Chicken Rice. The national dish of Singapore. Right here at Maxwell Food Centre you will find the best version of Hainanese Chicken Rice known to man at a stall called Tian Tian Chicken Rice. It’s so famous that its customers have included Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay. Both gave it a unanimous thumbs up.
We rocked up at this famous hawker centre on the trail of Chicken Rice only to discover that a select number of stalls were open – Tian Tian sadly wasn’t one of them. In pictures the centre looks quite clean and modern but it’s actually quite dingy. The sun was shining brightly outside but in the communal seating area between the stalls it’s relatively dark with the lights of the stalls aiding illumination.
Chicken Rice was what we fancied so Chicken Rice is what we went to try. A stall named Hong Xiang Hainanese Chicken Rice had freshly boiled birds hanging in the window and a number of interested punters approaching for a plate of the good stuff. The lady serving was friendly offering me a spicy sambal chilli sauce to go with the medium sized plate of Chicken Rice for a very reasonable $5 SGD (£2.76).
We were expecting a gelatinous mouthful of plain food looking at the dish itself. It did appear very ordinary. On tasting it though, it was anything but. The chicken skin melts in the mouth and the rice is fragrant with a hint of garlic to it. The chilli sauce was quite sharp, similar to piri-piri and a little went a long way with this dish. We loved it. Poaching the chicken seems to keep it juicy resulting in a plate of food that falls firmly into the comforting category.
To wash this down we bought a cup of sugar cane juice from the stall directly opposite. We watched eagerly as the vendor pressed a fresh sugar cane through a machine to extract the juice. $1.50 SGD (£0.83) for a medium sized cup of the sweet stuff – and this was sweet. Initially the drink is quite refreshing but as we got halfway down it began to taste like cold tea which had been over sweetened. Not particularly pleasant.
Walking around we spotted a place called Popiah and Cockle – a popular spot for Rojak. I remember hearing about Rojak somewhere and remembering that it was good. What i didn’t know was what exactly it was. All I knew was that people were hovering around this stall and emerging with plates of something that looked intriguing. I approached the friendly lady and opted for non-spicy version of Rojak.
I tried to gauge just what the heck was going into the pestle and mortar. I got beansprouts, a sweet sauce and a few random items before the whole lot was poured onto a plate, garnished with sesame seeds and ready to eat. I could smell a fermented smell, similar to shrimp paste. The whole arrangement looked like a cold dish of coated fruits and vegetables in a syrupy glaze.
The first bite was a Chinese doughnut. The sauce tasted very good indeed, sweet, slightly sour and extremely rich. The flavours began to jump out at this point. Beansprouts for crunch and pieces of pineapple that were delicious with the sauce. The vegetables such as courgettes and cucumber I wasn’t so keen on.
The salad was an adventure in itself. I found crunchy peanuts and began to figure out that the sauce was a typical Indonesian one made with palm sugar, shrimp paste and lime juice. It’s probably one of the strangest things that I’ve ever eaten. I really couldn’t decide if i liked it or not. If you happen to fancy a portion of Rojak at Popiah and Cockle it’ll set you back $3 SGD (£1.66). For that you do get a substantial portion given the richness of the salad.
With that we left behind the Maxwell Food Centre generally happy with what we had tried and even more happy with what we had spent. The hawker centre’s of Singapore are a haven for the budget traveller and those who want to try a taste of the real Singapore. Of the stalls we visited Hong Xiang Hainanese Chicken Rice stands out from the crowd. A great option if, like us, you happen to miss out on Tian Tian’s award winning version.
Opening times: Tuesday-Sunday 1000-1600 (Stall opening times vary)
Nearest Metro: Chinatown