list are somehow able to impart extra flavors and tenderness to their plain-boiled chicken breasts. Not this one. The rice didn't have much flavor, and the chili sauce was boring. I had to overuse the chili sauce in an attempt to bring some flavors to the party. This very much reminded me of what I used to enjoy eating back in New York's Peranakan restaurants.
Meritus Mandarin Hotel, 333 Orchard Road, +65.6831.6291
S$19.50/US$12.51 (S$22.75/US$14.60 after taxes and service charge). I wanted to see what heights price-no-object chicken rice could reach. Well, as it turned out, not all that high. Chatterbox proudly calls itself the "Home of the Mandarin Chicken Rice" (that tag line appears everywhere Chatterbox's name is in the restaurant). I'm not sure if Mandarin's chicken rice is indeed that famous but I found their chicken to be a tad on the dry and chewy side, with too faint a flavor. It was little more than a good textural vehicle for the 3 types of sauces provided. The rice was text book classy: light, dry and fragrant, though I thought it lacked a certain ommmph. Perhaps a touch more chicken oil would have given it the right kick. Having said all that, it was still a very good chicken rice, albeit a very expensive one. I know part of the high price is for the hotel cafe ambiance but even there it falls short. The dining room (and the hotel in general) looked a little past its prime despite supposedly having undergone major renovations in recent years.
The Chicken Rice Shop
S$4.90/US$3.14. Coming in at 3rd place was a serendipitous find in the most unlikely of places—a mall food court. The first night in Singapore, I went to check out the just-opened Toyo Ito-designed mega mall, VivoCity (nothing special, by the way). I was starving and saw a chicken rice place in the food court. Even though I had planned to start my chicken rice quest the day later (with my list of must-try places), I went for it, knowing full well it would most likely disappoint. Perhaps because I set my expectations so low. Or perhaps I was too hungry and tired, but man it sure hit the spot. The chicken was tender, juicy and flavorful. About the only real complaint I can come up with is that the chili sauce was fairly generic. Well, that, and the fact they charged S10¢ for tap water (why risk pissing off the customer for such nickel-and-dime nonsense?). Singaporeans might grouse at the (relative) high price, but it is in fancy digs at the mall, not the open-air hawker centers, after all.
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice/天天海南雞飯
Stall 10, Maxwell Food Centre, 11am - 8pm (closed Mondays)
S$3.00/US$1.92. My second favorite is ranked number one according to Makansutra. And it is one amazing chicken rice. Their chicken is what I would consider "beyond normal" succulent, tender and flavorful. I had no idea boiled chicken breast could taste this delicious. Plus, their tangy chili sauce is out of this world good. This created a huge dilemma. The chicken tasted so damn good on its own that I didn't want to use any sauce on it, but it tasted so good with the sauce as well. It's almost like two separate dishes. I ended up eating 2/3 of the plate sans sauce and the rest with the sauce. I ate here twice because it is right by the hotel where I was staying at; the second time was right before I had to leave for the airport. If I had stopped my quest at this place, I would have happily died knowing I have tasted the pinnacle of chicken rice goodness.
Fook Seng Goldenhill Chicken Rice/福成金山海南雞飯
Block 37, Jalan Rumah Tinggi #01-429, 10am - 4pm
official website: www.singaporechickenrice.com
S$3.00/US$1.92. It's a good thing I didn't stop at Tian Tian because I would have missed out on what would turn out to be not just the best chicken rice I've had, but one of the best things I have eaten anywhere, period. Fook Seng is very difficult to get to. It's far away from a MRT stop, up a hill, in a quiet residential area. It's not even in a hawker center, but on the first floor of an apartment building. It looks like only people who live around there would eat there. And am I glad I made the effort to go. Their chicken rice is transcendentally good. I almost wept as I ate it. Oh, such tenderness. No chicken breast has any right to be this tender and juicy and so unbelievably full of flavor.
The hint of sesame oil in the sauce they drizzle over the chicken gave it just the right flavor contrast to elevate it to another level. Like with Tian Tian, the chicken was so incredibly delicious on its own that I didn't want to "mar" any of it with chili sauce. If I wasn't on a mission to eat another chicken rice in less than an hour, I would have gotten another order (or three). And thinking back, as I write this, I regret not just stuffing myself silly right then and there. Who knows when I'll be back in Singapore again and if this chef is still there making this chicken rice then?
As I prepared to write this article, I tried to think of comparable transcendental eating experiences (where a lucky confluence of mood, setting, and of course, the food create an unforgettable memory) and not many came to mind. There was that box of uni from Tsujiki which I ate in a McDonald's. Perhaps the tagliolini al fumo con burro from Le Calandre in Padova, Italy. Or maybe that warm watermelon layered with tomato confit and pistachio from The Modern. Also the first time I had Nobu's squid "pasta" with garlic sauce (waaaay back when Nobu was still considered cutting edge). And you know what? Maybe it's just because it's the freshest memory, but right now, Fook Seng's chicken rice reigns above them all. It was that good.
For those of you who live in Singapore, you must go eat there. Now. And if you are planning to visit Singapore, do not miss this place.
Postscript: I was primarily focused on finding the best chicken rice on this trip so I didn't get a chance to eat much else (and there is so much to eat here! I don't think many cities can match Singapore for the ease of access to such diverse and authentic ethnic cooking). I did manage to squeeze in a few things, however. You can see those at my Flickr photoset "A Taste of Singapore".
Post-postscript: In case you were wondering about the chick in the picture at the top of the page, it's part of an art installation in which a lion's mane is put on various toy animals. Since I didn't bother to read the artist's statement, I assume it's a play on Singapore's iconic Merlion.