COMMENTARY, March 18 — They say the best things in life are free. And if they are not exactly free, at least they are affordable and easy enough to procure.

Like a humble plate of chicken rice.

Such a common dish yet such uncommon pleasure these fluffy grains of oil-slicked rice and morsels of moist chicken (some prefer it steamed, others love it roasted; done well, both are stupendous) offer so many of us.

And that is only the part where we eat it.

The drawback about getting almost all our meals that aren’t cooked at home via food delivery apps these days is missing out on some of the action.

Watching a true professional at work, "chopping" at meat and bone alike at a Hainanese chicken rice stall is being spellbound by a remarkable performance.

A few swift incisions and almost sleight of hand, and your order is ready, plated with more flourish than at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Whether it is Ipoh style nga choy gai or Malaccan chicken rice balls, it is all good.

Malaccan style chicken rice features addictive chicken rice balls.
Malaccan style chicken rice features addictive chicken rice balls.

Which makes it easy for us to take things for granted.

More years ago than I care to recall (though I am probably being disingenuous for nothing signposts middle age more clearly than a new predilection for nostalgia), I was a poor student in Munich and missing home dearly.

Don’t get me wrong, German food — especially Bavarian fare with cheesy Käsespätzle and meaty, belly-busting Schweinshaxe — is delicious and I miss it still, especially on hot, summery days when a refreshing, citrusy Radler would quench any thirst.

But it is not about how delectable a food or cuisine is. It is about how a food would remind us of our family, of the house we grew up in, because that is what our mother or grandmother used to cook for us.

(For the same reason, a single fried wonton would remind me of my eldest niece who makes it every Lunar New Year and how bossy and loving she is; it is the flavour of our reunion dinner. For the same reason, a single fried egg, burnt to a blackened crisp, would remind me of my dear father and how smoke alarms are a Very Good Idea.)

When in Ipoh, one must try the local 'nga choy gai' with plenty of juicy bean sprouts.
When in Ipoh, one must try the local 'nga choy gai' with plenty of juicy bean sprouts.

It is about how a food would evoke memories of queuing up at a favourite stall, then years later finding a new one when the invasion of tourists would cause the quality of the original to plummet, the never-ending pilgrimage to a promised land of Always Stay The Same.

Nothing stays the same. We learn that lesson eventually if we are blessed to live long enough. Everything changes in time. That is life and that is beautiful.

Life as an impoverished student in a distant land meant I cheated with cubes of chicken bouillon when I attempted to make chicken rice in Munich. It wasn’t close to resembling the real deal but somehow it still tasted good.

When one is starved of time and disposable income, even an atrocious facsimile, when made with lots of heart (not to mention a long nourished craving) can be a taste of home.

But who’s to say you can’t get a taste of home away from home? During one of my first visits to Bangkok, I was startled to discover that there is Hainanese chicken rice here too, often preceded with “Singaporean” as a helpful adjective.

(Never was I gladder not to have indulged in futile arguments over whether we or our southern neighbour first came up with one particular cherished dish or another. Isn’t it easier to split the difference and call it a shared heritage?)

'Chopping' roast chicken with speed and precision.
'Chopping' roast chicken with speed and precision.

Don’t be surprised to encounter a Thai version of chicken rice too, called khao man gai, but it is a different thing. Sure, your first impression may betray a familiar offering: boiled chicken, rice cooked in the chicken drippings and broth, and a bowl of clear chicken broth on the side.

A closer look reveals how the bold red chilli-and-garlic dip we’re used to is replaced with sliced prik kee noo chillies in a sweet soy sauce. It’s less pungent but fierier; similar or as some say, “Same same but not quite.”

Perhaps khao man gai reminds me of my second home. Bangkok always feels so close even when it is also so far away now, with international travel still on hiatus for most of us.

So when I crave khao man gai, I long for memories of my time in Bangkok. Home can be many different things. (We can compartmentalise. It is a fantastic human gift.)

Chicken rice is not about a pitch perfect rendition of what we used to savour; even a decent endeavour in the right spirit is enough to bring on the applause and appreciative cheers.

If we are what we eat, then is it any wonder we would most wish to devour that which makes us most us? When we love ourselves enough, we relish who we are.

Thai chicken rice or 'khao man gai', with sliced 'prik kee noo' chillies in a sweet soy sauce for dipping.
Thai chicken rice or 'khao man gai', with sliced 'prik kee noo' chillies in a sweet soy sauce for dipping.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be chicken rice.

It is chicken rice for me but for you it could just as easily be nasi lemak or ayam pongteh or a bowl of instant noodles, made with that secret ingredient only your family knows about. (No, it is not MSG. Unless it is. Is it?)

It is that taste only you recognise.

It is a taste of home, a taste of where you came from and a testament to who you are now. It is comfort and joy, amidst troubled toils. It is happiness in a dish and a dish that makes you happy.

It is all these and on a very good day, such as today, it is also lunch. And a celebration of life. Bon appetit!

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