I went to Singapore for the bank holiday weekend.
My Hainanese chicken feast was a thing of dazzling deliciousness, daringly different to my already adventurous home cooking and a doddle to prepare with the excitement of unwrapping the scrupulously recyclable packaging akin to playing pass the parcel. And no jet lag.
The meal arrived as an at-home restaurant kit from Elisabeth Haigh’s Mei Mei Kopitiam (coffee shop/cafe) in Borough Market, somewhere long on my must visit list having enjoyed her cooking at several pop-ups and when she won a Michelin star at Hackney’s Pigeon restaurant.
It reinforced my belief that the restaurant meal kit has longevity and is here to stay. Yet it needs to be carefully thought out and is not a formula suited to all restaurants or menus. At best, it can open up additional new revenue streams for chefs/restaurateurs that must surely be a positive amongst the dire challenges of lockdown and, most crucially, reach a wider nationwide customer. It has helped business keep busy, keep people employed, provoked a more flexible attitude to work roles. It is a great marketing tool to spread one’s reputation and, most basically, a means to survival, if not initially to profit. I understand that the intricate work involved in the tech and researching packaging and logistics/delivery platforms can’t be under-estimated and teams generally spend more time packaging than cooking.
I think what’s key to the restaurant kit’s success is choosing a truly emblematic dish whether Mei Mei’s Hainanese chicken, Koya’s udon noodles and dashi broth (with a modest £14 price tag for two plus including DPD delivery), Darjeeling Express’s biriyani (recently enjoyed for a virtual dinner party simultaneously in Balham, Wimbledon and West Sussex) or Dishoom’s bacon naan that epitomises a restaurant’s cooking whilst satisfying our gastronomic wanderlust and uses unfamiliar culinary techniques and seasoning nuances difficult to replicate at home from scratch without years of experience, so giving us a new perception on food-travel, without the footprint.
Curious to know its origins and better understand its significance, I discover Hainanese chicken maps 150 years’ immigration from China’s Hainan Island to Singapore and Malaysia, where the dish is often known as Hainan chicken rice; to Vietnam, where it is called “Hai Nam chicken”; and to Thailand, where it has been renamed “khao man gai” or “fatty rice chicken”. Born out of frugality, it became popular as a dish immigrants made so that their chicken would go further, a sentiment I recognise familiarly being from Ashkenazi Jewish stock raised on chicken soup.
The chicken is poached gently to both cook the bird to a sublime silky texture and produce the stock. The bird is then dipped in ice and rubbed in sesame oil and salt to produce the extraordinary glazed skin, and hung to dry. It arrived fully cooked. The stock along with garlic, ginger and pandan leaf are used to cook the rice, the focus of the dish. It is probably the best, most mesmerizingly fragrant rice with beautifully separated grains I’ve ever cooked. The bird is carved and served with a dipping sauce of shaoxing wine and dark soy sauce, slivers of cucumber, spring onion, coriander and a side order of spring greens with oyster sauce and crispy shallots. I ordered Nonya Achar, pickled vegetables including carrots, cucumber, cabbage, cauliflower and pineapple in turmeric, chilli pickle finished with sesame seeds and peanuts as an additional side which I remembered as an accompaniment when I first tried this deceptively simple, deeply nourishing dish at famed hawker stall Tian Tian in Maxwell Market, Singapore.
What’s more, it is a meal that keeps on giving. After sharing the feast with a Chinese friend in my garden (whilst the flavour transported me, the Spring chill reminded me I was in lockdown London), I nibbled on leftovers for two grazing meals: it is equally good with the astonishingly aromatic rice enjoyed cold.
The subsequent day I made the carcass into a superb stock and melodious Spring minestrone with courgettes and cannellini beans. And I am looking forward to watching “Chicken Rice Wars”, a Singaporean romantic comedy based on Romeo & Juliet where the children of two families from rival Hainanese chicken vendors fall in love, just as I fell in love all over again with Hainanese chicken.
Meimei.uk £60 to feed four generously. Order by 5pm Tuesday for delivery next Friday.
Sudi is a food journalist, content creator and NPD/trend consultant www.sudifoodie.com @sudifoodie instagram/twitter