Hainanese Chicken Rice

Often considered the “national dish” of Singapore, this is a food that’s widely loved by Singaporeans and visitors alike.  Also, it’s one of the few local dishes served on Singapore Airlines, giving you the opportunity to get a taste of Singapore before you’re even in Singapore.

Here’s a quick history of the dish (the links in this quote will all go to Wikipedia pages):

Hainanese chicken rice is a dish of Chinese origin most commonly associated with Singaporean cuisine or Malaysian cuisine, although it is also commonly sold in neighbouring Thailand, and found in Hainan, China itself. So-called due to its roots in Hainan cuisine and its adoption by the Hainanese overseas Chinese population in the Nanyang area (present-day Singapore), the version found in Singapore region combines elements of Hainanese and Cantonese cuisines along with culinary preferences in the Southeast Asian region. The dish was popularised in the 1950s by Moh Lee Twee, whose Swee Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant operated from 1947 to 1997. [1]

You can find at least one stall at every food center selling chicken rice, as it’s usually called here. Typically you can get it either roasted or steamed. I prefer the roasted, but my wife loves the steamed version, which is probably why she loves Mr. Chicken Rice so much (shown in the top picture).

Mr. Chicken Rice is a restaurant in E-Hub, Pasir Ris in the Downtown East area that sells a specific type of steamed chicken rice. I don’t recall the whole back-story, but the chef that got that location going used to work for a five star hotel in downtown Singapore. Eventually, I think the restaurant decided they didn’t need him anymore, so he went out on his own and started up his own business. The restaurant at E-Hub is always jam packed, and even though I don’t generally like the steamed version it’s damn good!

To me, chicken rice is the staple dish of Singapore. It’s also my ‘safe’ dish. When I’m wandering back and forth in the food court and I can’t figure out what I want, or I’m scared to try something new, I always settle on the chicken rice. I know it’s good and I know it’s safe. The recipe is more or less the same wherever you go. All you have to worry about with chicken rice is whether the guy behind the counter gives you a bad cut of meat (too many bones) or not.

Chicken rice is also something that people apparently get really passionate about.  For example, recently the Malaysian government tried to claim chicken rice (“”We cannot continue to let other countries hijack our food. Chili crab is Malaysian. Hainanese chicken rice is Malaysian,” in The Star newspaper.”) as a native Malay dish, which is kinda ridiculous.  Even the name says Hainanese. Singaporeans were outraged by the idea, but I don’t see why either side is fighting so hard over where chicken rice belongs.  The current status or love of the dish in either country doesn’t matter much when you realize that it’s originally, and factually, from Hainan in China.  The dish doesn’t belong to Singapore or Malaysia.  It belongs to China.  It’s simply been imported to the two countries along with other cultural and culinary traditions.  That’s one of the drawbacks of being a multicultural society of immigrants like Singapore, Malaysia and my own country (US) are.  The only traditions you can claim as actually being your own are the ones that develop in the area.  Previous traditions that you bring with you don’t really count.  Also, it’s worth it to note that 44 years ago Singapore was a part of Malaysia, rather than an independent nation.

Regardless of where it came from, or who it ‘belongs’ to, chicken rice is a dish that I’ve come to love greatly and will come to miss greatly if I can’t find it when I leave this country.  My loss on that one.

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