Singapore Swing

“There must be more to Singapore cuisine that bak kwa,” I thought to myself.

The dried sweet meat our friend Shoba brought us back from the tiny island nation — her home turf — was certainly delicious. But there had to be more.

Hainanese chicken rice

Hainanese chicken rice

Other than writing a marketing blurb here or there for one or the other cruise line about the Jurong Bird Park, breakfast with tigers at the zoo or Singapore slings at Raffles Hotel, I hadn’t really thought much about Singapore before Shoba entered our lives.

“You should come to Singapore with us!” Shoba and her husband Bob encouraged us. Perhaps one day… But I certainly was more curious about the food of Singapore, which I sort of envisioned as a variation on Malay curries and satays, than I had been before.

In the meantime, to quell my curiosity about the island’s cuisine, I had a new book on cooking Singaporean cuisine — appropriately titled “Singapore Cooking” — that Shoba had brought me as a gift from her most recent trip home. Perhaps she was trying to tell me something?

Shoba and her fancy drink, avoiding the camera's lens

Shoba and her fancy drink, avoiding the camera’s lens

I wasn’t too far off with my initial assessment — the cuisine was very similar to that of Malaysia. Singapore, of course, sits at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, with the three predominant culinary influences being Chinese, Indian and Malay. I surmised that perhaps the more significant difference when it came to food between Malaysia and Singapore was less one of style than of attitude. Singapore, I was told, was all about the food.

“There’s nothing else to do there,” Shoba declared.

Singaporeans were passionate about food, and the options and variety were diverse and ubiquitous.

“When I get to Singapore,” Bob had told me, “the first thing I do is get a bowl of chicken rice.”

The cookbook said of the dish, Hainanese chicken rice: “You know a dish deserves ambassadorial status when it appears on a Singapore Airlines menu.” This seemed a good place to start. In addition, my first Singaporean meal would include the island’s other unofficial national dishes, chili crab, as well as a dish of prawn-flavored long beans.

Chili crab & chicken rice sauces

Chili crab & chicken rice sauces

In lieu of any awareness of a Singaporean or even Malaysian market and with no time to order anything online, I hit up the Island Pacific Indonesian market for the prawn paste I would need for the crab and the beans.

The planned day had arrived, and I ran into my pal Vince at the farmer’s market. I told him about my meal, and that got us talking about chicken and rice. Every culture, Vince reflected, had their version of chicken and rice — just add beans for most of Latin America, pickled ginger for Japan, paprika or wine sauce for Europe… fry up the chicken for the American south. Chicken and rice is the ultimate ubiquitous comfort food.

Dinner was a success, my chili sauce won raves (“It’s really all about the chili sauce,” Shoba explained), the chicken rice apparently tasted authentic and the big-legs-of-Alaskan-snow-crab-where-usually-it’s-a-spindly-little-Southeast-Asian-crab inspired “ooos” and “ahhhs”. And Shoba was reminded of home, looked comforted and clearly the chicken rice had done its job.

Here, then, is my version of Singapore chicken rice, adapted to suit my own tastes (more garlic! richer stock!). Because who knows when’s the next time  you’ll have a chance to get to Singapore.


*    *    *

Hainanese chicken rice
serves 4-6, with ample leftovers

1 chicken
1 quart water + 1 quart chicken stock
(or 2 quarts water + 1 tablespoon Better Than Bouillon)
3 cloves garlic
2 1/4-inch thick slices of fresh ginger
salt to taste
sesame oil

2 cups uncooked short- or medium-grain rice (Calrose or other Japanese-style)
2 cups stock from chicken
2 tbsp. chicken or duck fat or vegetable oil
3 tbsp. chopped garlic
1 tbsp. chopped peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp. salt

Chili sauce:
2 red jalapeños
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp. fresh minced ginger
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. lime juice
1 tbsp. rice vinegar

Ginger sauce:
1/3 cup chopped ginger root
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 tbsp. chicken stock

Fried shallots:
2 large shallots, cut lengthwise into thin slivers
1 cup oil

Bring the water, stock, garlic and ginger to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and add the chicken. Wait until the liquid comes to a boil again, then reduce heat to medium and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, cover and let stand for 20 minutes, then remove chicken from pot, rub with sesame oil and set aside.

Bring water/stock to a boil and cook until it is reduced by half. Season with salt to taste.

Rinse rice several times, drain and then spread out on a cookie sheet to dry (about 10 to 20 minutes).

Heat oil over medium-high in a large saucepan or pot. Add chopped garlic and ginger and fry, stirring, until they begin to turn golden (2-3 minutes). Add rice and cook, tossing, for another minute or two, until rice in translucent. Add 2 cups of reserved, reduced chicken stock to the pot and turn heat to high. When it just begins to boil, cover, turn heat to low, and cook for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit, covered.

Chop the chicken off the carcass into bite-size pieces (reserve the carcass — you can boil again in water and make a whole other pot of chicken stock!). Using your fingers or a pastry brush, give the chicken pieces a light brush of sesame oil and a sprinkle of salt.

Fry the shallots: Place oil in a wok or small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add shallots, and when they begin to sizzle, lower heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden (15-20 minutes). Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Make the sauces: for the chili sauce, combine all ingredients in a blender or mini-prep food processor and blend until smooth. Then do the same for the ginger, add a little water if too thick. Serve in separate sauce dishes alongside the chicken rice.

Place rice on a platter. Arrange chicken pieces over rice. Sprinkle fried shallots over the top, and serve with sauces, allowing each person to take as much as they’d like.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 01:10:01

    Oh, I used to love the original Straits in SF back in the day. And, who could argue with “more garlic! richer stock!”?


  2. Mom
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 01:14:27

    I never heard of that prep for chicken. Is that a whole chicken? Is it completely cooked? I don’t like raw chicken.


    • scolgin
      Jul 24, 2015 @ 01:50:04

      Yeah, surprisingly. I thought the thigh meat wasn’t quite cooked through at first, but it is. And the breast is surprisingly moist and tender. You could leave it sitting an extra ten minutes in the stock just to be sure.


  3. xaydunghoanggia1
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 12:01:16



  4. Cheryl "Cheffie Cooks" Wiser
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 16:38:52

    Hi Sean, great post! I love adapting to other’s native cuisine-you rock dude!!! Cheryl


  5. andreathompson2
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 21:09:10

    That sounds delicious. I might try it. Is your friend avoiding the lens because she thinks it can take her soul? Must be, she didn’t look at all unattractive or fat!


  6. andreathompson2
    Jul 24, 2015 @ 21:09:43

    Raw chicken isn’t very good for you either, Mom!!


  7. shobapfaff
    Jul 26, 2015 @ 17:57:09

    Sean you certainly nailed it! I still can’t believe how bold you were using authentic prawn paste to make the green beans… And it IS all about the chilli sauce. You need to start bottling and selling that stuff because I need more! You should be given an honorary Singapore citizenship after an epic meal like that one…


    • scolgin
      Jul 26, 2015 @ 19:44:32

      Thanks Shoba! I don’t fear ANY fermented seafood product!! (Except maybe Iceland’s rotten shark). I should probably visit Singapore before I accept my honorary citizenship. 🙂


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