For My Valentine, Food To Fall In Love With: The Best Damn Chicken Rice In Manila (part of an ongoing V-day series)
I’m trying to remember when I last ate something so good I cursed every bite.
What is Hainanese chicken rice but simply boiled chicken, boiled rice, and sauces? Well, it’s not that simple, really.
Chicken rice is Singapore’s de facto national dish, one that was brought to the city-state by immigrants from Hainan, China. So common and loved is it that it’s attained a particular level of cult status (at least in Asia) where everyone fancies himself/herself an expert on who makes the best chicken rice and/or where to get it.
I am no exception. In Manila, the best â€“ and I do mean the BEST â€“ chicken rice is made by Stevie Villacin. The former Finance and Accounting executive spent all of 2007 in Singapore ostensibly to work but ended up doing everything but; one of these activities included attending a short course on traditional Singaporean chicken dishes. â€œI so loved chicken rice that I spent one week visiting [local hawker bible] Makansutra’s top-rated chicken rice joints.â€ He remembers, laughing in a delightfully self-conscious manner. â€œMy chicken rice recipe is based on what I considered the best qualities of all thoseâ€¦â€
Though his two-year course in ISCAHM confirmed that a newfound career in culinary was for him, it wasn’t until last Christmas that his calling became clear. His cousin asked him to make a chicken rice set for her that she wanted to give to a friend. Prior to this, Stevie had only been cooking the chicken rice for designated family get-togethers, et al. â€œI didn’t even know how to cost it out or anything but I just did it anyway,â€ he recalls. That lucky recipient was Ingrid Go, a bag blogger who liked the chicken rice so much that she blogged about it. Orders started coming in the very next day.
Stevie uses chickens that weigh 1.4 kilos or more â€“ any smaller and they dry up during cooking. Though I die to know how he cooks his chicken rice, I can only tell you how the traditional version (or at least one of them) is made. One whole chicken goes through a process of being boiled in chicken stock then plunged into ice water (a technique that smoothens the skin) and then back into the stock for a total cooking time of one hour. Next, raw rice grains that have been pre-fried in anything from custom-made chicken sauces and/or pandan leaves with ginger, are then cooked in the now-immensely flavorful stock. When the rice is cooked, the chicken is cut up and served along with the rice and a bevy of sauces.
The chicken rice set that Stevie offers consists of 5 cups of rice â€“ the traditional rice cooked in stock and topped with green onions or a version mixed with minced black olives (see photo). Of course there’s the chicken, so succulent it inspires drools all around plus four sauces: sweet soy (dark and thick), chili (very yellow and not at all spicy), ginger sauce (smashed ginger with sesame oil), and what Stevie calls his topping sauce. â€œI needed a â€˜glaze’ of sorts to prevent the chicken from drying out since people are sometimes delayed in picking up their order,â€ Stevie explains. â€œAll they need to do is pour the sauce over the chicken.â€ Hmm, what I do is mix all four of the sauces together, throwing in two siling labuyos for fire.
Stevie’s chicken rice is, in a word, tremendous. Perfectly cooked just â€˜til the chicken loses all pinkness, every bite yields a flood of juice that’s salty-sweet carrying the nuance of the sauces, a permutation that changes depending on which sauce(s) one chooses. Then there’s the rice: at times sticky but most often separate grains that are softly springy, it’s easy to polish off two or three cups of the stuff then wonder why there’s none left. Pair the chicken and the rice and sauces with the cilantro, tomato, and cucumber garnishes, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll be letting loose a litany of curses the way I did.
Stevie Villacin’s Hainanese chicken rice
P950/set good for 4-5 people (but I say good for 3-4).
Pick-up only in Bel-Air Village, Makati.
For orders, call (0906) 508.4155 / (02) 896.8940