For a country of people to claim a national dish implies, first, a prosperity and stability that nourishes the kind of solidarity required for everyone in the land to agree on one single food that stands for all.
Having a national dish also implies modernity, since the concept of nationhood is a relatively contemporary undertaking and one that many states still grapple with. Lastly, having a national dish implies simplicity because such a meal cannot be too expensive or complicated to make, or too fanciful to eat on a regular basis.
All of which is to say that a true national dish is a rare thing. The tastes of large countries are too diverse to love a single dish. Old, established nations, with a few exceptions, are too burdened by formality, history, and tradition to arrive at something as folksy and populist as a national dish.
So it makes sense that a small, young and modern country like Singapore (it achieved full sovereignty in 1965) has a national dish that all its citizens love: Hainan chicken rice. Chicken rice, named for the Chinese province of Hainan it comes from, is eaten everywhere, every day in Singapore. The difference between chicken rice that is mediocre and chicken rice that is superb is not too great; that, too, is the mark of a true national dish, its ability to be good even when it is bad, to survive poor preparation.
Some dishes are emblematic of a nation — escargot in France, apple pie in America, caviar in Russia — but that is not the same thing because they are not everyday foods. Perhaps a good litmus test for a national dish is whether it is served aboard that nation’s airline. If you fly Singapore Airlines you can, in fact, eat Hainan chicken rice.
Although the food of southern Asia is generally well-represented in the Seattle area, finding Hainan chicken rice is a challenge here. First of all, there seems to be no such thing as a restaurant that is explicitly Singaporean, although there is an Indonesian restaurant, the Indo Café near Northgate Mall, and two branches of a Malaysian restaurant called the Malay Satay Hut, in Redmond and near the International District.
The foods of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia share DNA, which is why Hainan chicken rice happens to be on the menus at the Indo Café and the Malay Satay Hut. The L.A. Café, one of several Hong Kong-style diners in and around Chinatown, also serves chicken rice; its version is less compelling than the other two, its rice simply a yellow-colored fried rice that lacks any depth of chicken flavor.
Chicken rice is a simple dish: poached chicken with a soy-sauce dressing, served with fragrant, oily rice cooked in chicken broth. Cucumber and cilantro are used as garnish. The magic is in the condiments — two sauces used for dipping, one a chili paste, the other a ginger paste.
The Indo Café’s version (called nasi Hainan) is served with boneless, sliced white-meat chicken and served with a customary bowl of broth for $7.95. The version at Malay Satay Hut ($8.50), my favorite, came without broth but was served with chicken on the bone. Bones are messy and require more work but the meat tends to have more flavor.
Viewing chicken rice for the first time, it looks elegant but perhaps a little boring, especially when put next to some of the colorful, elaborate, spicy dishes served at both the Indo Café and Malay Satay Hut. “It is a very simple dish,” said C.C. Yoo, who manages the Seattle location of the Satay Hut for his father and owner Sam Yoo, “as long as you know the way to make it.”
C.C., who grew up in Malaysia, eats it himself about once a week, and the dish gets ordered at the restaurant regularly if not fanatically. While a restaurant in Malaysia or Singapore can go through 40 or 50 chickens a day, he said, the Satay Hut goes through five or six at the most.
About three-fourths of Singapore’s 5 million people are ethnic Chinese; Malays and Indians make up most of the other fourth. More than one-third of the country’s population is foreign-born. The food of Singapore is a variation of Chinese cooking and much of it is eaten informally in hawker stalls, the southeast Asian version of a food court. Singapore is known for its chili crab, braised shark head, stewed bone marrow, and most of all its chicken rice, whose origins are Chinese.
Singaporeans all have their favorite versions of the dish. For as simple as it is, there are many subtle differences in flavor, aroma and texture.
“It really depends on who makes it,” said Adrian Ruslie, the chef at the Indo Café. He grew up in Jakarta but has family in Singapore. “It’s so simple yet it tastes so special. When you think about it, it’s just rice and poached chicken.”
Like many forms of comfort food, chicken rice is loved precisely for its simplicity. When people brag or gush about their local food, it is often something very humble and inexpensive. In Seattle, you don’t go on and on to visitors (unless you are pompous or pretentious) about the truffle-scented sunchoke soup at Crush; you croon about the Dick’s Deluxe. And so it goes in other cities. The foods closest to your heart are things like ribs and donuts and greasy sandwiches.
America, it can be argued, is one of those countries without a national dish. Southerners love their barbecue; New Englanders have their lobster rolls; New Yorkers swear by their bagels; We might all love our beef and our pizza and our hot dogs, but even those foods vary by region and tend to be eaten ceremoniously. They are foods we eat at the fair, at a baseball game, or on the Fourth of July.
In Singapore, whether it is a holiday or a just another Monday, the choice is easy, even for a traveling Indonesian, lost in the Northwest.
“For me, “ Ruslie said, “it feels like home.”
If you go:
Malay Satay Hut, 212 12th Ave. S. in Seattle (206-324-4091), or 15230 24th St. N.E. in Redmond (425-564-0888), malaysatayhut.com. Open for lunch 11:30 am-2 pm Monday-Friday and noon-3 pm Saturday-Sunday. Open for dinner 5-10 pm Monday-Sunday.
Indo Café 543 N.E. Northgate Way #J (206-361-0699), myindocafe.com. Open 11:30 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, and 11:30 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.
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