Singapore. If you've been there, you get it. I have yet had such an adventurous epicurean experience, and I'm unsure I will again. Just before I left for Singapore, a friend who had just spent time there provided some great tips on where to go, what to see, and most importantly, what to eat. I stayed at the beautiful Scarlet Hotel, Singapore's first boutique hotel, in Chinatown. I could not have dreamed of a better location. The hotel was situated just behind the Maxwell House, one of the most locally frequented hawker's centers in the city.
If you are unfamiliar with the term, as I was before my departure, a hawkers center is sort of like a large, outdoor food court. But different. The food is all local and in Singapore that means predominately Chinese, Indian and Thai and incredibly inexpensive. Most food stalls are specialized - preparing just a few main dishes around a central theme.
My first foray into the hawker's center was an assault on my senses - really like everywhere in Chinatown you can not walk a few steps without smelling something delicious cooking. But the energy, the overwhelming choices and the heat all aided to my awe. The first day I tried pork belly and rice, pork dumplings, an oyster cake, a fried banana and freshly squeezed watermelon juice. Everything was delicious, but the oyster cake was ridiculous. I was drawn in by the scent and warmth of Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cakes booth and upon encountering the anticipating eye of the purveyor found myself ordering. The only thing I can really compare it to would be like a large fritter stuffed with steamed bamboo and of course... oysters. This was also my difficult lesson that you will likely not find napkins in the centers and to bring your own.
The two mornings I had to get out of the hotel early for the wedding I was shooting, I kept it simple and easy and had breakfast at the hotel. I tend to shy away from buffets, but the breakfast buffet at The Scarlet was like nothing I'd experienced and allowed me access to local flavors in almost a tasting menu style. Favorites included soon kueh, bamboo shoot dumplings made of tapioca flour and served with a sweet sauce; kaya and toast - kaya is a sweet jam made of eggs and coconut milk; soy bean curd with honeycomb and prawns poked through with sugar cane, lightly breaded and fried.
My last day in Singapore was mostly free to me and I wandered Chinatown for hours upon hours. In full preparations for the upcoming Chinese New Year, the area was an explosion of red, gold and dragons. I had some quiet time escaping the wet heat while wondering the quiet corridors of the Buddah Tooth Relic Temple and cooled myself further with my first experience sipping directly from a newly cracked open coconut. I had heard the ice cream sandwiches of local vendors was something to experience and I found one - a brick of ice cream served in the folds of a piece of white and pink marbled bread. I ordered Durian just because it sounded interesting and in truth had to google it when I got back to the hotel. Known as the King of Fruits, it's almost pungent smell gives way to utterly divine flavor. I also enjoyed my first plate of bok choy and duck and came across the bao bun stall. I could have eaten a hundred of these bbq pork buns and was reluctantly thankful I found them on my last day as I was sure I would not have eaten anything else during my time there.
I wanted my last dinner to be something special - something I had sort of saved myself for. There were two words I heard over and over - from people who had visited the island, and from locals themselves: chicken rice. And it was worth the wait. It's not the most beautiful dish in the world, boiled chicken atop a bed of rice, but do not let that fool you. The chicken is boiled in salt, garlic and ginger and the rice is cooked in the broth and fat rendered from the chicken. It is one of the most intensely flavored dishes I've ever enjoyed and the one I thought might be easiest to recreate once I returned home.
After researching the recipe on the internet, there seems to be as many ways to make Hainanese Chicken Rice as stall and restaurants that sell it all over South East Asia. I went for simplicity here and skipped the chili sauce that usually accompanies this dish in favor of a ginger and garlic dipping sauce - it still has enough bite to lend true personality to the dish without overwhelming heat.
HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE
1 organic 3-4lb chicken
6 qts. water
3 T. sea salt
2 cloves of garlic (roughly chopped)
1 T. shredded fresh ginger
Pat your chicken dry and cut any excess fat off - set this aside. Rub 1 T of sea salt all over the chicken.
In a large stock pot bring the water, garlic, 2T of salt and ginger to a boil. Gently lower the chicken into the pot breast down, ensuring it's completely submerged) and cover. Cook for 25-30 minutes or until the internal temperature of the chicken reads 160F.
Remove entire pot from the heat and keep covered leaving the chicken to finish cooking - approximately 15 minutes (temp should read 170F at this point) off the heat.
When the chicken is near finished cooking is an ideal time to put together your dipping sauce...
4 cloves of garlic (finely minced)
1 t. ginger (finely minced)
1/2 t. lime zest
1 t. lime juice
1 t. honey
2 t. sesame oil
2 T. grapeseed oil
4 T. of broth from chicken
Combine all ingredients in a small food processor and blend until thoroughly combined.
It's best to start the rice once you've taken the chicken off the heat.
Rendered chicken fat
2 T. grapeseed oil
2 c. long grain white rice
2 cloves garlic (minced)
1 t. ginger (minced)
1 t. salt
3 c. chicken stock
In a medium stock pot, add the bit of reserved chicken fat and the grapseed oil. Cook until the pieces are slightly crispy, then remove them from the pot. Add the garlic, ginger and salt and stir until coated.
Add the rice and cook and stir for about one minute - ensuring the rice is completely coated. Ladle 3 cups of chicken broth from your larger pot into the rice, stir and cover cooking on low heat for about 15 minutes or until tender.
Prepare a large bowl (big enough for your chicken) of ice and water and set aside. Very carefully remove chicken from stock pot (VERY careful here - the meat is tender enough to fall of the bone) and put the chicken in the ice bath for about 5 minutes. Remove to a cutting board the slice carefully. Plate the rice first, then top with chicken, serve with a side of ginger & garlic sauce and sliced cucumbers.
Most people serve the chicken broth as a soup on the side of this dish as well, just season a bit if needed and top with sliced scallions.