For the life of me, I have yet to understand why KF Seetoh, among other Singaporean culinarians, think chicken rice should be Singapore's national dish. I tried it again today, at the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stand at Maxwell Food Centre, which puts out a version that no less an American food explorer than Anthony Bourdain called "a light and beautiful thing...part comfort food, part Zen ritual."
He nailed it. On the surface, chicken rice looks as dull as something that would be on the bland menu at the hospital. Shreds of white boiled chicken top a mound of rice. The rice is hot, but the chicken is room temperature. Other than the rice and chicken, all the plate contains is a few slices of cucumber. Before they grab a table, diners help themselves to a couple of condiments, one a thick dark soy sauce, the other a chili sauce with ginger. It's also advisable to ask for a bit more of the broth from the can next to the cook doing the shredding of the chicken. Beyond that, you're on your own. You determine how much soy sauce and how much chili paste you want, and the amount of chicken and rice you want with each bite. The chicken is marvelous, tasting wholesome, direct and moist, but the key to the popularity of the dish apparently is that it is a relatively blank canvas that gives each diner an opportunity to express himself or herself. I'm still puzzled why in a city with so many more involved and historic dishes chicken rice is so revered, but now at least I feel I have a better understanding of its popularity. The $3 price also might have something to do with that.
On the way back to the hotel from Maxwell Food Centre, we stopped at another Singapore culinary institution, Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which since 1944 has thrived - there are 24 other outlets about the city - by serving coffee and toast. Neither is what might first leap to mind as coffee and toast, however. The beans for the coffee are roasted with butter and sugar, explained a server, while the thin, perfectly toasted slices of white bread are spread with kaya, a sweet spread of butter, eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan. Together, coffee and toast make for a sweet and invigorating breakfast, regardless of whether the first course was chicken rice.