Journeys of the past, present which will shape the future...
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Finding That Chicken Rice: A Crowing Game
Somewhere in 1990, in Kuala Lumpur, I managed to sample Hainanese Chicken Rice. This shouldn't be a surprise as, being in Malaysia, chicken rice is available everywhere. But this chicken rice stopped me in the tracks, the taste was very good. I was told that that was the authentic chicken rice, the way it was created and the way it should be.
Twenty years have passed, and being in Alor Setar, looking for that perfect Chicken Rice becomes a challenge. I understand that, for non-Muslims, it's no problem as there Chinese eating places that offer chicken rice everywhere. People in Kuala Lumpur should be lucky in this sense as there are now many halal Chinese restaurants available with this cuisine.
Chicken rice traces its origins from Hainan, China. Hainanese who came to Malaysia in the past introduced this dish and enriched the Malaysian F&B culture, although it can also be found everywhere in Thailand as well. It didn't take long before Malaysianized varieties took over and variations of the chicken rice rise to the fore. The Malays' chicken rice usually has more spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom in it. The rice also has turmeric in it. One of the major differences would be that the chicken is deep fried instead of boiled in the traditional bath. The fried chicken is usually a bit dry compared to the moist and tender boiled/steamed Hainanese style.
The chili sauce also plays a major factor. The Hainanese chicken rice usually has a mild sauce, a more potent garlic and ginger combination. The Malays have a stronger chili taste. There are also some shops that cheat by using bottled chili sauce. Nowadays, even the Chinese in Malaysia prefer the sauce to be hotter, causing their sauce to evolve erratically.
Chicken rice actually is not one of my favorite items on the menu. This actually is caused by the frustrating search for the more-original taste and style of the Hainanese chicken rice. I must say that I am not that fond of the Malay chicken rice as the chicken is dry and the sauces never work well. Of course, I am NOT saying that the Malays' chicken rice is not good as I find quite a number of Chinese eating the Malays' chicken rice, this is more on personal taste and preference.
Fate played a different game when I was at the Star Parade Alor Setar's Food Court. I usually go to Star Parade, a shopping complex in Alor Setar, when there are not many people around. My usual haunt at the food court would be the Lebanese Food. However, I was looking for something simpler and decided to head to the Nasi Ayam counter, and they somehow managed to surprise me with their dish.
The Chicken Rice tastes more Hainanese than Malay. The rice is lightly seasoned and fluffy, instead of the usual turmeric-colored, anise-seed scented one. There is a subtle taste of margarine and chicken fat along with stock in the rice. The chicken, although fried, is moist on the inside and retains the usual taste one would expect from the original chicken rice, served with pieces of cucumber, chili sauce and the chicken-stock based soy sauce. I have a feeling that the chili sauce has been modified for a sweet and hotter taste. You can easily detect the chicken stock in the soy sauce which gives it a more uplifting taste without being too salty. A bowl of simple chicken soup completes the dish.
By chance I met the stall operator, Encik Jamal. By experience, he was a chef who has been almost everywhere in Malaysia's top hotel before choosing to retire. I did ask him why chicken rice, despite all the experiences and knowledge gained throughout his years as a chef. Encik Jamal explained that he did try to sell Western food but the preparation hassle and people's acceptance in Alor Setar made him lose interest. I would have to agree. In Alor Setar, for most people (not all), Chicken Chop is considered the utmost western food. Spaghetti is to be eaten only with bolognaise (beef/mushroom with tomato paste) sauce. If you give them Angel Hair (pasta) with cream and parmesan sauce, they might just run away.
Encik Jamal explained that even his chicken rice met with certain antagonistic threats when he started his business. The original Hainanese chicken rice requires the chicken to be cooked in a vinegar based bath, once done it will be hung and chopped when it is to be served. People (mostly Malays) complained that this is not chicken rice or the chicken is not even cooked. He made changes by cooking the chicken in the bath, hung it, and when cooled, fried in oil to get the caramelized crispy skin texture that has become his own trademark.
He estimates his sales to be around 10-12 chicken per day on a normal day, and 12-15 on weekends and holidays. By now, he has regulars who have been captivated by chicken rice that differs from all Malay chicken rice in Alor Setar. Of course, I might be wrong, please correct me on this.
The bath for the chicken is a combination of white and black vinegar, along with maltose that give the chicken the crispy skin, and a light endearing taste. This is an extreme change from the usual crispy but dry and bland chicken I end up with at most chicken rice stalls.
Encik Jamal's Chicken Rice stall is located at the Food Court, which is on the 4th floor of Star Parade, Jalan Telok Wanjah, Alor Setar, Kedah. The stall is situated next to the Lebanese food. The stall starts around 10am until 6pm. A set of Chicken Rice costs around RM3.50.
I might not end up with the 100% authentic chicken rice, but the proximity in this case, is closer than before. Thinking about it, I think I found a Chicken Rice stall worth revisiting, again and again.