Chicken Rice Run

Chicken Rice set at Cafe Downtown, Tropical Inn
Simple yet delicious comfort food

I probably tasted my first Hainanese Chicken Rice at Johor Baru’s Chinatown food centre located at Jalan Ungku Puan, when the adjacent Segget River was still a stinking open sewer. 

My visits to this food centre were memorable because when the tide was low, the mouth-watering flavours of freshly cooked food had to compete with the over-powering pong from the river.  Even with this river’s dubious reputation, food enthusiasts knew that Chinatown offered some of the best Chinese food in Johor Baru at that time. 

I remember how the feisty but friendly hawker lady would serve this fluffy, fragrant long-grained rice by packing it tightly into a rice-bowl before cupping it onto a plate.  This created a neat little mound of rice which I enjoyed eating meticulously through, while trying impossibly to retain its shape.  I can still recall how this flavoured rice, tinged a pale shade of yellow tasted so good that it could even be eaten on its own.

Chicken Rice set at Le Grandeur Palm Resort, Johor
After Chinatown was demolished, the hawkers moved to other locations in the city or retired if there was no family member to take over their business. 

As food centers flourished in modern malls and new residential areas, a variety of Chinese street food including the ubiquitous chicken rice is found in almost every food court now.  Recently it became trendy to serve a menu of halal street food from decorated hawker-like stalls with live cooking stations in buffets for private parties and in posh hotels. 

This is an excellent way to promote local street food to hotel guests and tourists so that they can take home fond memories of some of our interesting local flavours.  The hotel too can earn the prestigious reputation for being the destination for an authentic taste of a local favourite like chicken rice.  For this reason alone, it’s essential for hotel kitchens to serve consistently good local fare so that guests who had that wonderful experience would bring along their guests to enjoy a local meal in a comfortable place. 

Sauces for chicken rice [Clockwise] Light soy sauce,
minced ginger sauce, dark soy sauce and chilli-garlic sauce
In my quest for good chicken rice, I set out to taste chicken rice in various places in Johor Baru over the last few months and discovered interesting and different ways it is being served. 

Of course, the standard serving included the flavoured rice with a choice of boiled or roasted chicken chopped in pieces, served with a few slices of raw cucumber and a side of chicken soup.  This meal comes with several dips like the mandatory chilli-garlic sauce and ground ginger sauce.  Light soy sauce is usually available but thick, dark soy sauce is commonly served here while oyster sauce mixed with garlic may be offered in better restaurants.

Chicken rice lovers will agree that the right chilli sauce made all the difference in the meal.  My friend Margaret, a self-confessed chilli freak, said that the only way to enjoy chicken rice is to heap on the chilli-garlic sauce.  As we talked about her passion for this chilli sauce, she shamelessly confessed to often helping herself so liberally from the chilli dispenser that the stallholder had to gently remove it from the table before she finished it.

William generously drizzling his bowl of
chicken rice with dark soy sauce
At a chicken rice lunch with my friends, I watched in fascination as William and Shane, one after the other, picked up the dark soy sauce bottle to drizzle it copiously on their bowls of steaming hot rice. 

They insisted that this is the best way to appreciate the full flavour of the chicken rice meal.  The dark soy sauce was such a perfect complement that it brought back childhood memories of how my grandma taught us to mix dark soy sauce with hot rice steamed with Chinese sausages for a tasty Chinese New Year meal. 

At a recent resort hotel stay, I discovered that chicken rice is an item in their lunch buffet so I requested to have it the next day.  My hosts were puzzled that I picked common chicken rice as opposed to something more exotic from their wide menu but they did not know that I wanted to see if they were serving an authentic version of it.  When it was served, I was not disappointed because their delicious chicken rice came with a side of soup and three varieties of sauces – chilli-garlic, minced ginger and dark soy sauce.

One of the best hotel versions of chicken rice in Johor Baru must be the Hainanese Chicken Rice set served at Café Downtown in Tropical Inn.  Fans of chicken rice will agree that the taste of their fluffy rice and smooth chicken remains consistent even while their set serving is enhanced by additional side dishes for a more balanced meal.  I was delighted to see the three sauces – chilli-garlic, minced ginger and dark soy sauce – neatly served on a single plate divided into three segments.

Wednesday is chicken rice day at Hua Mui Restaurant, JB
Chicken rice remains a favourite comfort food as it’s mild enough for young and old, and foreigners unfamiliar with spicy chilli flavours can just refrain from adding the chilli sauce.  Its available daily from many stalls throughout the city and Hua Mui Restaurant regulars know that it’s chicken rice day on Wednesday.  

But here’s a friendly word of advice on behalf of my dentist friends to chicken rice lovers, to never eat chicken rice with lots of chilli-garlic sauce before going for dental appointments because dentists certainly deserve a more conducive working environment.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 23 August 2011

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