The Best Meal I’ve Ever Had

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 | SMASH Pop Culture with

Singapore Food

Ah, Singapore! I have spent some time here in the last few years and I was just there recently on a business trip. What can be said about this amazing but sometimes unsettling authoritarian city-state? Where the main activities that concern most Singaporeans seems to be a heavy dose of extravagant shopping (you really must see the incredibly designed Ion Orchard shopping center, a feat of art and design with swirling escalators going up and down several floors) and bodacious eating.

Ngee Ann City

In past visits I was content to visit some of the indoor bustling“food halls” –the clean, well-decorated stalls inside massive shopping centers like Ngee Am City, Takeshimaya and Isetan, the latter two being famous and impressively stocked Japanese department stores. Or I have had some singularly delicious dishes that are famous here –fish head curry at a modest food center near the Changi Airport that was so fiery and flavorful that I cried tears of joy and searing tongue pain as I ate it a few years ago; the wonderful Indian speciaties in Little India, which are also –like the rest of the otherwise expensive city—very cheap; the street vendors like Old Chung Kee and their chicken satays on a stick and fresh lime juice; the gentle pleasures of the native Nonya cuisine, such as kaya toast, which is the mainstay of typical coffee shops; or the joys of Crystal Jade Garden, the most famous chain of Cantonese food restaurants. The list goes on and on in this bustling, vibrant, but thoroughly orderly city that really never sleeps.

But in this multi-ethnic city, where cultures and cuisines are living harmoniously side by side, there is a national dish that Singaporeans not only call their own, but they literally argue about who makes the best and also, how to properly eat it. It’s a deceptively simple dish that I discovered almost by accident a few years ago.

It’s called “Hainanese chicken and rice”, a dish that is apparently famous in the Hainan region of China and was exported over. I ordered it once while I was staying at the Meritus Mandarin Hotel, on the main Orchard Road, and specifically, in their Chatterbox restaurant. I fell in love: thick slices of succulent, flavorful cooked chicken served over a fragrant rice, with vegetables but served with a bowl of broth and a trio of mixing sauces: a red chili sauce, a ginger sauce and a thick soy sauce. For about $23 USD, yes, it was pricey but I always found my way back to Chatterbox and its efficient service and wonderful dish time after time.

Until this last time. Over the holiday break I happened to be watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” food travel program on the Travel Channel which focused on the food pleasures of Singapore. In the very first segment he also covered the national dish of the Hainanese chicken and rice, but he finally reached the Holy Grail. For in this episode he revealed the famous location, deep inside the center of the city, inside the busy though modest Maxwell Food Center next to Chinatown, where Singaporeans queue up for what is arguably the very best Hainanese chicken and rice in the city: the #10 stall, called Tian Tian.

On the show, Bourdain met the owner who for the last couple of decades has been serving this amazing dish to queuing customers until they run out, seven days a week. After one bite, Bourdain was a passionate fan. (See clip at about 02:35 for his visit to Tian Tian.)

So I just had to go to the Maxwell Center during my trip earlier this month, and shortly after I flew in from Jakarta and quickly checked in to the Meritus Mandarin (now called Mandarin Orchard) again, I hopped in a cab and politely said “Maxwell Food Center” to the driver. Minutes later I was there and in the presence of what would be the most scintillating and intense flavor experience I have ever had.

Sounds simple, huh? I mean it’s just chicken and rice. But as the lines of people on that early Tuesday afternoon attested, this was something worth waiting for. Picture first a bustling outdoor food court. It’s about 87 degrees outside, a little cloudy but balmy because well, we’re near the equator and well, Singapore is humid all the time. You have numerous stalls selling every kind of food delicacy that is native to this region of the world: curries from India, noodles from China and ramen from Japan, typical native delicacies such as “carrot cake”, which is savory and nothing like what we eat in the West, and some beverage stands that sold fantastically refreshingly fresh tropical juices, something called grass jelly juice, red plum juices and even fresh coconut milk. And in the middle is the Tian Tian stand. We stand in line and patiently make our way up to order quickly. For an eye-poppingly low $3-4 (not the $23 like at Chatterbox), I order the “large” serving of the chicken and rice, served on simple, colorful acrylic dishes, anchored by the broth in the center. I serve myself the three required sauces that give the dish its true distinction. I then walked across the way to get some ice cold pineapple juice for a couple of bucks and I quickly found a place to enjoy my lunch.

Of course I took pictures of all this; this was something I wanted to experience with others later on, but I also wanted to say I did this, a truly Singaporean experience. First, I can’t even begin to describe the intense but also delicate flavors that permeated every bite of this dish. Bourdain’s segment revealed the special cooking process of the chickens: careful marinating, boiling in a flavorful broth then blanching in an ice bucket so that skin and flesh can produce a unique and moist texture. The chicken slices were like nothing I had ever eaten: supple, fragrant and moist inside every bite. The rice was moist and had an opaque, broth-like color, and resembled something like a Jasmine in flavor even though these were long grains. The fresh slices of cucumber provided texture and heightened the overall flavor profile. But it was the broth and the sauces, and the intense interaction of the two, along with the chicken and the rice, that sent this simple dish into the stratosphere.

Part of the challenge of the dish, apart from the apparent difficulty in preparing it, is also that every person has a very personal and sometimes fussy way to eat it. Do you mix the sauces? Do you add the chili sauce to the broth, then dip the chicken in the broth and finish it off with the rice? Do you take the robust and almost ink-like soy sauce and swirl it into the lime-infused red chili sauce and then pour it on the sliced chicken? This is the special brilliance of this dish, and I can proudly say that I did find my own way of enjoying every single bite of this alternately flavorful, fiery, fragrant, sweat-inducing, multi-sensory experience. I must have spent a good half-hour sitting there, eating slowly, and being consciously consumed by analyzing each bite and also being mindful of the fact that countless others were sitting right beside me, silent and focused, also ravenously chowing down, completely tuned out from the busy traffic and relentless shopping taking place close by. I think I cried when I came to my last grain of rice, sitting there dangling at the corner of my plate, still barely bathed in the chili sauce that I had showered over it minutes before.

I came this close to walking over humbly, used plate in hand that I had literally licked clean, and asked for another order. Others were doing this –some even ordered the full or half chicken. But I held back. I felt that I had achieved something special at that moment and I preferred to enjoy this in moderation, knowing that I had conquered one of the world’s finest dishes, even in all its simplicity and low price, in one of the world’s greatest cities/countries. I resolved to always make this the stop I would always make when I passed through here, and as a result, make it something I could look forward to in years to come. Far from an elaborate meal, like some of the ones that Bourdain showed on his program (for example, the lavish XXX weekend brunch buffet at the Hyatt on Orchard for $58 USD), this was one for the ages, a dish that I could not imagine anyone not liking, not even for those who don’t want to add the chili sauce, or any of the sauces. Such simplicity, such utter perfection.

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