Hainan chicken rice -- sliced, sometimes boned, steamed or roasted chicken served with rice flavored with chicken broth -- can be found, in various incarnations, in most Asian countries China southward. It's a simple dish that, done well, reaches heavenly heights.
One Saturday afternoon we set out to PJ (Petaling Jaya, a KL suburb) to sample Hainan chicken rice Ipoh-style. Ipoh, capital of Malaysia's Perak state and just a 2-hour drive from KL, shares status with Penang as a food-lover's paradise; besides its own version of chicken rice the city is famous for white coffee (the beans are roasted in butter), dim sum, Ipoh kway teow (rice noodles topped with gravy, mushrooms, and shredded chicken), and salt-roasted chicken, among other treats.
New Restaurant Ipoh Chicken Rice (NRICR) lies conveniently just off the PJ highway, around the corner from PJ's Thai Temple (where Thais congregate on Sunday to indulge in Thai snacks dished up from mobile stalls -- but that's another post). It's nestled in a typically non-descript strip mall-ish row of shops, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon it's doing a brisk business. This waiter was so busy filling orders he didn't even have time to smile for the camera (or perhaps he wondered what was with the dotty foreigners snapping pics of an everyday Malaysian dish).
On offer are all sorts of goodies -- chicken meatballs, la-la (clams), noodles, several kinds of rice porridge ... but having come for the signature dish, we stick to the basics: 2 orders of steamed kampung (village -- ie. free-range) chicken, an order of bean sprouts, and two plates of chicken rice. Bowls of broth and saucers of chili sauce are included.
What makes Ipoh chicken rice so "Ipoh"? Near as I can tell it's the bean sprouts -- lightly doused in a warmish "broth" that includes soy, and finished off with a light squeeze of sesame oil.
The sprouts are a bit blanched but not limp, crispy but not snappish enough to shower your shirt with soy goo en route to your mouth. Topped with shreds of scallion, Chinese celery, and a smidge of fresh chili, they're utterly delicious.
It's not only the bean sprouts that arrive in a pool of soy-broth goo; the chicken gets a shower as well. After an order of chicken has been boned, chopped and laid on a bed of thickly sliced cucmber by NRICR's cleaver master, it's passed to a guy deftly weilding nothing more than a ladle, with which he splashes broth-soy-oil over the entire plate while tilting it to drain the excess. He repeats this motion a few times, all within a matter of seconds, bathing but not drowning the chicken. It's delivered to our table after receiving a dollop of ginger-garlic sludge on top.
The real test of this dish is the rice served alongside the chicken. It should be rich with chicken flavor and glistening with chicken fat -- but not so laden with moisture that it's sticky. Many versions fail this crucial test, but NRICR's rice passes with flying colors. Note that the grains of rice are shiny, the slightest bit yellowed from broth and fat, but not clumped together, each nearly distinct from the next. A little plate of greasy goodness.
We finish every last bit of rice, telling ourselves that the intake of chicken fat is balanced by our "healthy" choice of steamed white meat chicken.
In addition to steamed chicken, NRICR offers a crackly brown-skinned roasted "fortune" chicken, and as an alternative to chicken rice, diners can choose to accompany their bird with plain or chicken porridge or soft rice noodles.
New Restaurant Ipoh Chicken Rice, Jalan 10/1 at Jalan 10/5, Petaling Jaya, right off the PJ highway at the University Hospital/Kleenex exit. Open early till 9-ish.