The steamed vs roasted chicken rice debate
In a nation where food is so tightly woven into the cultural DNA, one dish manages to be the crowning jewel—the “national dish”, as some would call it. We are, of course, talking about Hainanese chicken rice, a dish that is so beloved by Singaporeans that it can be found in almost every hawker centre in the country.
Our locals aren’t the only ones enamoured by the dish, either. Tourists from all over the world flock to Singapore for its chicken rice, and you can find eateries that offer it in far-flung countries. Many foreign personalities have shown admiration for chicken rice—the late Anthony Bourdain was a known fan, and a bloke by the name of Gordon Ramsay admitted defeat against this most insurmountable of dishes.
But like all things that spark such intense fervour, there are divisions among the faithful. You typically find people in either the steamed or roasted chicken rice camp, two sides that are in constant dispute over which rendition of the dish is the superior one.
Fans of the soy sauce version—I know there are at least five of you—count yourselves lucky that you do not have to partake in the bloodshed.
I, however, find myself in the trenches. Pulling from research and discussions with actual chicken rice sellers, I attempt to weigh in on the debate with this article, and maybe, just maybe, settle whether steamed or roasted chicken rice is better once and for all.
If I don’t make it out alive, tell my mother I love her.
What do Singaporeans think?
Before writing this piece, we polled our Instagram followers to find out which of the two versions they preferred. This was the result:
Roasted chicken rice was the more popular pick, edging out its competition by six per cent. The fight, however, was undoubtedly a close one.
We also polled our colleagues at TheSmartLocal to see which side they pledged their allegiance to:
Steamed chicken rice came out on top here. Granted, this poll had a way smaller sample size, but we can tell one thing from these two experiments: there isn’t an overwhelming favourite among these two camps.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to me, and I’m sure it’s a predictable outcome for many readers, too. Still, we had to ascertain that the two versions of chicken rice continue to divide opinions. With that out of the way, let us examine some of the arguments that each camp puts forth.
Why roasted chicken rice is better
Since roasted chicken rice triumphed in our Instagram poll, we’ll examine some of the popular arguments in its favour first.
Perhaps the most classic roasted chicken rice defence is that it is simply more flavourful. The method by which roasted chicken is prepared adds more flavour to the meat than if it were steamed.
Now this may surprise some of you: at most chicken rice stalls, roasted chicken is actually fried, not roasted, as its name seems to suggest.
When food is fried, it undergoes a process called oil uptake, where water is lost and fat is absorbed. Research has shown that humans have a natural liking for fatty food, so it is no surprise that we find the fattier “roasted” chicken extra flavourful. Plus, its marinade usually contains taste-enhancing ingredients such as five spice powder and soya sauce.
Another oft-cited reason for preferring roasted chicken rice is that the gelatinous texture of steamed chicken skin is considered “icky”—these people would much rather have the slightly crispy outer layer of roasted chicken.
But you know what they say: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. That icky skin is one of the biggest reasons why steamed chicken is preferred by many, including myself.
Why steamed chicken rice is better
Steamed chicken, if done well, tends to have a texture that can surpass what the “roasting” process can produce. There are two components to this textural excellence: the meat and the skin.
The best steamed chicken rice stalls make their chicken incredibly juicy and smooth, and that’s because they are perfectly poached. Yes, roasted chicken is actually fried, and steamed chicken is poached. Shocking, I know.
It all comes down to the preparation process. Frying can make chicken lose its natural juices rapidly, resulting in a drier texture. With poaching, however, the fact that chicken is cooked in liquid helps it retain more moisture. When done right, this leads to more tender and succulent meat.
As mentioned earlier, the skin of steamed chicken—that layer underneath the skin and the meat, to be exact—is known for its gelatinous texture. That happens when the chicken is “shocked” in an ice bath after poaching, turning the juices into a jelly-like substance.
To fans of steamed chicken rice, this combination of juicy chicken and gelatinous skin is simply unbeatable.
What do the hawkers think?
So, we’ve laid down the sentiments of both fanbases. But what do those that make the dish on the daily think?
Recently, we did an article on the history of chicken rice, which I strongly encourage all fans of chicken rice to read. While interviewing chicken rice hawkers, we took the opportunity to ask them if they preferred steamed or roasted chicken rice.
Rui Ji Traditional Chicken Rice and Curry Noodle is a stall run by siblings Jass Lee and Joseph Tan. They are the inheritors of the recipe used by one of the most influential chicken rice stalls of all time, Swee Kee Chicken Rice.
When asked about steamed versus roasted chicken rice, Jass had this to say:
“Steamed chicken is the traditional way to make chicken rice, not roasted. You cook it, then put in cold water—chicken becomes tender, very soft, very juicy.”
Most of these chicken rice sellers agree that steamed chicken rice is the most “authentic” form of Hainanese chicken rice. According to Lee Jia Ming, second-generation owner of Seng Heng Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, roasted chicken rice only entered the fray after steamed chicken had already dominated the scene.
“We only started selling roasted chicken because there was demand for it,” he said. “Originally, most stalls only sold steamed chicken.”
Regarding the subject of this article, he stated that he had “no preference”—he just likes eating chicken rice.
I’m sure most chicken rice fans are familiar with the legendary Nam Kee Chicken Rice. The three brothers who run the stall had split opinions over this matter. The eldest, Lincoln, preferred steamed, while Dave, the second eldest, favoured roasted.
Ken, the youngest, chose not to pick a side. A true pacifist indeed.
The argument to end all arguments
Now, it’s time to put myself in the line of fire. Here’s why I think steamed chicken rice is superior to roasted chicken rice.
We’ve established that roasted chicken, if done well, can be more flavourful than steamed chicken. The thing is, though, chicken rice as a whole is already very flavourful. The fragrant rice, the garlicky chilli, and the ginger and dark soya sauces—all these factors come together to make chicken rice the moreish dish that it is.
Does the extra savouriness of roasted chicken significantly improve a flavour-packed dish like chicken rice? I’d argue that it does not.
Steamed chicken, on the other hand, has the potential for greater texture than roasted chicken. When the already flavourful rice and condiments are paired with meat that has a smoother, wetter, and more exquisite mouthfeel, the dish as a whole is more well-rounded, more complete.
Roasted chicken merely bolsters an already strong aspect of the dish—the flavour—while steamed chicken dramatically improves a whole ‘nother dimension—the texture. In short, the better texture of steamed chicken moves the needle more for chicken rice as a dish.
And as mentioned earlier, steamed chicken rice is considered the more authentic or traditional version of the dish. Tradition doesn’t always mean better, but this is nonetheless worth noting.
At the end of the day, however, food is experienced subjectively. Though I may have ardently defended my point as if I were some kind of foodie Socrates, my argument doesn’t matter if you simply think the skin of steamed chicken is gross, or just prefer your food to be as flavourful as possible.
The fact that chicken rice can spark such intense debate among Singaporeans is testament to the enduring impact the dish has on the country. Perhaps more variants of the dish will appear in the coming years, and debates will continue to be had over those. But one thing is for certain: the legacy of chicken rice will live on.
But which side do you stand on? Cast your votes in the poll below.
This was an independent feature by Eatbook.sg.