National symbols. Every country has at least one. In the US it’s the bald eagle; in Singapore the Merlion. But national icons aren’t just symbols, they can also be foods. In the United States—especially in the Summer—it’s hamburgers and hot dogs. The whole world attempts to replicate the good old American burger or frank, trying to capture that elusive, special something that backyard grills produce every weekend from sea to shining sea. But for reasons which most Americans abroad can’t describe, few places outside the States do it as well as at home. It’s just one of those things, where the flavor of the dish somehow exceeds the mere combination of its ingredients. And when it does, it’s magic.
It’s no different in Singapore. Talk to anyone about Singapore’s unofficial national food and the conversation will quickly turn to one iconic dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s perhaps the most controversial issue in Singapore’s food world and everyone has their own opinion of how to eat it and who makes it best. But within this sea of discourse arises one place that most agree is a benchmark against which all others are measured: Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in Maxwell Food Centre. It’s world renowned, thanks to the praise by celebrity chefs like Anthony Bourdain, New York Times food critics and food experts the world over. Anyone who knows Singapore's favorite dish knows Tian Tian.
Just what is it that makes Tian Tian's chicken rice one of the best in Singapore? “It all starts with the chickens,” explains the master himself, Mr. Loi Chi Sam who, with his wife Madam Soo Kui Lian, turned the small stall started by her brother into the Singaporean eating institution it is today. The birds – specially raised in Malaysia – are boiled in an elixir of pandan leaves, ginger, garlic and stock made from birds which preceded them. They are then plunged into ice water for 45 minutes. Meanwhile fragrant Thai rice is cooked with the same stock that the birds bathed in, imparting a delicately-infused flavor that makes the dish truly unique.
Arriving at the eight by eight foot stalls – now two which are connected -- you inevitably encounter a sizable queue. Best not to fight it; just jump in and watch the action behind the counter. One guy cuts chicken; another preps the plates with a mound of rice and a few strips of cucumber; a third takes the orders and collects the money; while behind them is at least one other guy, cooking rice, boiling the chickens, or plunging them into the ice bath to seize the thin layer of fat into luscious, subcutaneous goodness. All under the watchful eye of the Mr. Loi.
Meanwhile, hungry diners scoop the three most critical accoutrements into bowls: Tian Tian’s chili sauce – a secret mixture of blazing orange chilies, ginger and garlic – thick black soy syrup and fresh grated ginger. Every bite should include these ingredients to bring out dish’s full splendor, but everyone does it differently. Some dip the meat into the sauces before eating, then chase it with a spoonful of rice. Others combine the rice and chicken, having first scooped sauces into the spoon. Still others pour them directly on the mound of chicken and rice, stir it all together and shovel it into their mouths as quickly as possible.
“The manner of eating it determines the taste,” several people advise me as I sit in the hawker center with my own precious plate. But for me, any way you eat the tender rice with silky meat and glistening skin is the right way. And as I take that first bite I realize that maybe the reason everyone has such strong opinions about chicken rice is because the delicate yet distinct flavor touches the soul personally. Exclusively. The magic of Tian Tian’s chicken rice lies somewhere beyond it’s mere recipe; there's something more going on to make this seemingly simple dish better than so many other chicken rice stalls across Singapore. No one in Maxwell, other than the soft-spoken Mr. Loi himself, knows quite what that is. But one look at this quiet hawker legend and you know he’s not giving it up anytime soon.