Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A little bit of nostalgia

nostalgia (nŏ-stăl'jə, nə-): A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.
Hainanese Chicken Rice - a dish that has been the centrepiece of Singapore's culinary history for as long as anyone can remember. It is often the single dish that foreigners associate Singapore with, which is surprising given the simplicity of its composition - Boiled chicken, garlic and ginger flavoured rice, and a bowl of clear broth.

Given the popularity of this humble dish, there are literally thousands of eateries that specialise in it. And as with anything that has been around this long, chicken rice has evolved over time to cater to the tastes of discerning consumers (see previous blog on Hawkernomics). My favourite chicken rice places in Singapore serve a moist, just cooked chicken with smooth (almost slippery) chicken skin a result of dipping the boiled chicken in iced water immediately after cooking. The rice is always fragrant, with strong notes of garlic and the chicken stock its cooked in. Chilli dipping sauces (because condiments are a major part of this dish) are laced with lime juice and often include a blend of chilli padi for an extra kick.
And so, it was with some reservation that I decided to try the chicken rice at one of Singapore's oldest establishments, Yet Con, located on Purvis Street (a few blocks down from Raffles Hotel). This Hainanese restaurant is as old school as they come. Serving the same dishes since 1940, walking into this humble diner was like a blast into the past. An elderly man who looks like he's a permanent fixture sits in his favourite corner, sipping his tea. The owner sits placidly by the cashier till which consists of an abacus and a wooden table with pull out drawers for storing the day's earnings. Marble table tops that have stood the test of time are garnished by plastic crockery in red and orange. You can't help but respect this place which has seen many generations of Singaporeans come and go.
I ordered the chicken rice (of course) and sat and waited, admiring the jam jars filled with chilli and ginger dipping sauces. Before long, the waitress brought out a bowl of rice and a big bowl of soup. A plate of chicken on top of chopped cucumber arrived separately and I was ready to tuck in.
To be perfectly honest, this dish was not well executed. For one, the chicken (breast meat was served) was overcooked. Judging from this and the lack of the usual silky smooth skin, the chicken was not dunked in ice cold water to stop the cooking process. What was absent was also the usual sesame oil and soy dressing that is usually drizzled over the chicken, which just highlighted how dry the meat was. On to the condiments, the chilli dipping sauce was uninspiring - it was slightly sweet and only sour from the addition of rice vinegar which lacks the dimension that lime juice adds. Simply put, it lacked the gutzpah I look for in this condiment.

But the rice and accompanying soup won me over. The garlic and ginger flavoured rice here has an appeal that is completely unpretentious and screams home cooked nostalgia. It does not give the instant flavour hit that many successful chicken rice places here provide but it does trigger a part of your memory that remembers the way things were (or how they used to taste at least). The soup was a simple clear chicken broth that had its flavour amped up by the addition of preserved salted vegetables and a generous amount of fresh coriander. These two offerings were sincere and had a strange calming quality about them - definitely food for the soul.

As I paid for my meal and made my way out, I realised that great food doesn't always have to taste... well, great. Sometimes, the sincerity in its preparation and the respect of a dish's tradition does shine through and that in itself is pretty special. This place definitely does not have the best chicken rice that I've tasted, but its going to be one I'll remember... if only for old time's sake.


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