Behind The Bib: Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice

Populating the food court on the second level of the Tiong Bahru market are many stalls, each with a history spanning decades. Among them is Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, open since 1988.
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Where
Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice
Where: 30 Seng Poh Rd #02-82
Tel: 9750-9846
Opening hours: 10am – 8pm (closed on Mon)
Owner:Cheong Weng Wah
A FRAGRANCE THAT WAFTS THROUGH THE STREETS

A heritage neighbourhood. An old wet market. A Tiong Bahru boy who grew up to helm his own stall. These all come together to make the story of a Michelin-recommended chicken rice stall.

SETTING THE STAGE

A district with a distinct retro atmosphere, Tiong Bahru is also famous for its wet market — a landmark in its own right. Not just a food mecca for local gourmands, it is also an attraction for travellers in search of authentic local flavour. Populating the food court on the second level of the market are many stalls, each with a history spanning decades. Among them is Tiong Bahru Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, open since 1988.

A FRIEND’S SECRET RECIPE

Stall owner Cheong Weng Wah has Tiong Bahru in his blood. The 48 year-old grew up on the streets of this neighbourhood, and the market is a familiar hang out spot for him. It was only natural that he would choose to start his chicken rice stall in Tiong Bahru, where his heart is.

SEE ALSO: Savour Bib Gourmand Awarded Restaurant Dishes From Home
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Then, he was a 20 year-old who had just completed his National Service and was fretting over finding a job. When, by chance, he learned that a friend knew how to cook chicken rice, he decided to learn the skill from him. Incidentally, the friend had worked as a cook in Mandarin Hotel. Back then the Hainanese Chicken Rice from Mandarin Hotel was regarded as the most sophisticated in the country, with each plate costing $16, recalls Cheong. “I was lucky to have learnt the secrets to making chicken rice from my friend!”
Yet Cheong did not stop there. He further experimented and improved on the recipe, and slowly but surely, business got on track. And in the course of cooking rice and blanching chicken, he also witnessed the evolution of Tiong Bahru wet market, which, in the time that he was there, had been torn down and rebuilt.

TENDER LOVING CARE

Cheong shares that just about every chicken rice seller has his own way of cooking the dish, and how the chicken is prepared is also different then and now. While it is now common knowledge to soak the blanched chicken in ice water for optimal tenderness of the flesh and silkiness of the skin, this was a little-known “secret technique” when Cheong first started out. “I adopted this technique earlier than others thanks to the guidance of my friend, and realised that it really resulted in excellent texture for the meat.”

As for the rice, Cheong reveals that apart from the usual garlic, spring onion and ginger, he also adds a special ingredient of onion. This adds a unique hint of sweetness to the rice, making it stand out.
Cheong's special ingredient that he adds to the rice is onion, which gives a unique hint of sweetness to the rice, making it stand out.
Cheong's special ingredient that he adds to the rice is onion, which gives a unique hint of sweetness to the rice, making it stand out.
While Cheong previously specialised only in blanched chicken, he also started selling roast chicken a decade ago to cater to the tastes of his clientele. These days, he also offers side dishes, such as the popular Ngo Hiang rolls (five spice mince meat rolls) and deep-fried tofu. The former is also handmade by Cheong personally, and is a must-try for those seeking a taste of Cheong’s culinary prowess.

BROTHERS IN ARMS

Cheong and his two friends currently manage the stall on a rotating shift. This shortens the hours, yet allows for more hands on deck to prepare the different dishes. “the hours for hawkers are too long!” he laments. “Without helpers, how can?”
The exterior of Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice store.
The exterior of Tiong Bahru Boneless Chicken Rice store.
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Cheong also highlights that the stall in Chinatown by the same name is actually run by his elder brother. He had entered the trade around 10 years ago after learning the ropes from Cheong, and the two brothers’ renditions are similar in taste. Unlike Cheong’s stall, his brother’s outlet in Chinatown is mainly patronised by tourists – with Hong Kong celebrity Chow Yun Fat being one of the diners. Cheong’s brother also operates another outlet at Changi Village.

SEE ALSO: Singapore Wet Markets Go Gourmet 

For Cheong who has been selling chicken rice for almost 30 years, gaining recognition from the MICHELIN guide comes as a pleasant surprise, as it brings new business opportunities for him. However, he is not about to rush into expanding, preferring to keep his focus on maintaining quality. “We currently sell about 40 to 50 chickens a day – that is all we can prepare! If you like our chicken rice, make a trip down to Tiong Bahru!”
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