Sin Kee Chicken Rice, Sabeena Indian Food, Kim Choo Kueh Chang – how many of these brand names do you recognise? Do consumers care about brand names and legacy when it comes to hawker food in Singapore?
With more than 20,000* economical hawker food places to choose from, how much do branding and tradition matter when it comes to deciding what to eat in a hawker centre?
Do we not eat at a hawker centre for convenience and the low cost of the food? And if the food tastes good, well, that’s a bonus!
There are some dishes that are special to Singaporeans. We track down chicken rice, Indian rojak and rice dumplings, although there are many others, of course.
But, which are the genuine stalls with true lineage, faithfully replicating proven recipes that have been passed down generations?
Chicken Rice is such a go-to that many hawker centres have more than one stall serving this dish.
Arguably, in part due to international fame generated by the likes of celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain, Tian Tian has become the most famous – more so for tourists, rather than locals who would be less inclined to join the endless queue at Maxwell Food Centre.
One brand-name chicken rice stall is Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice. It does not always pop up on the lists of food bloggers, but many Singapore foodies of our generation rank this as one of the most authentic places to get that comforting plate of chicken rice and smooth velvety chicken.
The man behind this famous name is Leong Fook Wing, who started Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice on Smith Street, Chinatown.
But Sin Kee’s fame grew in the Queenstown area, the first HDB satellite town. Hailed as the Margaret Drive chicken rice, his sons, Benson and Niven Leong were roped in at a young age to continue his chicken rice legacy.
Though Niven is no longer selling chicken rice commercially, he continues to give snippets about his late parents and the Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice story in episodes on his personal Facebook page.
In 2016, Niven sold his family chicken rice recipe to two buyers for $42,800 and authorised the use of the Sin Kee name. This explains why you’ll find many Sin Kee Famous Chicken Rice outlets if you do an online search.
After joining Niven for a short while, his brother, Benson, went on to establish Sin Kee Famous Cantonese Chicken Rice at Block 40 Holland Drive which is still currently operating in Chang Chen Mee Wee Coffee Shop.
The method of cooking chicken the Cantonese way will yield a layer of aspic between the skin and flesh when the chicken is dunked in an ice bath after poaching. It won the Michelin Bib Gourmand award in 2018.
So, how much better is this chicken rice compared to the thousands of other chicken rice outlets?
Perhaps we have just been spoilt by the reasonably high quality of chicken rice, I find that the chicken rice in most other places — Boon Tong Kee, Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, Ming Kee Chicken Rice, Ah Gong Traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice Ji De Lai Hainanese Chicken Rice, People’s Park Hainanese Chicken Rice, Xing Yun Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, Tian Tian and Hoe Kee — are not lacking in flavour.
My benchmark for chicken rice is that it must have intact grains plumped through the absorption of subtly savoury sweet chicken stock. Distinct notes of garlic and ginger are a must, along with hints of pandan and lemongrass.
However, the quality of the chicken is another story altogether. Many a time, I have been disappointed when, instead of juicy and smooth flesh, I get dry, hard pieces with a prevailing taste of salt.
Usually dark meat is the safer option, but it is the healthier breast meat that is the real test of good chicken. And for that, Sin Kee Famous Cantonese Chicken Rice beats them all hands down with the silkiest of breasts.
Another dish that is indisputably Singapore-bred and with ‘pedigree’ is Indian rojak. It can be traced back to the row of stalls along Waterloo Street.
Unfortunately demolished in the 1980s, the Indian rojak stalls were manned by Indians from Thuckalay in South India.
Their main catchment of hungry diners were students from St Joseph’s Institution and Raffles Institution, and others who made regular trips to the National Library.
The original Indian rojak operators opened stalls in Geylang Serai, Queen Street, Prinsep Street and Bishan, and though some of their families returned to India after their passing, relatives or helpers who learned the trade continued. Many of these stalls still exist today.
It is the orange, slightly sweet, thick sauce which makes or breaks a good Indian rojak. And originality will serve up an advantage. Some of the ingredients to create a special sauce include peanuts, gula melaka, tamarind, dates and raisins.
Taste trumps history
Arguably, pedigree and tracing back to Waterloo Street roots do not seem as important as taste, texture and variety. Sabeena Indian Food, formerly known as Siraj Indian Rojak at Albert Centre, traces its history back to its Waterloo forefather and still has diehard fans.
My favourites are Haji Johan Indian Muslim Food/Temasek Indian Rojak at Tekka Centre and Adam’s Indian Rojak at Adam Road food centre.
The lady proprietor at the former will not hesitate to admonish any customer who ventures to ask for extra sauce disproportionate to the quantity of the order, whereas the polite young man at Adam’s Indian Rojak will top up with dollops even when busy.
What’s in a name?
When it comes to legacy food, brand names certainly matter, and deluding with names matter even more!
The original Kim Choo Kueh Chang rice dumpling stall is at 111 East Coast Road, named after the founder, Mdm Lee Kim Choo.
The pretender, Joo Chiat Kim Choo dumplings — 55% of which was bought over by the Neo group in 2016 for $1.9 million — still continues to do business and add to the dumpling conversation.
But, if the proof is in the pudding, or, in this case, the dumpling, go try it out yourself and decide which should get your dollar.
Perhaps the importance of food to us as silvers is not taste, but also nostalgic yearnings.
And, yes, tried and true brand names will matter, but our practiced tongues will also tell us when there is an erosion in the standards. Or when a newcomer steps up with a promising version 2.0.
*According to NEA statistics, there are 13,390 registered hawker stalls in Singapore hawker centres.
In addition, there are 776 coffee shops leased out by HDB in residential areas and shophouses, which, in turn, sub-let stalls to several hawkers. Nearly every mall and shopping centre – and there are close to 200 of them in tiny Singapore – would also have an assortment of food proprietors, many of whom are now in the dominating food courts such as Kopitiam, Food Republic, Food Junction and Koufu. This increases the number of hawker stalls by around 8,000.
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