Text and image by KF Seetoh @ Makansutra
Good chicken rice today is nowhere near what it was back in the day.
A local online Chinese news article ( http://news.omy.sg/News/Local%20News/Bei-Zhi-Shui-Zhun-Tui-Bu-Tian-Tian-Hai-Nan-Ji-Fan-Zao-Chu-Ming-101052 ) recently reported that the, by now iconic Tian Tian Chicken Rice folks was delisted from our latest Makansutra Singapore 2013 edition. Yikes. If you stare at page 86, it says at the bottom they are still ranked a respectable 2.5 pair (or “Divine”) chopsticks. I have no idea where the writer obtained their facts from. Although they have been “demoted” from the ultimate die-die-must-try rating for a while now, they are still a chicken rice force to be reckoned with in Singapore. But we must admit, it is now a far cry from back in the day when they ran a little coffeeshop stall just next to the Buddha Tooth Relic temple. Even when they moved to the current Maxwell hawker centre stall in the early 2000, it was by anyone’s book, a stunning chicken rice.
Perhaps it is the quality of supplies, the undisciplined operation or their transient cooks having a field day at work, but somehow that indescribable “zing” has eluded them for a while now. If you’ve been subject to , like us, what the defunct legendary old Swee Kee Chicken Rice had to offer in the Middle Road outlet in the 80s, you would be crying foul, over how this fowl rice is done these days. Remnant Swee Kee staff would reminisce about how a truckload of caged, fresh and strutting proud clucking chickens would pull up roadside daily and the Hainanese Ah Ko ( brothers) cooks would eject from the kitchen and meticulously pick out the birds they want. They check and press the derriere to determine heath, texture and fat content, a former waitress there once told me. Then it’s off to the back room slaughterhouse to be prepared, poached, cooled, chopped and served on your table with some of the most fragrant chicken rice this world had ever known. That stretch of Middle Road would be scented by the unmistakable aroma of chicken rice, even as you drive by. These days the supplies come pre-slaughtered but from a chiller truck, with the fowls coming in from Malaysia. The rice, due to expectations of lesser palates unfamiliar with robust traditional flavours, have gone genial and gentle – they cook it in simple chicken stock, unlike how it was first pre-fried in chicken fats wok tossed with spices like ginger, garlic and pandan leaves, before being cooked in the rich chicken stock.
So here’s our conundrum ( especially with the older food troopers in our research team) – do we re-adjust expectations and rate them in shallower waters to appease undemanding palates or still uphold that mean and exacting yardstick when measuring them up. The live chickens from Punggol are no more and the masses today, frown on oily rice, however flavourful. Let’s not even talk about how intense the chilli sauce and the ground ginger dips should be.
I think not. Our yardstick of measure will always be like the torch of friendship, a guiding light and even integrity on the Statue of Liberty. If someone skimps on quality, we’ll be the Merlion, spewing cold water on their blanket. Our food culture is considered our greatest democracy and we should never compromise.