When the Hainanese people from the south Chinese island of Hainan began immigrating to Singapore around the middle of the 19th Century, they were marginalised because their dialect prevented them from fully communicating with other Chinese immigrants and because most of the lucrative industries were dominated by mainland Chinese who were already established in Singapore. This relegated them to being servants for the British colonialists or to working in the food service industry, which sometimes was the same thing. The Hainanese served the British chicken rice, thinking the seemingly non-exotic boiled chicken would be acceptable to their palates.
But the fact that the chicken flavour is so pervasive throughout the dish suggests something surprising. Liew explained it best: “People would use the old mother hen for chicken rice when she couldn’t lay any more eggs. And so they would make sure they got the most out of it by stretching out the flavour of the chicken – via the broth and the rice and so on – as much as possible.”
Chicken rice is a full meal born out of the frugality that comes with strife and a battle to survive, as the Hainanese struggled to establish themselves in Singapore.
And then everything began to change with the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II – when the British were forced out and the Hainanese people lost their source of income. This was when the first chicken rice restaurant opened. As local food blogger Tony Boey explained to me, “Before that, the Hainanese just prepared it in the home, but during and after the occupation, they were looking for new ways to make money.”
One of those early places to open was Yet Con (25 Purvis St), established in the early 1940s. It’s still there, serving up the same chicken rice.
I recruited a local chef friend, Vivian Pei, to accompany me there. When we walked in, around 5 pm, the owners gave us a dirty look. We were not only there between meals, but were there during their own dinner. They reluctantly allowed us to sit down.
And so here I was, sitting at one of a handful of marble tables scattered about the room. The no-frills mid-century ambience – with plain light-blue walls and a tiled floor – gave the restaurant an archaic feel.
When the chicken arrived at our table, something seemed strange. “There’s no sauce on the chicken,” said Pei.
Sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s, chicken rice cooks began drizzling the soy-sesame sauce on the cooked chicken. But Yet Con, apparently, still cooks up chicken like it’s 1949 – meaning sans sauce, giving the fowl an especially bland look.
The other big difference, Pei pointed out, was that Yet Con lets the chicken dry naturally and eschews the whole ice-dipping technique. She took a bite. “It’s a bit dry.” Perhaps it wasn’t always viewed as dry, but as new techniques have evolved to make chicken more tender – such as dropping it in ice – this version seemed woefully behind the times.
“I think the key to excellent chicken rice,” Pei said, “is that everything must be balanced. If one thing is not good then it brings down the dish.” Like a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, chicken rice suffers if one element is mediocre. In the case of Yet Con, the “weak link” was the chicken itself.
It wasn’t the best way to end my week of eating chicken rice, but it didn’t matter. I said goodbye to Pei – she had a cooking class to teach and I had a few hours to kill before my flight – and I strolled in the direction of the airport. Before I hailed a cab, I savoured my remaining time in a city-state where a seemingly boring dish can – most of the times – be elevated into something so sapid and comforting that my memories of it alone will sustain me until my next visit.