In my travels, I’ve found that the French are the only people who rival the Singaporeans in their passion for food. I lived in Singapore for only two years, but the experience is indelibly etched in my mind by the diverse and delicious array of Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, and British cuisine, and how each one has taken on a distinctive personality in the hodge-podge culture of Singaporean cuisine.
During my years in Singapore, my father worked in Indonesia and our family made Singapore our home. He would commute, leaving home for two weeks and then returning for a week before leaving again. During his week at home, it was like a holiday: Movies. Dining out. Shopping. And then he was gone for two weeks and it was just Mom and I carrying out our daily routine. Mom would shop, cook, meet with her girlfriends, take me to the Singapore American School every day and organ lessons every week. In the afternoons while Mom was making dinner, I’d be practicing on my organ, my fingers flying up and down the three levels of keyboards while my socked feet were attempting the same with the foot pedals. During this daily ordeal, I’d have to wear earphones plugged into the organ to keep out the distraction of my cockatoo squawking away at me in his cage next to the organ. I think it was the universe’s way of testing me to see if I really wanted to practice. Sometimes Mom had to resort to throwing things at me to get my attention that dinner was ready. Usually it was a balled-up pair of socks. Sometimes, when I playfully ignored her, it would be something heavier.
The name of one of our favorite Chinese restaurants has faded from my memory now, but our favorite dish from that restaurant is firmly lodged in my mind. I had never eaten ginger-poached chicken before, but I understand it’s a uniquely Singaporean version of a Hainanese way of preparing chicken. The chicken is poached in water that has been flavored with ginger slices, allowed to cool, and then served in a soy and vinegar sauce with sautéed scallions and more ginger. The first time I ate it, I remembered thinking momentarily that it was kind of odd to eat chicken served cold, but after taking that first bite of the supple chicken bathed in the sauce, my hesitation was vanquished.
I thought of this dish and my brief childhood sojourn in Singapore recently when I learned that a wonderful friend, a witty Singaporean now living with her charming husband in New York City, was coming through the Northwest on a tour to promote her new book, A Tiger in the Kitchen, a memoir about her experience reconnecting with her Singaporean roots and family by travelling home to learn her family recipes. I wish I had time to prepare the dish for Cheryl and Mike, but our visit was brief but fun. I got to show her how to shuck clams, and Charles got to show her how to clean a razor clam that she had dug up at Yaquina Bay with a biologist from Oregon State University, then show her how to prepare it. Oh, well. Maybe next time I’ll make this for you, Cheryl.
You can read Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s wonderful blog by clicking here.
- 2 cups (480 ml.) roughly sliced ginger (you can keep the skin on, if you wish)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml.) white peppercorns
- 1 whole young chicken
- Enough water to completely cover chicken in stockpot
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) sesame oil
- 1 cup (240 ml.) scallions, white and green leafy portions cut into two-inch lengths and then julienned into thin strips.
- 1 cup (240 ml.) ginger, peeled and sliced into thin julienned strips.
- 1 cup (240 ml.) light soy sauce
- 1 cup (240 ml.) Shanxi vinegar (a dark Chinese vinegar made from sorghum, barley and peas)
- Place the 2 cups of roughly sliced ginger, peppercorns and bay leaves in a stockpot. Add the whole chicken and fill with water enough to cover chicken. Weigh the chicken down with an inverted bowl so that the chicken doesn’t float, but is completely submerged in the water.
- Over high heat, bring the water to a boil and then lower to a gentle simmer for 20 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, cover the stockpot and leave the chicken in the water until both are cool enough to touch them (about an hour).
- Remove the chicken and rinse under cold water to cool chicken completely, then pat dry with paper towel and place it in a plate or bowl.
- Drizzle 3 tablespoons of sesame oil onto the chicken and use your hands to rub the sesame oil all over the chicken so that it’s coated. Use more sesame oil if necessary.
- Refrigerate the chicken until you’re ready to cut it up and serve.
- Right before serving, heat 3 tablespoons of sesame oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Sauté scallions and ginger until scallions begin to soften.
- Add soy sauce and Shanxi vinegar, turn off heat and stir until ginger and scallions are coated with the sauce, then pour sauce over the chicken, topping the chicken with the ginger and scallions.
- Serve with steamed jasmine rice.