Aug 19, 2023

A Hainan chicken rice with less oil that is just as good: Chatterbox Cafe’s executive chef on tweaking a classic and Hong Kong’s embrace of Southeast Asian cuisine

Every day, Singaporean executive chef Liew Tian Heong personally tries the Chatterbox Cafe’s famed Hainan chicken rice.

“You have to taste and test every day to make sure the standards are kept,” says Liew.

Chatterbox Cafe has been operating in the Mandarin Orchard hotel in Singapore since 1971 and it was the first restaurant to present hawker fare in a luxurious hotel setting.

The restaurant’s Mandarin chicken rice is the signature and has been drawing tourists and Singapore natives through the Chatterbox Cafe doors ever since it opened.

“I’ve worked at this restaurant for 30 years. I joined Chatterbox in 1998 and became executive chef in 2018,” says Liew. “We have never stopped refining our recipes, improving the taste and method of cooking all the time. We made the rice in the Hainan chicken dish less oily for health reasons.”

To many Hainan chicken rice fans, it is the rice that is the star of the show. With that in mind, does reducing the oil affect the flavour of the famous dish?

Well … it does. The rice in Chatterbox’s dish is less flavourful than other versions prepared conventionally. However, there is a method to chef Liew’s adjustments – there is a specific way to eat Chatterbox’s Hainan chicken rice which can help a diner fully appreciate the recipe’s finesse.

“You first put a piece of chicken on top of a spoonful of rice,” he explains. “Then you dab as much or as little of the three sauces to your liking and eat it all in one mouthful.”

Your senses are first hit with the medley of sauces, then the silky texture of the chicken takes over and the bouquet of the chicken rice blooms at the back of the palate.

In short, it is everything diners love about Hainan chicken rice in one bite.

“I found that there’s more Singaporean cuisine in Hong Kong now, I think. It’s not fine dining. It’s casual, comfort food and I think Hong Kong people are warming up to our cuisine.”

To entice diners to Tai Wai, the executive chef has created two new dishes that will remain exclusive to the branch in The Wai. One is stir-fried ocean prawns with crispy oatmeal and the other is Singapore assam sea bass.

“I brought two common dishes from Singapore. You see these dishes everywhere but everyone has their own version or cooking style for them,” says Liew.

“In Singapore, assam fish could mean just some chilli, oil and fish, but I decided to represent assam in a curry here. While it stays true to the assam flavours, there is a fragrant saucy curry to go with it.”

The assam curry, which contains thick cuts of sea bass, has a spicy kick. Accompanying vegetables such as okra and aubergine soak up the sauce and the curry goes well with rice.

The oatmeal prawn dish is packed with shell-on prawns that hold a sweet and savoury flavour. It is the quality of the shellfish that makes this dish enjoyable, and our prawns were big and meaty.

What is important to the veteran chef is that his food can be enjoyed every day.

“You don’t need to wait for a special occasion; we have a variety of food here. There are noodles and rice and lots of other dishes that can be enjoyed on their own. Everyone can eat here all the time,” says Liew.