On a recent trip to Singapore, I made my way to the Mecca of Hainanese Chicken Rice: Purvis Street. Right by the uber fashionable Bugis Junction, no more striking contrast can be found. Purvis Street has started the inexorable change towards modernization, but when I first visited Singapore in 2002, it was an old-fashioned double row of restaurants owned by Hainanese families. Most of them, but naturally, sold Chicken Rice, that staple of Singaporean street food, that originated in the southernmost province of China. Most Singaporeans trace their ancestry to Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew or Hainan, all in South China, and it is the fabled ‘magical hands’ of the Hainanese people that enabled them to work in kitchens of Britishers and in restaurants when they made the move.
Today, Chicken Rice is available at every food court in the malls and every street-stall in Singapore. Why, it even makes an appearance in neighbourhood Malaysia and Thailand, the latter as khao man kai or ‘oiled rice with chicken’. All chicken rice is served as a set: rice flavoured with chicken, a few generous slices of steamed chicken, a bowl each of minced chilli and minced ginger and a large bowl of chicken stock. The best places are revelatory; the others are just a travesty of the name. I patronize one of two in Purvis Street: Chin Chin which, I was told has been taken over by a new player, and Yet Con, right opposite. All the others have sold out and travesty of travesties: there’s even a brand new Italian restaurant on this stretch, which was sacrosanct to a bunch of eminently likeable elderly owners from Hainan. Not friendly, not smiling and with minimal knowledge of English, but they’re a hard-working bunch.
Nobody talks about the chicken in this dish any more, but the original in Hainan was in a league of its own. The chickens were bred in the ‘captivity’ of a huge ficus tree with aerial roots that hung to the ground and were allowed to run around between the trunk and the tree and feed on the seeds that fell to the ground. It is that which scented the chicken meat, according to legendary Chef Lo Ka Yan who worked with the Taj Group in Delhi and Chennai for decades.
Singaporeans who go on the Holy Grail journey to Hainan to relax on the golden sands and to taste ‘Hainanese’ Chicken Rice at source would be well-advised to look out for Wenchang Chicken, the visibly different prototype that travelled all the way to Singapore. As for me, as long as the no-nonsense old couple of Yet Con are around, I will continue to patronize their delightful old-fashioned restaurant.