Saturday, 24 October 2015

Hainan Chicken Rice in Singapore - A Short History JK1275

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

The humble chicken rice is arguably Singapore's unofficial national dish, much more so than the more glamorous chili crab.



Chicken rice is so deep in the Singaporean psyche that it even spawned a full length movie "Chicken Rice War" in 2000. Fifteen years on, "Chicken Rice War" is still one of Singapore's best productions, in my humble opinion.



Singaporeans are so attached to chicken rice that we will be up in arms should any foreign country attempt to claim to it ;-D

Singapore chicken rice is usually referred to as Hainanese chicken rice as the Hainanese were the first people to popularise this dish here.

The Hainanese arrived in Singapore from around 1841. The majority were from Wenchang 文昌 district in the northeastern corner of Hainan island. Today, there are about 220,000 Hainanese in Singapore.

Most early arrivals from Hainan island settled in the Hainanese enclave around Middle Road, Purvis Street and Seah Street. Older Singaporeans refer to them as Hainan First Street, Hainan Second Street and Hainan Third Street respectively.



The Hainanese brought to Singapore a hometown staple known as Wenchang chicken rice 文昌雞飯. Wenchang chicken rice remained in Hainanese homes as a comfort dish until around the 1940s.

The first chicken rice vendor was Mr Wong Yi Guan 王义元 who in the 1940s peddled his Hainanese chicken in the Hainanese enclave with two baskets slung on a bamboo pole across his shoulders. He later moved into a coffee shop along Purvis Street thus starting Singapore's first Hainanese chicken rice stall.

Mr Wong's stall was known as "Commie Chicken 共產雞" and he had the nickname "Uncle Commie 共產叔". But, Mr Wong was no communist - he got this reputation because he would generously give away any unsold chicken rice to his neighbours. Chicken was a luxury then and most people ate it only during major festivals like Chinese New Year. (Even in the 1960s, I ate chicken only once or twice a year.)

Mr Wong's apprentice Mok Fu Swee opened Swee Kee Chicken Rice 瑞記 at Middle Road in 1949 (now demolished).  Swee Kee was the most famous Hainanese chicken rice restaurant of the early years and responsible for popularising the dish in Singapore.

Swee Kee 新瑞记 Chicken Rice in Senai, Johor Bahru
Click for Swee Kee story ^

Swee Kee of Singapore closed in 1997. The former workers reopened Swee Kee in Senai, Johor where it still operates today (Oct 2015). The shop in Senai still uses the Swee Kee brand name with the previous owner's permission. (There are a few unrelated chicken rice restaurants operating in Singapore using Swee Kee's name.)

Singapore Chicken Rice at Yet Con, Purvis Street 逸群鸡饭
Click for Yet Con story ^

One of the oldest surviving pioneer chicken rice shops in Singapore (as at Oct 2015) is Yet Con Restaurant 逸群鸡饭 along Purvis Street founded in the 1940s.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Yet Con and Swee Kee (in Senai, Johor) are probably as close to the original Wenchang style chicken rice as one can get in Singapore or Johor today.

Not all chicken rice lovers today automatically like the chicken served at Yet Con and Swee Kee (in Senai). Many felt that their chicken is not tender enough and not juicy enough.

Singapore is also home to other Chinese clans such as the Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka. Around the 1960s, the Cantonese also started selling chicken rice in Singapore.



The Cantonese use two techniques that result in more juicy and tender chicken. The chicken is poached in 90°C (sub-100°C) chicken stock (or water) instead of boiling it in water, so the chicken meat is more tender. The poached chicken is also immediately dunked in a tub of iced water which results in smooth, slightly springy skin and a layer of congealed fat between the skin and flesh.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

I like chicken that relies on it's natural flavours for taste. Several chicken rice stall owners told me that they use chicken of at least 2 kilo per bird for their better flavour.

The chicken meat texture must be tender but cooked through i.e. no rare crimson blood. The juicy pieces of chicken should feel slippery smooth in the mouth (爽滑 as the Cantonese say).

Over the years, the chicken rice in Singapore gradually evolved from the original Wenchang chicken rice to a unique Singapore style chicken rice. Singapore chicken rice popularised by the Hainanese is now influenced by Cantonese techniques. It also uses local ingredients such as extra hot chili padi (which are not used in the original Wenchang chicken rice in Hainan).



Whether served deboned or with bone in, chopping skill 
刀功 is crucial for good chicken rice. I like my chicken chopped in bold large chunks as most of the juices remain in the flesh (and not leaked away when sliced into skinny slivers). I also prefer my chicken with bone in for extra flavour.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Just before serving, the chicken is bathed with a dressing sauce made with a blend of light soy sauce, sesame oil, fried shallot oil and a dash of Chinese cooking wine 花雕酒. Of course, there are many variations such as adding oyster sauce and every stall have their own special blend.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Besides the chicken, the rice is of course the other key element in chicken rice. Good chicken rice is aromatic with chicken flavour and subtle spice aromas. The tender fluffy rice which separate easily into individual grains are coated with a thin layer of chicken fat which gives it a yellowish sheen and delightful savoury taste.

Singapore chicken rice is made with Thai fragrant rice whereas in Wenchang, Hainan it is make with more starchy local rice.



The rice is cooked with chicken fat, chicken stock and spiced with pandan leaves, ginger, lemon grass, shallots, garlic and salt.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

When Singapore's first chicken rice seller "Uncle Commie" (Mr Wong Yi Guan) sold chicken rice slung across his shoulders, the rice was in the form of hand kneaded balls. Now only two traditional stalls in Singapore still sell chicken rice balls, namely "Hainan Chicken Rice Ball" in Jalan Besar and "Good Year Local Chicken Rice Ball" in Toa Payoh.



The chili dip is a crucial part of good chicken rice. Good chili dip has a layered kind from spiciness with a sharp sting from chili padi, a gentler kick from red chili peppers and mild spicy notes from ginger and garlic. A little fresh lime juice and vinegar add citrussy tanginess for refreshing perkiness. The chicken stock and chicken oil balance and complete the rather complex sauce. (I personally prefer my chili dip without vinegar.)

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Chicken rice is also eaten with roughly ground ginger and spring onion dressed with rendered chicken oil known as 姜茸 (薑蓉) in Cantonese.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

A savoury sweet syrupy dark soy sauce is often drizzled over the rice.

Hainan-Chicken-Rice-Singapore-Short-History

Traditionally, a small bowl of chicken soup is part of a serving of chicken rice. The best chicken soup are made by boiling old hens and cabbages (for sweetness). Nowadays, more and more chicken rice stalls dispense with the soup which I personally feel is missing something.



This video sums up the history of Singapore through the story of Good Year Local Chicken Rice Ball 庆豐年海南鸡饭团.

Incomplete Best Chicken Rice in Singapore and Johor
Click to view my favourite chicken rice ^

Some of the chicken rice stalls that I like best in Singapore and Johor (Malaysia).

 Singapore Chicken Rice
Click for full Singapore listing ^

My full listing of Singapore chicken rice.

 Johor Chicken Rice
Click for full Johor listing ^

My full listing of chicken rice stalls in Johor (Malaysia).

Thai Chicken Rice in Bangkok Raan Kaithong Pratunam
Click for Thai chicken rice ^

Hainanese chicken rice in Bangkok, Thailand.

Do bookmark this page as I will update this post on Singapore's top food icon regularly with new good chicken rice finds.

Please share with us your favourite chicken rice stall and chicken rice memories in the comments below :-D

Date: 24 Oct 2015

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33 comments:

  1. chicken rice! my mum makes the best!

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  2. wow this is the most in-depth and informative history of chicken rice!
    thank you!
    what will you cover next at this level? fried chicken!?

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    1. Thank you :-D Let me think of another topic.

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    2. hmm...... yeah hor... interesting :-D

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  3. Replies
    1. Thank you :-D I realised that there are a lot of useful information in the videos.

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    2. Through info on the history of chicken rice Tony. Tx. :)

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    3. Through information on the history of chicken rice. Tx, Tony.

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  4. Through info on the history of chicken rice, Tony. Tx. :)

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  5. There are flaws in the history. I am a Hainanese whose ancestors came from Wenchang county. The family have been gaving chicken rice for 4 generations. My father came from Fenglai district in Wenchang county in late 1920s. He told me that they have been eating chicken rice for generations. In Wenchang the chicken rice is cooked with coconut cream. The chilli sauce is a yellowish type muxed with lots of garlic. Chopped not pounded. Ginger is added to spice it up. Also pepper is added. Reason is that pepper us abundanr in Hainan iskand and so are coconuts. The chicken are free roaming and fat. Once a year we eat chicken rice from spaded cockerels (Yan chee) They are usu very large birds. Also it is esten with a dish called qian jia fu.

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    1. Thank you Jlc for your comment and information. I will incorporate your input into the write-up. Appreciate much.

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  6. Growing up in JB, my favourite chicken rice store used to be at Century Garden. As kids, we would call it the "Wong Fei Hong" shop because the chicken rice seller used to look like the famous martial artist! Unfortunately that store has now closed. My current favourite store is Ah Lee Kampung Chicken Rice at Taman Sri Tebrau :)

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    1. Thank you William :-D Wong Fei Hong? wow I didn't have a chance to try that. Yes, I like Ah Lee chicken too. They also serve an interesting wild boar curry :-D

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  7. Wow,Tony JK, you must have spent a lot of time in researching the history of Hainanese Chicken rice. Thanks for the in-depth description of the details in preparing the dish. I can remember the name Swee Kee chicken rice in Sg but can't remember it's taste which I ate 30 over years ago. However, I have tried Senai Swee Kee outlet recently. It's good but customers will compare prices with other shops. Not many shops provide the ground ginger sauce. For the premium price of Senai outlet, I think they need to spruce up the atmosphere. (Pn Chong LH)

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    1. Thank you Pn Chong. The research done by others helped me a lot. Sadly, I have never eaten chicken by Singapore's Swee Kee before ;-( I think I will visit Swee Kee in Senai again soon to get more oral history. Appreciate much.

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  8. Wow, such an informative article on the history of chicken rice in sg!! The pics makes me sooo hungry... chicken rice for lunch later! :)

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    1. Thank bro Ian. Where are the good places for chicken rice in Kuala Lumpur?

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  9. The nicely taken shots of "yellow" chickens, making dripping so much of saliva! Tony must try a few form Beach Road and Whampoa Market! Chicken Rice; the rice is not only rich with pandan ginger fragrance, but the chewy tender meat with the "yellow" melt in your mouth fats, dipped in the all famous hainanese chilli, blended with ginger and dark soy sauce added. One have no regrets to finish two three bowls of rice in one makan section. Sinful but the feeling in the tummy is fulfilling. Accomplishment.

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    1. LOL Thanks GDdeals. Yes the Beach Road and Whampoa Market chicken rice are great. They are on my eat list. Will blog about them soon :-D

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  10. Wow .. I know where to go for my chicken rice now!

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    1. Thanks Pauline. Please share with us your favourites too ;-D

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  11. As always, a good read... and good list of chicken rice stalls

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    1. Thank you very much asiamic ;-D

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    2. Interesting read as usual. Slight typo...instead of 姜融 shd b 姜茸. Out of curiosity; where does kampong chicken fit in?

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    3. Thanks Paige for your comment and for pointing out. I have made the amendment :-D

      Do you mean kampung chicken as a type or chicken or kampung chicken, the name of the shop at Thomson Road?

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  12. Thank you Tony, chicken rice is a must eat dish when I go to Singapore..!!! Recently just try chatterbox but I still prefer Swee Kee chicken rice...

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    1. Thanks Jeffery Bong. Do you mean Swee Kee of Senai or Swee Kee at Middle Road (the one that closed in 1997)?

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  13. Tony, I mean the one in middle road. When I use to work in Grand Hyatt in Singapore. Still remember the taste till today!! Miss it..!!!

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    1. woah.. you are so lucky... I have never tasted the Middle Road Swee Kee before.

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I firmly believe that taste is subjective and so, warmly welcome differing viewpoints :-D But, I disapprove negative comments that are anonymous or hide behind fake identities. I feel that that is the same as speaking ill of others behind their backs. I look forward to all your comments :-D Thank you. (Date: 18 Dec 2015)

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