It was during a lunch session at Goldleaf restaurant when I was introduced to Uncle Smart, a makan guru with not only a discerning palate, but brimming with great knowledge of food and well equipped with an excellent in-built gastronomic radar for sussing out hidden gems too! The group were talking about one of Singapore's beloved national dish, Hainanese Chicken Rice (essentially a dish of poached chicken served with flavoured rice) when the name "Twe Kee" was mentioned. Everyone was raving about this defunct stall at East Coast Road where the natural flavours of the chicken was very apparent, totally unlike the mass versions which are heavily masked in soya sauce seasoning. Sigh, I can only imagine the taste. But.....
..... Upon hearing that I'm half-Hainanese from my mother's bloodline, Uncle Smart offered to arrange a cooking demonstration and tasting session with the Hainanese couple, Mr & Mrs Teng, who ran Twe Kee before it closed, so that I too can have a chance to savour what they feel to be one of the best renditions of this traditional dish closely associated to my dialect roots. Wow! I feel extremely privileged! Thank you, Uncle Smart!
Mr & Mrs Teng have been running their chicken rice stall for a few decades, before deciding to close it last year and retire. None of their children is willing to take over the business, but the taste of their traditional Hainanese chicken rice is not completely lost yet, as they welcomed our group, some friends but mostly strangers like myself, warmly into their abode and gave us this cooking demonstration and tasting session. The couple's hospitable nature is certainly not to be questioned. Of course, Uncle Smart kept the group to an intimate size, but the few of us was enough to bring the house down with our incessant photo taking and questions. Oops! Guess we were a tad too over enthusiastic but that was the best chance to learn as much as we could from the masters themselves. Even my mum was excited when I told her about it because even though she can cook chicken rice, there is always the wonderment of how to do it better or if it's done correctly in an authentic way. Haha that where I came in... to steal some skills and tips from the experienced couple! So, what's the secret?
After viewing the whole cooking process in proximity, I realized there is no secret! It all boils down to Understanding, Quality and Experience.
To cook any dish well, besides preparation method, an understanding of all the ingredients' properties is very basic and important. Not only will it determine if the flavors will blend together in harmony, appropriate usage will give rise to enhancement and ultimately yield better end results. Twe Kee's accompanying chilli dip to their chicken rice exemplifies this understanding perfectly. Mrs Teng shared with me that she use a combination of normal red chili and chili padi, extracting former's sweetness and latter's fieriness, to create a perfect mix of balanced taste. Lime, instead of white vinegar, is used to give the chili sauce a touch of natural zest. Little details which makes great impact to a humble condiment.
A chicken by any other name would still be a chicken, but it makes a difference if it's a young or old, fresh or frozen chicken! Using just any bird wouldn't do, it has to be a fresh female chicken of at least 2 to 2.3kg in weight. A chicken which is allow to grow and blossom into maturity before its life is taken away not only begets a more satisfying meatier serving at the table, but also a greater intensity in flavour. The choice of rice is also vital so Mr & Mrs Teng use only Thai fragrant rice. It is undeniable that quality counts, so, choose wisely!
Whenever I write a recipe post, the difficulty faced is always in putting an exact number to the measurements and timings. Cooking is an art directed by feel, I go by what my eye sees, what my hand feels and what my tongue tastes. Mr & Mrs Teng churned out their dishes in this way too, but of course they are much more experienced! They instinctively know if the chicken is ready or require further poaching, if the shallots has been fried long enough before adding in the minced ginger or how much chicken stock should be added to the rice. What might appear to be effortless cooking to an unknowing bystander, is backed by numerous years of accumulated experience over the stove, no shortcut to it. Even though the couple showed us all of preparation steps, I don't think we are able to replicate the taste of their chicken rice just after one demonstration and certainly not before many many many rounds of experiments on our part.
By the time the chickens are cooked to the desired doneness, the pot of water used to poach the chickens had turned into sweetest stock packed with all the extracted goodness of the chicken essence and oil. Woohoo! This stock, along with fried shallots, ginger and pandan leafs, was added to the raw rice grains and set to cook. I was surprised that it wasn't even necessary to pre-fry the rice with chunks of chicken fats (like what my mum always do), to produce Rice as aromatic as the one I had that day. Add fish maw, cabbage and loadful of other ingredients to the remaining broth, a pot full of simple comforting Soup was quickly done. We prefer our chicken with bones on and Mr Teng chopped it that way for us. Succulent, flavourful, tender yet retaining a pleasant chew, it was a darn tasty plate of Chicken! The couple even went beyond and prepared Braised Pork Belly and Raw Fish Slices too. There was so much food!
Traditionally, Mr Teng will leave the chickens to cool by itself before chopping it into serving size, but as he is concerned that our group might have to wait for too long, he immersed the chickens into iced water to expedite the cooling process. It might have irked some purists who scoffed that authentic Hainanese chicken shouldn't be treated this way, but this time round, I'm fine to overlook it and would rather accept the kind consideration that Mr Teng has for us, which I feel has more importance. What Mr & Mrs Teng has prepared for us that day was not on a commercial level, it was from their good heart of willingness to share and for that reason alone, I will leave my critical tongue aside and enjoy it as I would enjoy any homecooked meal. No homecooked meal, however less than perfect it may be, should be reciprocated with any scorn.
What I've enjoyed that day was more than just the delicious spread on the table, it's the warmth extended from everyone all around. What I've gained that day was not just about knowing the steps of cooking chicken rice, but an experience which is invaluable and cannot be purchased through monetary terms. We did give Mr & Mrs Teng a token of appreciation in the end, but it was purely out of goodwill from us.
My heartfelt thanks to Mr & Mrs Teng for your generosity in sharing, Uncle Smart and everyone present at the cooking session for your great company. I shall end this post with a video taken by Philip, who has captured all the actions which I'm unable to reproduce in words. Happy viewing! :)