Bloomberg on Chicken Rice

4 min read

By Yoolim Lee
April 27 (Bloomberg)

One of the most anticipated new eateries in Singapore this year was a food stall in a shopping mall. It serves a single dish, based on an old Chinese recipe, available in at least 290 other places on the island. The owner is Steven Loh, who helped create the Mandarin Hotel’s award-winning Hainanese chicken rice for 31 years, until a new investor took over in November and the 51-year-old chef lost his job. Loh and chicken rice, the nation’s unofficial national dish, became the talk of the town. Singapore’s signature chicken dish, brought by immigrants from the island of Hainan in southern China, transcends the boundaries of race, religion and social class in the city-state, where dining out has been described as the national pastime. And chicken is king.

Singaporeans swallow about 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of poultry meat a year each, making them the sixth-biggest chicken- eaters in the world, based on government figures and statistics compiled by the Food Market Exchange. Only Hong Kong, the U.S., Kuwait, U.A.E. and Canada eat more per capita.

Chicken rice is so popular in Singapore that it was chosen as the theme of the first financing project for a local production by the Singapore Film Commission: The romantic comedy “Chicken Rice War” made in 2000 by Raintree Pictures.

Mr. Chicken Rice

So news of the departure of Loh, known as “Mr. Chicken Rice,” instantly reignited one of the island’s longest-running culinary debates: Where can you get the best chicken rice? Everybody has an opinion.

Kwek Leng Beng, Singapore’s second-richest man, said his favorite chicken is the S$3 ($1.50) takeout from Sun Kee, an open-air “hawker stall” on Margaret Drive. Seek Ngee Huat, president of GIC Real Estate Pte., which manages about $10 billion of foreign reserves, prefers the dish from a coffee shop among the high-rise government housing of Toa Payoh suburb. Few visitors to the island escape without a taste, even Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson, the 14th-richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine. In a recent interview in Singapore, Adelson, 72, said a friend of his once told a job applicant: “You can’t take this job unless you like chicken in 100 different ways, because that’s what Sheldon Adelson eats.”

On a recent visit to Singapore to present Las Vegas Sands’ $3.6 billion proposal for the city’s first casino-resort, Adelson heard about the dish and immediately responded by ordering a takeout for the journey back to Malibu, California, on his private jet.

“I’m going to try Hainanese chicken rice,” he said.

Heavy Task

But where to place the order? To put the matter to rest, I spent weeks gathering recommendations from friends, colleagues and contacts before setting off into Singapore’s heartlands to sample the dishes. I visited 13 chicken rice stalls in two weeks and gained 4 pounds (1.8 kilos).

A chicken-rice set meal includes chicken meat poached in boiling water and laid atop rice cooked in the oil and broth of the bird, served with clear soup, chili sauce, black soy sauce and pounded ginger. Price ranges between S$2 ($1.20) and S$22.60 in settings from roadside food stalls to five-star hotels. The traditional Hainanese method boils the entire chicken in a large pot and reuses the broth for cooking rice. After boiling, the chicken is immediately dunked into cool water to prevent overcooking and firm up the meat. The name Hainanese comes from the ethnic group that came to Singapore from Hainan, a subtropical island of China.

Spice and Price

Each venue was graded on five key attributes — chili sauce, rice, meat, price and ambiance. (I’m an impartial South Korean, brought up on spicy kimchi, so this was really an excuse to sample a lot of great chili and garlic sauce.)

And the winner? Tian Tian, stall No. 10 at Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown. It had a perfect array of chicken meat with the best sesame oil-light soy sauce. The meat was thoroughly cooked, yet tender and moist. The fragrant rice was neither too oily nor too dry. It also had the longest queue. Boon Tong Kee on Balestier Road came in second, followed by Loh’s “Mr. Chicken Rice,” which opened last month in the Downtown East mall. Next was Loh’s former place of employment, Chatterbox at the Mandarin, which has undergone a S$1 million renovation.

For the chili sauce, Loh’s stall and Chatterbox topped the list. It was clear that they share the same recipe, mixing the right proportions of chili, ginger, lime juice and other ingredients.

Undercooked

A couple of restaurants came short of my expectations. Despite its long history and reputation, Hainanese Chicken Rice in Far East Plaza in the Orchard shopping area undercooked the chicken, resulting in pink juices flowing from the meat. Not a good result in these bird-flu embattled times.

As for Mr. Chicken Rice? The publicity has made him even more famous. He said he is selling 100 chickens a day and earning almost S$7,000 a month, double his previous salary. “I was devastated when I lost my job,” Loh said. “But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”

The Results: Score
1. Tian Tian (Maxwell Food Center) 74
2. Boon Tong Kee (Balestier Rd.) 73
3. MrChicken Rice (Pasir Ris) 71
4. Chin Chin (Purvis St.) 68
5. Big Bird (Balmoral Plaza) 66
6. Chatterbox (Meritus Mandarin Hotel) 63
7. Wee Nam Kee (Thomson Rd.) 61
8. Clifford Pier stall 59
9. Five Star (River Valley Rd.) 57
10. Boon Tong Kee (River Valley Rd.) 56
11. Straits Kitchen (Grand Hyatt Hotel) 48
12.. Hainanese Chicken Rice (Far East Plaza) 45
13. China Square Food Court stall 40

Reinie Booysen and Patricia Chua in Singapore contributed to this story.
Editors: Majendie (rev/jmr/smw/mlm).

To contact the reporter on this story: Yoolim Lee in Singapore at (65) 6212-1581 or [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adrian Kennedy in Singapore at (65) 6212 1513 or [email protected]