It may be just a plate of rice and a cut of chicken, but chicken rice is many things to many people. The chicken is cooked in many ways — boiled, poached, braised, steamed, roasted, grilled, fried and claypot; the list goes on. The rice is usually cooked with oil, the most popular version being Hainanese chicken rice, with ginger-chilli sauce being a must-have accompaniment.
Chicken rice is Everyman’s food, being a staple of establishments from neighbourhood coffee shops and family-run restaurants, to established chains such as Nam Heong Chicken Rice and Seng Kee Chicken Rice as well as Chinese banquet restaurants.
Three chicken-rice outlets — from the lowly corner stall to the lofty heights of Singapore’s Hawker Chan, which was awarded a Michelin star from 2016 to 2019 — are reviewed below.
The neighbourhood variety
To many, chicken rice is essentially coffee-shop fare. One stall that has been serving chicken rice for as long as I can remember is located in a corner coffee-shop at Happy Mansion, Petaling Jaya. The area has become gentrified, but this is still an old-school stall famous for its chicken rice. It runs out quickly at lunchtime and queues are long, so go early to avoid disappointment.
The roast chicken, slathered with thin soy sauce, is firm-textured and fresh, the rice fluffy and fragrant but not overly so. This is the working man’s food, and one of the better ones. Accompaniments include char siew, which is sweet and well-textured. It is very good, but, then, many places serve excellent char siew. The accompanying ginger-chilli sauce is sweetish.
A plate of chicken rice, two portions of chicken (breast and thigh), a side of char siew and blanched vegetables cost RM24 with complimentary soup.
The food is tasty in a brassy, bold coffee-shop way, with perfunctory service and sloppy presentation. Do not expect smooth refinement. Above average in everything without being the best in anything, it has built an outsized reputation, despite its humble setting, limited parking and maddening lunchtime queues. Try the ice kacang and cendol at Kwong Wah next door for dessert. Ban Huat Heng, directly behind this coffee shop, also serves a very popular chicken rice.
Choon Yien Chicken Rice, CG-1 Jalan 17/13, Happy Mansion, PJ. Mon-Sat, 11am-1pm. Call 016 979 3118 for more info.
One-Michelin star fare
Chan Hon Meng’s soy sauce chicken became famous for being awarded a Michelin star in 2016 in Singapore. The eponymous Hawker Chan opened its first shop in Kuala Lumpur in December 2019, the second outlet in Malaysia after Ipoh.
The shop is bright and modern, the business model being one of self-service: Order from the menu, pay and collect the food and cutlery from a side table. Service is efficient, and pricing is low, making it the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal.
The signature dish, the Soy Sauce Chicken Rice (RM8.80), comprises a plate of white rice with a splash of sauce, stewed peanuts and a glazed soya-sauce chicken leg, a Hong-Kong style preparation that is different from the braised soy sauce chicken variety found in KL.
The chicken is just cooked, a little reddish inside. The skin is thin, elastic and well-flavoured and the meat tender, yet it did not have the wow factor for me, missing the depth and hot, juicy tenderness of just-prepared chicken. The sauce is sweetish, a little tangy and balanced — not too sweet or salty, and quite refined in that respect.
Incidentally, the siew yoke served with the Roasted Pork Noodles (RM11.80) is outstanding, with a crunchy-crispy crackling, meaty texture. The noodles are springy and come with sweet soy sauce and a little sambal.
It is different from the chicken rice we find in KL, and the sauce makes it easy to like. The place is bustling, but you do not have to wait three hours for the dish as you do in Singapore.
Hawker Chan, 41-113, Jalan Petaling, KL. Daily, 10.30am-9pm. Call 017 367 3392 for more info.
The family-run restaurant
Prosperity Bowl in Petaling Jaya is a family-run business that won the The Star newspaper’s People’s Choice Award for the best chicken rice in the Klang Valley in 2014, despite being a relative newcomer. It serves free-range, antibiotic-free, growth-hormone-free chicken, and the food is MSG free. The menu includes, among others, noodles, vegetables, home-made beancurd, fish and pork balls and char siew.
The presentation is tidy, and there is an unhurried air in the restaurant. Service is good, with orders taken and food served quickly at marble-topped tables. A set comprises a plate of chicken rice, cut of chicken and soup (RM9.50). There are also noodle sets.
The chicken rice, a very pale yellow, is light and subtly flavoured without being oily. The underlying fragrance, contributed by lemongrass and pandanus in the cooking process, lends a sheen of refinement.
The poached chicken pieces are firmer than your average non-free-range chicken, and have a very good mouthfeel, the meat being smooth, succulent and more flavourful than normal chicken. The skin is thin without that icky layer of yellow fat you sometimes encounter. The soup is good and thick and, importantly, does not contribute to a raging thirst later on.
Overall, the food shows off strength in preparation and cooking. Try the home-made Steamed Beancurd (RM7) and the Barley Ginkgo (RM4) dessert. The beancurd is hearty and smooth, the barley is thick, and the gingko hand-peeled. There is enough variety on the menu for a complete family meal, and the small touches of care give the overall impression of a home-cooked meal.
Prosperity Bowl, 19 Jalan SS2/30, PJ. Daily, 7am-9pm. Closed every second Wednesday. Call 03 7866 0979 for more info.
This article first appeared on Jan 20, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.