MEET GUNA AND HIS LOVE FOR SINGAPORE'S NATIONAL DISH
“ I was born in Singapore to an Indian father and a Malay mother, in 1945. The island has changed a lot since my early days,” says security guard Gunalan Ramaiah. “When working as a guard, life can get quite boring. I used to deliver room service food at the Shangri-la hotel for 13 years, and back then time seemed to move faster, but because of my age they had to let me go.”
When I ask Guna what his favourite cuisine is, he says, “ I grew up eating all different types of food, being Malay, Indian, or Chinese, but since my wife passed away 10 years ago, and as she was the cook in our house, I buy all my meals out. The only food I cook at home is rice, and my favourite dish is chicken rice, but I can’t really make that myself. I actually like all dishes with chicken in it”.
Guna’s favourite recipe is considered Singapore’s national dish, which along with laksa and chili crab, is one of the foods Singaporeans can’t live without. Hainanese chicken rice was brought to Singapore by Chinese immigrants originally from the Hainan province, in southern China, and one doesn’t need to walk far to find a place that sells the comforting meal around the tropical island.
But what makes this dish so loved by all? It must be the Hainanese cooking method of poaching the whole bird over low temperature along with ginger, garlic, and pandan leaves, ensuring the meat is tender and packed with flavour. Once cooked, the chicken is dipped into ice to produce a jelly like skin finishing. Some restaurants roast the chicken to make it crispy (that’s my favourite version), but either way the chook is normally served at room temperature, or even cold.
The fragrant stock that earlier bathed the whole bird is then used to cook the rice from the aka “chicken rice”. Frankly, I have never been a big fan of cold meats (I like my food piping hot), but I cannot deny my love for rice. Baked, fried or steamed, I love all types of rice, and specially this deliciously oily one (tell me, what tastes better than anything cooked in chicken fat?).
The dish is traditionally served with a chili and garlic dipping sauce, cucumber slices, soy sauce, ginger, and a drizzle of roasted sesame oil. Chicken rice is mostly associated with Singaporean cuisine, but is also popular in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Singapore can be an adult playground for the fortunate ones, but just like Guna, not everyone enjoys the same affluent lifestyle while living here. Luckily, excellent chicken rice is still affordable for most, and is available from restaurants, hawker centers, cafeterias and food stalls around town.
As for the lovely security guard, who happens to work at the building I live, next time I cook a chicken recipe, whether an Asian or a Brazilian one, he’ll be certainly getting a generous portion for his lunch. And I’m sure he’ll be delighted.