Chicken rice is Singapore's best-known dish.
Tian Tian's version has earned the praise of Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, and the Michelin Guide.
It certainly lives up to the hype and is well worth the slightly higher price.
Hawker centers — or open-air food courts — are the core of Singapore's vibrant food scene.
I moved to Singapore 20 years ago and have been eating at hawker centers ever since. These casual dining spots found across the island offer delicious, inexpensive meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Maxwell Food Centre, in Singapore's vibrant Chinatown, is one of the most popular — and for good reason. It was opened in 1928 and survived World War II and the Japanese occupation. Back then, dishes were served for as little as eight Singapore cents.
Photos taken during Maxwell's early days show locals sitting on simple stools around circular tables. People can be seen lining up outside dozens of food carts. The ceilings were covered with metal scaffolding, and overhead fans hung from above.
Today, the space isn't all that different.
I had only eaten at Maxwell a handful of times as I live on the other side of the city, just 10 minutes away from another popular hawker center in eastern Singapore, which I usually go to.
When I visited Maxwell Food Center in November, I was greeted by a similar scene to the photos from its past — the only major differences were the renovated, enclosed stalls and the hanging lamps.
There are more than 100 stalls at Maxwell Food Centre, but one stands out.
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is an icon among Singapore hawkers. The stall's popularity can be seen in the regularly spotted snaking line of diners who often wait up to an hour for a plate of chicken rice. It's Singapore's unofficial national dish and is made up of poached or roasted chicken, steamed white rice, and sambal, a local chili sauce.
When I arrived at Tian Tian for lunch, about 15 people were waiting in line. The atmosphere was buzzing. Tourists chatted excitedly about which dishes they were curious to try, with one saying the fragrance of the chicken was making their mouth water.
Tian Tian has appeared in the Michelin Guide since 2016 and was one of the first few stalls listed in the coveted Bib Gourmand — a list of the best establishments serving dishes "at an affordable price."
But not everyone believes in Tian Tian's hype.
"Nice meh?" one middle-aged man asked me in Singlish, the creole of Singapore, upon seeing my drop-off location. The man had just picked me up on a ride-hailing service and was ferrying me to Maxwell.
"Other places in Bedok and Tampines serve better chicken rice. It's a tourist trap," he continued, referring to residential areas in eastern Singapore.
But there were also locals who praised the stalls.
While waiting in line, I met another local, Bennett Lee. Lee appeared to be in his 50s, dressed in a casual T-shirt and a pair of shorts, and he told me he was running errands and decided to drop by for lunch — a routine he follows a few times a month.
Lee proclaimed the stall served one of the best chicken-rice dishes in the entire country.
"Singaporeans are spoiled for choice. And we know good food," Lee told me. "It's nice, especially the steamed chicken," he added.
I ordered the roasted chicken set and a side of vegetables for 10 Singapore dollars, or about $7.50.
Tian Tian's chicken rice isn't cheap by Singapore hawker standards. The average plate of chicken rice in the city-state costs just 3.35 Singapore dollars, or $2.30. At Tian Tian, the smallest plate of the dish costs SG$5. As I'm a big eater, I got a medium plate of chicken rice with vegetables for SG$10. It was certainly the most expensive plate of chicken rice I've had.
While I had heard that the wait at the stall could be up to an hour, on that day, the line was speedy. I got my dish just 10 minutes after ordering. I paired it with a cup of Singapore-style iced lemon tea — made with black tea, sugar or sweetener, and lemon juice.
Robbie and Shannyn, a couple from the UK who had stood behind me in the chicken-rice line, posted up at a table nearby. They had backpacks by their feet and tourist leaflets spread out on the table where they devoured their dishes.
They echoed Lee's sentiments and had only good things to say about Tian Tian. They said they kept coming across the stall online when researching their trip, and they were excited to finally try it.
"I've never had this before, and the chili was great," Shannyn said."It's a cheap lunch with quick service, and I can see why people like it," she added.
Tian Tian's popularity can be chalked up to several famed patrons — including Gordon Ramsay.
I met Foo Kui Lian, the owner of Tian Tian, at her stall. She was a petite, soft-spoken lady who donned a simple mustard shirt and black pants. She told me she'd already been retired for more than a decade, but she still spent most of her time helping out at the stall.
Foo made headlines when she beat Gordon Ramsay in 2013 in a challenge that determined who made the better chicken rice. Not only did that bring her out of retirement, but it also brought thousands of people to her stall in Maxwell.
But it was the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who first put Tian Tian on the map.
Foo told me that her stall gained fame after being featured on Bourdain's TV show "No Reservations" in 2008. Since then, there has been no letting up.
"People started to come to my stall and ask me for interviews," Foo said. "But I didn't get to talk to him — he just came here, took a video, and ate some chicken rice," she added.
It was time for me to finally try Tian Tian's much-hyped chicken rice, and it turned out to be the best version I've tried.
Growing up in Singapore, I've had hundreds of plates of chicken rice. Over the years, I've come to know the dish well. And this plate was simply outstanding.
The best part of the dish was the perfectly tender chicken — which was no surprise, considering that Foo said despite cooking some 200 whole birds daily, her stall continued to cook in small batches. The roasted chicken was bonier than what's usually served at other hawker stalls. The skin was perfectly crispy.
The rice, seasoned with sesame oil and covered with a spoonful of sweet and savory gravy, had more flavor than what's typically served with this dish. The generous portion of bok choi included seven bulbs of the green vegetable, all covered in the same sweet and savory gravy, along with crunchy shallots sprinkled on top to add texture.
After I devoured the dish, I was still left wanting more. Next time, I'll opt for the larger size and happily pay an extra dollar for the meal.
It turns out Bourdain was right, even 15 years later.
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