Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice may not have the best rendition of Singapore’s de facto national dish, but it’s certainly the best-known one - especially among foreign visitors.
Current stall-owner, 74-year-old Hainanese matriarch, Foo Kui Lan, inherited the stall started by her older brother at Maxwell Food Centre back in 1987. Her family now runs the stall, plus a couple of branches around Singapore, with clockwork efficiency. Her daughter, Li Mei Yun , set up a central kitchen to prepare their poached chicken, the aromatic chicken-flavoured rice, that famous dressing/sauce, and other condiments, then truck those to their various outlets in large styrofoam boxes.
With branches at Simpang Bedok to cater to HDB heartlanders living in the eastern part of Singapore, and Clementi for those in the west, Tian Tian ensures it remains relevant to local Singaporeans. But back at its main branch in Maxwell Food Centre, about 70% of people we see in the queue at any given time are mainly foreigners.
Tian Tian owes its legendary reputation to this Maxwell Food Centre branch, and it’s all to do with location, location, location: back in 1987, the Singapore Tourism Board designated a nearby strip of Maxwell Road as Singapore’s Food Street, similar to a Hong Kong Food Street espoused by HK’s own tourism board back in the late-70s/early-80s. But Singapore’s Food Street was a line of restaurants, e.g. Mitzis, etc. Most foreign tourists wanted a taste of Singapore’s hawker food, so they ended up at Maxwell Food Centre nearby, with its grimy, grungy hawker stalls. But the food centre has gone through a few face-lifts in the last three decades or so.
Confession: in those years, i.e. 1987-1990s, when I ate at Maxwell Food Centre, I’d never actually had Tian Tian’s Hainanese chicken rice there - that’s because I usually have my Hainanese chicken rice fix at Wee Nam Kee on Thomson Road or Boon Tong Kee on Balestier Road, both near my workplace, the Singapore Broadcasting Corp on Caldecott Hill. Then, one day, in 1995-1996 thereabouts, a couple of visiting Hong Kong friends insisted that they must try Tian Tian Hainanese chicken rice which they said was recommended by “friends who visited Singapore”. I brought them there, and also had my first taste of Tian Tian’s rendition then. It was not much different from those around anyway, so I’d thought at the time.
In the 1990s to 2000s, Maxwell Food Centre fed the office workers from nearby Shenton Way, Singapore’s financial district. Its Hainanese curry rice stall was one of my favourites, and so, too, were the now-defunct ngoh hiang stall, and the famous tapioca cake stall (it also sells onde-onde, but everyone goes there for their soft, tasty tapioca cakes).
Our lunch there last week:
Hainanese-style poached chicken - Tian Tian eschewed the usual soy sauce-sesame oil-oyster sauce dressing used by most other Hainanese chicken rice spots, but brewed their own - more akin to the thick, slightly unctuous braising sauce which Cantonese restaurants slather atop cooked meats or shellfish. Therein lies one of the unique characteristics which sets Tian Tian’s offerings apart from its rivals.
Chicken livers & gizzards, plus hard-boiled eggs - we’d always ordered chicken livers & gizzards for a “complete” Hainanese chicken rice dining experience. The soy-braised hard-boiled eggs were an added feature which gained popularity about a decade back.
Singaporeans’ love for eggs can be almost fetish-like: they’ll have soft-boiled eggs (with toasts & coffee) for breakfast, lunch, tea or supper.
- Blanched beansprouts with cuttlefish strips - serving beansprouts with chicken rice can be traced to Ipoh, the Northern Malaysian city famous for its “nga choy kai” (Cantonese poached chicken with beansprouts) - a dish not too dissimilar to Hainanese chicken rice.
This dish inspired the introduction of a beansprout dish as part of a Hainanese chicken rice spread. It was unheard of during my childhood, or even young adulthood years (the 1990s-2000s) but has gained traction nowadays.
The addition of cured cuttlefish is a strictly Singaporean thingy though. The dish here at Tian Tian would be drizzled with a light dressing of soy sauce-and-chicken-flavoured sauce, then topped with scallions, red chilis and shallots.
Xiao pai cai - this is poached/blanched bok choy greens, drizzled with oyster sauce and topped with golden-brown shallots and garlic crisps.
Chili dip - many Singaporeans felt that having a good chili sauce is the make-or-break factor in any Hainanese chicken rice enterprise. Hainanese chicken rice chili sauce is a combination of ground red chilis, raw garlic, and chicken drippings (from poaching or steaming the chicken), plus a generous squeeze of local lime. It should be spicy, sourish and garlicky.
The version here at Tian Tian is as good as any.
Good to see Tian Tian doing so very well - the much-missed Anthony Bourdain loved it here, whilst Gordon Ramsay lost a televised cooking challenge to Tian Tian’s head chef - all further cementing the little-stall-that-could’s brand name internationally.
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice
1 Kadayanallur Street, Maxwell Food Centre #01-10/11
Opening hours: 10am- 7.30pm Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.