So where is the best chicken rice in Singapore?

A plate of the famous Hainanese chicken rice from Tian Tian at Maxwell Food Centre will only set you back less than $5 per portion, but you just need to be patient while waiting in line (left). Good, fragrant chicken rice should always be accompanied by killer chili sauce and to some, a drizzle of dark soy sauce (right). — Pictures By James Tan
A plate of the famous Hainanese chicken rice from Tian Tian at Maxwell Food Centre will only set you back less than $5 per portion, but you just need to be patient while waiting in line (left). Good, fragrant chicken rice should always be accompanied by killer chili sauce and to some, a drizzle of dark soy sauce (right). — Pictures By James Tan

SINGAPORE, Jan 18 — Do you recall — I am sure most foodies are still able to —  the “battle” between Malaysia and Singapore a few years back over who “owns” certain hawker food?

It sure placed hawker favourites like chicken rice, laksa and satay on the world food map, which probably was the only blessing in disguise resulting from this fiasco.

But I shall not fan the flames here and let bygones be bygones.

That being said, allow me to revisit some of the points of argument, in particular on Hainanese chicken rice which can be a relatively touchy subject since both countries have stuck their necks out by staking claims over the origin of this seemingly humble one-plate ensemble fit for any meal of the day.

Being a Hainanese myself, and coming from a lineage of fine cooks — my late grandfather worked as a cook for the British during pre-Merdeka days and subsequently started his own chicken rice stall business in Ipoh — I have grown up eating chicken rice from possibly all corners of Ipoh.

However, Boon Tong Kee’s sweet and sour pork as well as other dishes were reasonably well-received
However, Boon Tong Kee’s sweet and sour pork as well as other dishes were reasonably well-received

And as the adventurous eater in me blossomed, the hunt for good chicken rice extended to beyond Perak state, from north to south in peninsular Malaysia.

Since relocating to Singapore half a year ago, the one street food that resonated most and constantly appeared on my radar of “must-tries” is... you guessed it, Hainanese chicken rice.

The initial impression was more of curiosity and to some extent a challenge to prove the claims wrong.

But after several attempts, and dining at a few top-rated chicken rice outlets in the Lion city, I am pleasantly surprised that some of these places

DO deserve the accolades and compliments after all.

The most obvious place to start is Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice stall, a double lot food stall in Maxwell Food Centre in Chinatown; an extremely tourist-centric landmark populated by a couple dozen stalls serving everything from Singapore’s chicken rice to porridge, fried radish cake to rojak and more.

Now, despite the overwhelmingly diverse crowd (more tourists than locals, but not entirely), the prices are still reasonable; at less than $5 (RM13) per individual serving unless you breach the ambitious threshold and order more chicken or choose the better cuts such as drumstick, etc.

The biggest drawback here is the perpetual queue which can be severely intimidating, sometimes stretching all the way to the corridor lining the perimeter of the stalls.

But lining up systematically and waiting patiently to be served seems to be the norm in Singapore, so might as well join the crowd and cherish the chance to mingle with fellow Tian Tian supporters.

Unless, of course, they are first-timers and just as clueless.

The poached chicken served at Boon Tong Kee appears to be fatter, more succulent and presentable, but yet lacking in flavour compared to the other two
The poached chicken served at Boon Tong Kee appears to be fatter, more succulent and presentable, but yet lacking in flavour compared to the other two

​Anyway, Tian Tian’s winning points are definitely their fragrant oil rice steamed to perfection, individual grains with the right texture and their signature condiment ie. garlic chili sauce with a fiery kick. However, the steamed chicken at Tian Tian did not impress as much, being merely average but far from inedible, mind you.

While Tian Tian has attracted most of the chicken rice lovers in Singapore, another brand has taken things up a notch; expanding across the island and serving more than just chicken rice.

Boon Tong Kee dates back to the late 70s, and this outlet at Balestier Road actually is almost as old as me. The restaurant has been upgraded to a diner — more than your usual chicken rice stall — and there are seven outlets in total in Singapore.

The ambience is definitely a winner at their original outlet on Balestier Road; double-storey premise with round, communal dining tables fit for any occasion. And the plethora of cze char (cooked dishes) available on their menu seems pretty impressive.

Thus, we settled for a meal of mostly cze char dishes including one of my usual picks — sweet and sour pork. Plus their trademark deep fried golden beancurd served with a creamy sauce, steamed eggs with crab meat and spinach in superior broth. Not forgetting the main order of poached chicken (skinless, like every other chicken rice outlet in Singapore that I have been to) and oil rice.

Ironically, the chicken and the rice were somewhat disappointing; the chicken lacking in flavour while the rice cooked with ginger slices did not impress either.

The other dishes stood out more; we would have happily eaten triple portions of the caramelised barbecued  pork we ordered for starters.

Last but not least, my current favourite spot for Hainanese chicken rice happens to be this hole-in-the-wall stall in Far East Plaza off Orchard Road; the shoppers’ haven in the middle of the city.

The outlet’s name is Hainanese Delicacy, fielding less than 10 tables and a seating capacity of no more than 20 pax at any one time. Hence, the visibly impatient line of hungry chicken rice fanatics to be found on any occasion, more obvious during peak hours.

Hainanese Delicacy seems uninviting and slightly run down, hidden within Far East Plaza, but the Hainanese boneless chicken rice here deserves two thumbs up
Hainanese Delicacy seems uninviting and slightly run down, hidden within Far East Plaza, but the Hainanese boneless chicken rice here deserves two thumbs up

The fragrant oil rice and poached chicken (noticeably better than their roasted counterpart) are delicious, the chili sauce bearing a kick (albeit less intense than Tian Tian’s), and the side dishes of braised hard boiled eggs and soup of the day (the salted vegetable soup was just like how grandma used to make it) were all satisfying.

I will not dare say I have tried the best of them yet in Singapore, but since these were but some of the better chicken rice brands on the island, logically I started with them.

There’s always been this itch to splurge on a portion of $30 chicken rice from ChatterBox at Mandarin Orchard; hands down the most premium version in the country, but the lure of Far East Plaza’s version manages to draw me in every time. Maybe in the next couple of weeks?

Where do YOU think serves the best Hainanese chicken rice; be it in Malaysia or Singapore?  

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
#01-10/11, Maxwell Food Centre,
1, Kadayanallur Street, Chinatown, Singapore
Opens from 10.30 am – 8.00 pm daily, except Mondays
Two other outlets are located in Joo Chiat and Simpang Bedok

Boon Tong Kee
399, 401, 403,
Balestier Road, Singapore
Opens for lunch and dinner daily, total of seven outlets all over Singapore

Hainanese Delicacy
#05-116, Far East Plaza,
14, Scotts Road,
Singapore
Opens from 10 am – 8 pm daily

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)