I walk around Adelaide with a camera and a tripod.
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Published February 22nd 2018
Have you eaten?
What could I, an ignorant visitor on a two-day stopover, know about food in Singapore? How could I even begin to comprehend that kaleidoscopic confluence of influences, of the Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, British and Peranakan impact on culinary landscape or cultural identity as expressed through a country's cuisine? How could I hope to process, for a single moment, this intriguing melting pot of gastronomic heritage?
In conversations with the Singaporean Diaspora, it was clear that there is pride in iconic dishes, a near-obsession with quality ingredients and flavour, a sense of both advancing the frontiers of haute cuisine while ensuring that tradition carries forward. It seems a metaphor for Singapore itself.
Walk the streets of Singapore and ask anyone where "The best" Hainanese Chicken Rice, Chili Crab, Roti or Laksa is and they will likely provide a list of options that just as likely would be different from the next poor soul you happen to obstruct while posing this polarising question.
In the 1950s, Hawker Centres were created in urban locales in an effort to raise the food standards from street hawkers. Frequently found throughout Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, they provide affordable food of high quality in easily accessible locations with high sanitary standards.
There are many Hawker centres, but Maxwell Road Hawker centre (Maxwell Food Centre) is perhaps better known to travellers, having been featured on television programs starring globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain and the inimitable Gordon Ramsay.
Few stalls within this centre are as well known to the outside world as Tian Tian Chicken Rice.
I am told that the stall is a family business run by Madam Foo Kui Lian and her children, that the main point of controversy is that veteran Tian Tian chef Wong Liang Tai opened another Chicken Rice store (Ah Tai Chicken Rice) a few stalls down, and that it remains an active topic of debate as to which stall in Singapore, not merely in Maxwell Street, serves the best Chicken Rice.
It looks like sliced, glistening, pallid chicken on steamed rice, bringing to mind Leonardo Da Vinci's "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication," but a closer glance disabuses the observer of that notion. One glance at the multiple chefs bustling in a confined space, master stocks simmering in capacious, patinated, dented pots, the careful preparation, the ice baths, the complex balance of flavours infused and textures contrasted and one realizes that the whole operation is as careful and refined process as any fine dining establishment.
About the experience itself, there is little to report. On the afternoon I visited, the weather was expectedly sweltering. The humidity - cloying. The queue and wait were surprisingly short. I had come prepared with a small packet of tissues with which to reserve a seat (no serviettes being provided, generally, at Hawker Centres). The chicken was juicy and delicious. The rice? As fantastic as promised. Light and fluffy yet infused with the richness of chicken oil, the fragrance and deep flavour of a master stock informed with umami hints of garlic and shallots, contrasted with piquant sauce of tangy, spicy and salty inclination. Sitting there on a slightly sticky chair and leaning on a stickier table with fans spinning valiantly but ineffectually overhead, the experience was one to remember.
The opening hours are 11am to 8pm, Tuesday to Sunday (or until sold out). The closest Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train station is Chinatown, with the centre unmissable to anyone walking down South Bridge Road. The Tanjong Pagar MRT station is another nearby option.
Prices for the chicken rice range from SGD$3.50 for a small, $5.00 for a medium and $7.80 for large, with a whole/half chicken alone costing $24/$12 and extra rice $0.80. Sides including Vegetables in Oyster sauce and Bean sprouts are available. Three other Tian Tian Chicken Rice outlets are present at Simpang Bedok, Clementi and Lavender.
Deliciously Gelid, Glistening Chicken. There are more photogenic foods.
More than a hundred other stalls, arranged in rows, are featured in Maxwell Street Food Centre, many of which are family owned. Some of these boast lengthy queues comprising locals and visitors brandishing smartphones and travel guides while many others appear to attract no patrons at all. It's an interesting sight, almost as if the search for The Best of any food results in unrelenting popularity with The Rest being relegated to a slow but certain extinction. For the briefest moments, I consider whether yet another write-up on Tian Tian is required, if another article would contribute once more to the accolades in a shop already well accoladed. The passing thought passes. In my mind, at least, the accolades are deserved.