Ever since I’ve stepped foot in Singapore, I have heard emphatic references to the famous Singaporean Chicken Rice-better known in local terms as Hainanese Chicken Rice. In accordance with the name, it originated in the small Chinese province of Hainan-a bunch of islands off the southern coast of China. The funny thing is that the Hainanese populace has little or no inkling about the Singaporean version of their local gastronomic delight. The Hainanese Chicken Rice sold and ravenously devoured in the tiny garden city of Singapore, has become synonymous with Singaporean culture itself.
First popularized in Singapore in the mid 1900’s by a certain ambitious Mr. Moh Lee Twee, Hainanese Chicken Rice – which in Singapore contains elements of Hainanese and Cantonese cuisines as well as a certain unique South Asian touch to it- has become a symbol of the Singaporean way of life. There are many things which represent Singapore aptly-The majestic Merlion, the immensely popular food courts, the mouth-watering Malaysian Nasi Lemak, the use of ‘LAH’ as often as one would normally use ‘a’, ‘the’ or ‘an’ in a single sentence, and more recently the much hyped Singapore Flyer-to name a few. But I have never come across a Singaporean symbol as integral to its culture as the Hainanese Chicken Rice.
Being a vegetarian myself, I have never tasted the dish. But the adoring look a Singaporean exhibits whenever he/she even so much as mentions the delicacy, has been enough to prove to me that it is downright delicious. It has also proved to me one thing beyond doubt-Singaporeans adore their chicken rice. They swear by it. It is unofficially the ‘national dish’ of the country and rightfully so-considering the immense fan following it boasts. The importance Singaporeans attach to the daily serving of Chicken Rice, is evident in their constant use of the dish as a yardstick for measuring most other aspects of their lives. Especially finance and the management of money matters-which plays a big role in the typical Singaporean mindset (This is a rich country, but the cost of living being so high, the local people always try and find ways and means to save money at every turn.) I have frequently heard such comparisons from the people here-not once, not twice, but on numerous occasions.
The first time I came across the commonplace relation between chicken rice and money, was a few years back, when I was a student in the National University of Singapore. I was heading downstairs with a couple of my lab mates (yes I used to be a lab rat back then-much to my disdain), to the Biological Sciences canteen-for some grub after a hard morning of slaving over PCR techniques. I went and got myself some food from an Indian stall (I must admit, we are a rather unadventurous lot when it comes to food), while the two guys I was with, got their individual servings-one helped himself to fish and chips while the other stacked up on a BIG plate of chicken rice in all its oily broth-filled goodness. As we sat down to lunch, the fish n chips guy asked my Chicken devouring friend how much the rice cost him. That one question was enough to fuel a conversation which continued all afternoon. It included comparisons with the Chicken Rice prices in the departments of engineering, psychiatry, medicine, humanities and economics, an inter-university comparison as well as a comparison with chicken rice at local stalls in varied locations ranging from Hougang, to Pair Ris to Jurong and City Hall. They also talked about how the price of the local delight has oscillated over the past five months and then went on to discuss the option of having to go to Hainan to eat chicken rice someday. As I sat there chewing on my sad little Roti Prata and Channa, I listened to them quietly-while the enormity of the whole Chicken Rice scenario slowly sunk in. I must admit, I had never in my wildest dreams thought that two people could be so emphatically verbose about something as down to earth and simple as a bowl of chicken cooked with ginger and garlic, with accompanying broth dunked flavorful sticky rice.
After that I came across a number of people who would inadvertently introduce Chicken Rice in a conversation, which otherwise one would never expect to have Chicken Rice in it. It amazed me-and still does. The devotion which these people have towards a simple food preparation, which has become not only a cult symbol for the average Singaporean, but an integral part of his life as well-goes to show just how much this dish is revered in this part of the world.
The most recent conversation I had about Chicken Rice was with a cabbie not many days ago. I was in a cab en route to Little India for a variety of reasons I will not bore you with (at least not right now), and was attempting to read Jerome K Jerome’s obnoxiously humorous “Three Men in a Boat” (I sometimes am starved for wit and need to turn to masters like Jerome for a spoonful of magic). However my cab driver was this rotund jovial fellow (unlike the numerous acerbic and moody drivers I have had the good fortune of coming across) who for some reason found in me the perfect sounding board for all kinds of local news and his personal woes alike. He regaled me with Singaporean politics and wildlife and gave me several important pointers (“Don’t take the road to Suntec City tomorrow Ma’am-all roads will be closed due to the APEC meeting”).
Then suddenly he went all rigid (it was kind of scary especially when he started pointing to what looked like a ghostly object in the forest fire fog) and started screaming almost manically “You see there madam? Prestige company-Black Chrysler taxi-neber neber take.” He had succeeded in rousing my interest.
“What? Why not? What’s wrong with the Chrysler?”
“You don’t know…wah! So expensive lah. Many many more dollar than normal Comfort or City Cab.”
“Can’t be too much of a difference,” I insisted.
“No, I tell you lor. I tell all my passenger. Neber neber take Prestige Chrysler. They cheat you, you know? I know one woman who take Chrysler from Suntec all the way to Jurong yah and had to pay 40 ober dollar you know?”
“You have GOT to be kidding me,” I exclaimed. Suntec to Jurong would cost a maximum of $25, to the best of my knowledge. I was listening intently and Jerome was taking a serious beating.
“I tell you leh…we charge first km 3 dollar-they start with $3.30 you know! 30 cents more wah! Cannot cannot,” he continued just as excitedly as before (in fact his face had turned a slight tinge of red). “You go ten km like this lor-you pay 3 dollars more you know- COST OF ONE WHOLE PLATE OF CHICKEN RICE WAH! 40 kms like this you can get 4 plates of chicken rice you know for same money lor!”
By this time, Jerome’s witty humor was tucked away well and safe in my bag, while I listened to this good natured driver, trying to economize my life. I was in awe of the simplicity of this person who pretty much represented the average common man-not only in Singapore, but in every major world economy. He went on to instruct me to never hail Chrysler cabs-even when in queue at a taxi stand or at the airport. He was trying his best to inform me of the real danger posed by the monstrous machines in black and in his own little way, he was trying to save my hard earned money. He was making sure I had enough for a plate of chicken rice always-even four, if push came to shove.
The incident not only re-iterated my opinion of the Singaporean’s love for Chicken Rice, but also opened my eyes to the daily struggle that an average local here has to go through to survive. It is a hard life-despite the manicured gardens, clean roadsides and the awfully rich golf-playing, diamond buying section of society. For the average Singaporean, the reality lies not in the country’s world economic rankings, but being able to live happily within a tough system which gives a lot but also takes its fair share. For the average struggling, loving, HDB-inhabiting, food court visiting, and soul searching Singaporean, it all boils down to the value of a plate of Hainanese Chicken Rice.