Penang is not exactly well-known for its Hainanese chicken rice - the rice tends to be less fragrant or tasty as Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, where the emphasis is on good quality rice, pre-fried in chicken grease, before being cooked in chicken stock scented with ginger and scallions. A knot of pandanus leaves is usually dropped into the rice-cooking pot. Some places also add a dollop of butter for the colour and extra richness.
Hainanese chicken rice in Penang tend to be plainer and blander than its Singapore counterpart, although the composition of the dish is similar throughout Malaysia and Singapore. One explanation could be because the Hainanese had to tweak their rice dish to cater to the Penangites whose taste-buds are more used to Cantonese-style poached chicken (“pak cham kai”) served with plain steamed rice.
Top Penang Hainanese chicken rice spots currently are Wen Chang on Cintra Street (best-tasting version in Penang, IMHO), Tho Yuen on Campbell Street (which used to rule the roost in Penang back during its hey-days in the 1960s/70s) and Goh Thiew Chik on Chulia Street (perhaps the most popular chicken rice spot in Penang currently).
To this list, we can add Sin Kuan Hwa on the corner of Cintra Street and Chulia Street.
Sin Kuan Hwa’s interior looked like it’s trapped in some 1950s time-warp, with tiled floors, walls and pillars, and old-fashioned Chinese coffeeshop wooden tables and chairs. There are even 60s-style booth seats lining the inner wall of the eatery.
The light chicken soup, served topped with chopped scallions in Malaysia/Singapore, but with sprigs of coriander in Thailand, where the Hainanese chicken rice is known as “khao man kai” (not to be confused with Thai-style Indian biryani rice known as “khao mok kai”).
The all-important chilli sauce dip. In Malaysia, it’s a mixture of ground chili, vinegar, garlic and ginger, diluted with some chicken fat/stock. It’s the same in Singapore, but oftentimes, blended ginger is also served as an additional condiment, to be added to the chili sauce. In Thailand, “taucheo” or fermented beanpaste is added to the chili sauce dip which otherwise has the same composition as its Singapore/Malaysia counterparts.
Sin Kuan Hwa has all the trappings of a good Hainanese chicken rice restaurant. The poached chicken was of good quality and the Hainanese chicken-chopper did an admirable job with the serving - definitely much better than the messily-chopped one we encountered at Malacca’s famous Chung Wah pictured here:
Any thoughts on Sing Ho, or familiarity with this?? We tend to wander as we travel, and came upon this place in June, 2017. Nothing spectacular, but hit the spot. I can easily eat poached chicken a few times a week.
I’d not tried Sing Ho myself. But generally, standard of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore is pretty high, and definitely a class above those you’d fnd anywhere else in the world, so you can’t go far wrong wherever you have it in Singapore.
My top 5 favourite places for Hainanese chicken rice (strictly my personal choice as Singaporeans, even in my own family, have their own faves) in order of preference are:
Boon Tong Kee. It’s got 8 outlets all over the island - my regular spot is at 399-403 Balestier Road, Singapore 329801.
Wee Nam Kee. Tastewise, it’s not as fragrant or pronounced as Boon Tong Kee’s, but I practically “grew up” on it - being the regular lunch-spot when I started work at the Singapore Broadcasting Corp, fresh out of university back in the 80s. Its main branch is now located at United Square (from Novena Ville previously). Now has a branch at Marina Square as well.
Yet Con - the old dependable on Purvis Street. Yet Con is as traditional as it gets, founded in 1940 and located right smack in the middle of Singapore’s Hainanese enclave - Purvis Street was formerly known as Hainan Street 2, whereas the other two roads parallel to it, Middle Road and Seah Street, are known as Hainan Street 1 and Hainan Street 3 respectively. Seah Street, of course, borders upon the historic Raffles Hotel, and a Hainanese bartender at the hotel, Ngiam Tong Boon, invented the Singapore Sling in 1915.
The Hainanese traditionally dominates the hotel and restaurant food & beverage scene in Singapore during the British colonial era.
Yet Con’s rice is the most fragrant and tasty of all Hainanese chicken rice spots in Singapore, IMO. But its poached chicken are pretty dry-ish and more robust/chewy - closer to the type of texture one finds on Hainan Island, China. Singaporeans much prefer the silky-smooth, finer-textured birds served in most other Hainanese chicken rice restaurants in Singapore.
Yet Con used to offer other traditional Hainanese a la carte dishes as well: stir-fried “tung hoon” (glass noodles) with dried cuttlefish & dark soysauce; stir-fried Chinese white cabbage with seafood, pork & eggs, etc. All very good. I used to dine there with Hainanese office colleagues and hear them banter with the staff in their Hainanese dialect, very different from my own Hokkien & Teochew dialects. The Hainanese call soup “tor” and bill “kit-teo”, something which I picked up and could use when I visit Hainanese eateries even in Bangkok, e.g. Eiah-Sae ([Bangkok] Eiah-Sae (เอี๊ยะแซ), the 89-year-old traditional Hainanese coffeeshop) and Ek Teng Phu-ki ([Bangkok] Traditional coffee at Ek Teng Phu Ki (เอ็กเต็งผู่กี่)), both 80-something-year-old traditional Hainanese coffeeshops down in Samphaeng (Bangkok’s Chinatown district).
Nam Kee on Upper Thomson Road is another old favourite of mine. It was one of the Hainanese chicken rice spots located closest to my family home in Singapore, so maybe our palate is attuned to its flavours. Most Singaporeans have their own favourite chicken rice spots close to their respective home/suburb, e.g, those in Tanglin/Queenstown/Commonwealth area would know the famous Margaret Drive chicken rice spot, whereas those living in East Coast Rd/Katong/Joo Chiat would go to Five Star. Sometimes, familiarity resulted in one’s taste preferences.
Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice on Seng Poh Rd. This one is one of my “newer” discoveries, as a good friend introduced that to me just back in 1992. Tiong Bahru, at the time, was known to me for its “chwee kway” (steamed rice cakes topped with salted radish) and its crazily-famous steamed bao stall. Both are still there and doing roaring business, but I also get my Hainanese chicken rice from there as well these days, sometimes buying 8-10 packets to bring home.
Pow Sing chicken rice at Serangoon Gardens. One of the best-known in Singapore (to locals, of course, since foreigners prefer Tian Tian at Maxwell Rd Food Centre) and one of my go-to places since the 80s. Pow Sing also offers Nyonya dishes to go with the Hainanese chicken rice, something which I quite like.
Try these Hainanese chicken rice places if you happen to be in the vicinity of any of them.
We were staying around the corner, at the Intercontinental. Walked over to Yet Con the 1st or 2nd night of our stay. The old style ambience was comforting, want to go back for their hot pot next time. My wife loved the Hainan chicken, I enjoyed the chicken, rice was good.
I actually enjoyed the restaurant across the street (Chin Chin Eating House) more. Their Hainan chicken was not the better, but they had a wider offering of Cantonese dishes (goat stew/fu jook, etc… )
You are so right about Singapore Hainan Chicken rice, being a class above elsewhere in the world. I do admit to a fondness for a corner roastie shop in San Francisco. They do a simple “white chopped chicken” with white rice. To me, just right poached chicken is a PERFECT food.
Chin Chin was one of my favourite lunch spots for a while back in the 90s - they did the fluffiest “foo yong tan” (egg omelette with shrimps) on the island. Their original location was on Seah Street, facing the Raffles Hotel’s Seah Street Deli across the street. The old Chin Chin was not air-conditioned, and we used to sweat buckets even as we stuffed ourself with “gwoo lo yook” (sweet-sour pork), kai lan vegetables stir-fried with “pee her” (dried leatherjacket fish) and numerous other “cze char” (meaning stir-fry) dishes. Sometimes, seating spilled out onto the sidewalks outside and, on more than one occasion, I’d be seating with my colleagues on one of the tables on the sidewalk, almost under the noon-day sun, stuffing our faces.
Then, suddenly, in the mid-90s, the family who owned Chin Chin packed their bags, shuttered down their crazily-popular eatery, and emigrated to Perth, Western Australia. We wept for our loss. They said they’ll open an eatery and do what they do best in their new Perth home.
I didn’t follow what happened to them there - I could have as easily found out. After all, I graduated from the University of Western Australia myself and have kith & kin there still.
Then, about 6-7 years later, the whole Chin Chin family gave up their experimentation with life in Australia and migrated back to Singapore! We rejoiced briefly - until we went there for our first Chin Chin “cze char” meal on its second week of operation and realised, to our dismay, that the food didn’t taste the same at all from how we remembered it to be. So, the old head chef must have been employed by the family, and who retired when his employers emigrated. The current kitchen can’t even hold a candle to the old one. Chin Chin, in its second incarnation, is a pale shadow of what it once was. I’m only disappointed that the current generation of Singaporeans will never know how good the food there used to be.
I’d not been to Taiwan for ages so cannot comment, but my friends, Robyn & David, did highlight the emergence of a new wave of young talented Taiwanese chefs who’re doing wonderful things using fresh, local ingredients. This seemed to be the latest trend in Taipei. You can read more on their choices in Robyn’s article for the New York Times:
As for Kaohsiung, I found the cooking there to be relatively tasteless as the Kaohsiung folks hardly salt their food (blech!). I was last there in 2010, which felt like eons ago. My old thread on CH:
Alas, Sin Kuan Hwa on Chulia Street is no more. Amidst George Town’s on-going gentrification of its old downtown (which has raised the concern of conservationists), Sin Kuan Hwa has been replaced by a standard drinking pub, its more than half a century-old traditional Chinese interior is no more.