I grew up calling it “Singaporean white chicken”.
My dad must have picked up the recipe during his travels with my mom around Southeast Asia in their heyday.
It is a simple dish – a whole chicken, first boiled and then dunked in ice and served at room temperature. The broth from the chicken serves as the soup for the meal later, infused with extra flavor from its own innards, pandan leaves and green onion. Some of the broth it set aside to make the “chicken rice”, also flavored with pandan and chicken skin.
It is a most economical meal – every thing is used: the chicken, the innards, the broth, the skin. The most laborious part of the preparation is in the chopping of ginger and garlic which will serve as the foundation for the sauce used to top the white meat. Add soy sauce and sesame oil, and the sauce is ready to be served.
This was my favorite meal as a child. I loved lifting up the cover of the rice bowl and letting the steam fill my nostrils – the slightest hint of chicken flavor permeating the air and entering my system.
It was the only time I really enjoyed eating ginger. I would top off the piece of chicken leg on my plate with the diced up bits of ginger swimming in sesame oil. Soon my plate would be brimming with broth, each and every morsel of rice flooded with flavor, every grain immersed in the salty soup. And I would consume my meal, or in my words, “clean up my plate”, all the way to the very last morsel, indeed.
And I always had a bigger share than everyone else. My brother’s palate, somehow, strangely, not finding the same pleasurable sensation as did mine. And so, I just ate up his share, with no regard for leaving leftovers. The meal had become my meal. It was a treat reserved, solely, for me.
I hardly knew where I was or where I was headed.
I hardly remember anything from my little adventure. Only that I got on the train, and then I walked for what felt like hours around what appeared to be a deserted town in Singapore, searching desperately for chicken.
It was the summer of 2007 (or was it 2006?) and I joined my parents for a week-long trip to Singapore for reunion concert the were having with their former bandmates. Apparently, they still had a loyal fan-base in this little country, decades after they had performed now-classic 70’s tunes for Singapore’s yuppie audience hungry for any kind of western pop music.
Still somewhat fresh off a trip back to Manila wherein I spent my summer literally ‘slumming’ with young teens trying to turn their lives around and get skills and education, suffice it to say, I wasn’t particularly interested in experiencing anything glitzy or glamorous in this highly cosmopolitan, Southeast Asian neighbor of the Philippines.
There were few things I had explicitly wanted on the trip. But I knew the one thing I needed – an authentic taste of my favorite childhood meal.
So, there was a train ride. A lot of walking. A lot of nothing, to be frank. Shops were closed due to a national holiday. It might’ve been Hari Raya Puasa. No one, with the exception of a few other tourists like myself, was roaming the streets.
I tried distracting myself by shooting photographs. But it didn’t take long before having no people around to picture, eroded my picture-taking interest. I was getting bored, and I was getting hungry. It was overcast, but it was hot.
As if divinely-appointed, I found an open restaurant. There may have been roasted ducks hanging by the window. I may have been their only customer. But I was exhausted and lacking in options. This would be the place.
I opened up the menu and made sure that it was available. True enough, my adventure had reached its climax. It had come to its final stage. This would be the highlight I’d come back telling my parents about.
To simply say, that I had “Singaporean white chicken”, in Singapore.
I would learn that it was actually, Hainanese.
Every time I have it, it tastes exactly the same. The mixture of the ginger and the garlic. The oiliness of the sauce. The fresh, though nearly bland taste of chicken breast meat. The subtle nuances of flavor in the rice.
It was the same as a child. The same in Singapore. And the same now.
The comfort I receive is consistent. There are no surprises with this meal, and I like it, that this is so. I want nothing about it to be different. I want it just as I’ve always had it, and it fails to disappoint.
It is second-nature to her – the making of this meal, and I am lucky. It is a recipe written in her roots, a staple meal in Malaysia so easy to make, and yet so satisfying.
She commands the kitchen, calm and fully in control. Only the faintest signs of stress are visible to me, and they come only from a cook who knows her craft. Who knows the nuances of her recipe too well to ignore the slightest, imperfect details.
A slight and passing comment about the mixture of ginger and garlic in the sauce. And only because I ask. A bit miffed at the redness of the exposed marrow from the chicken bones – the slightest traces of blood still leaking. A bit bothered by the chicken skin coming undone, a small tear from the tongs I used to pick up the whole chicken and dump it haphazardly in the bucket of ice water. I apologize.
She says it isn’t my fault.
She is still in control.
Watching her swiftly move about in her kitchen is like watching an artist fixated at creating the perfect piece, embellishing accordingly, complaining to herself quietly, as she knows she is being watched.
She remains her biggest critic, and rightfully so. For this meal, this creation, I expect no less.
I frustratedly peel a cucumber, internally incensed by how ugly it looks when I’m through with it. Gently she takes the cucumber and slices it into small pieces, and shows me how the design I had attempted to make still turned out beautiful in the end. She has a way of doing these things.
Everything is presented in a gourmet-fashion. The simple meal turned into a classier affair for a handful of our friends to enjoy. The cucumber and cherry tomato platter is absolutely vibrant – the plump red spheres surrounded by the faint green and white of the cucumber slices. Even the chicken I witnessed her ferociously hack into pieces just minutes before, with a little help from some cilantro leaves, transformed into an appetizing platter garnished minimally, but delicately.
Before we serve the meal to our friends, I remind her once again, “Shuli, did you know that this was my favorite meal as a kid?”
She retorts, “I thought it was Sinigang?”
“Well, they’re like one and two. They’re both my favorites.”
“See, this is why we’re meant to be together.”