International Asia Hawker Heritage: Chicken Rice and Nasi Lemak

Hawker Heritage: Chicken Rice and Nasi Lemak

Hawker Heritage is an art project that explores the stories behind 10 iconic hawker dishes to advocate for greater diversity in Singapore.




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Hawker Heritage is an art project that explores the stories behind 10 iconic hawker dishes to advocate for greater diversity in Singapore.

Each week, we look into 2 hawker dishes and what they can teach us about embracing differences. You can stay updated through Hawker Heritage’s Facebook page.

This week, we explore chicken rice and nasi lemak.

The Story Behind Chicken Rice

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Considered one of the national dishes of Singapore, chicken rice is a literal translation of its Chinese name “鸡饭”.

The dish dates all the way back to Hainan, China in the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). It can be traced to a dish called wenchang chicken, where the chicken is cooked in hot water to preserve its tenderness. Hainan, an island south of the Qiongzhou Strait whose name is literally “South of the Sea”, was an important source of immigrants in Southeast Asia. Many Hainanese who emigrated to Singapore worked as cooks and coffee shop owners, and they naturally brought with them the recipe for this dish.

During the Japanese occupation in WWII, chicken rice rose in popularity when servant-class workers from Hainan recreated their hometown dish. Chicken rice was created out of wartime frugality, as the flavour of the chicken was used to make the accompanying rice and soup taste better.

The Story Behind Nasi Lemak

Nasi lemak means “rich/fatty rice” in Malay; it got its name from the coconut cream that the rice is cooked with.

Nasi lemak is a staple of the Malay World—a region that spanned from Indonesia and Brunei to Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand and Sri Lanka—and created before colonial forces reached the region. It’s made of ingredients readily available in the region, such as rice, coconut and ikan bilis (anchovies).

Within the region, though, the dish is adapted to suit local tastes in different areas. For instance, the Singaporean Malay version of nasi lemak has sweet sambal and includes ikan bilis, peanuts, fried egg. Sometimes basmati rice is used.

On the other hand, the Singaporean Chinese version usually has a range of sides like fried drumsticks, chicken sausages and luncheon meat. Some versions have green rice, coloured by pandan leaves that are added to the rice.

Hawker Culture is a Culture of Diversity

Chicken rice and nasi lemak teach us the beauty of differences. The former is a dish originally from Hainan, China that became so incorporated into our national identity that today, it is hard to see where “Hainan” culture ended and “Singapore” culture began.

On the other hand, nasi lemak represents an idea native to us, but that has been influenced by new concepts and cultures to evolve into its current form—and in the process has won the hearts of everyone on our island.

It’s easy for us to see the value of diversity in our hawker food. After all, a diverse spread of dishes is literally a delicious delight. It’s harder for us to realise that diversity elsewhere—and everywhere—can offer us so much value, too.

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