Tian Tian and Zhen Zhen, Maxwell Food Centre, Singapore
Tian Tian became arguably the most famous Hainanese chicken rice stall in the world after Anthony Bourdain ate there on one of his No Reservations programs. In fact, there’s a picture of Bourdain on the stall, in case you didn’t know its claim to fame. At lunch and dinner time a ridiculously long line snakes around the corner, people waiting patiently for this particular chicken rice, ignoring Maxwell’s other chicken rice stalls, all with plump birds hanging from hooks.
We arrived soon after Tian Tian opened for the day, and I was thrilled to be third in line. I ordered chicken rice with chicken thigh (no WAY was I going to eat famous chicken rice and risk getting served white meat!). The rice was fragrant (“good enough to eat on its own”, Bourdain declared on his show). The steamed chicken flesh was smooth and tender, the skin slippery and gelatinous. The chilli sauce had a zesty touch, but the chicken broth was bland. Was this the best chicken rice I’ve had? Definitely not – but it was good, much better than average, and I enjoyed it. Bourdain should come over to Perth and try the chicken rice at Tak Chee House, where the steamed chicken comes on a bed of cooked bean sprouts in soy sauce, served in a boat-shaped dish. I’d love to see what he thinks of it. That’s still my favourite chicken rice.
Jac, ever impervious to the hype generated by television programs and celebrity chefs, bought herself an oyster cake, cooked to order at the Maxwell Fuzhou Oyster Cake stall and proclaimed it one of the best things she ate on the entire trip (high praise indeed). Inside the cake is oyster, vegetables, minced pork and prawns. Outside is a golden-brown batter topped with peanuts. She hasn’t stopped talking about the oyster cake since we got home.
We came back to Maxwell Food Centre a second time during our trip, and while Jac got us iced lime juice, I joined the line at Zhen Zhen, famous for rice porridge.
Someone poked me in the back, and I turned around.
“Is it good?” the old lady behind me in the queue asked, her finger still unashamedly pointing, post-poke.
“I haven’t eaten here before,” I replied. “But I hear it’s very good.”
“It must be good,” she said. “My husband thinks I’m mad to line up for porridge so I want to show him. He went to get noodles.”
I gave her a friendly smile and turned to face the front, thinking our conversation had ended, but she jabbed at me again. “Do you come to Maxwell much?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m on holiday from Australia.”
“Australia,” she repeated, her smile fading slightly. She reached past me and poked the man standing in front of me. “Have you eaten this porridge before?” she demanded.
“Yes,” he answered. “It is my favourite. I eat the fish porridge every week.”
That seemed to satisfy her and she seemed to have lost interest in me – thank goodness, as I couldn’t handle any more jabbing or interrogation.
The Zhen Zhen stall is a cramped and chaotic space overrun by red plastic bowls with a barely seen bloke at the back who ladles up your porridge from the enormous pot in the corner. The woman who takes the orders adds chopped spring onions and fried shallots to each bowl of porridge. There’s a self-service station where you can load up on extra chilli, soy sauce, white pepper and vinegar before carrying your tray back to your table.
The menu at the front of the stall is written in Chinese. I can’t read Chinese. Thankfully, there is an English menu typed on a sheet of paper – it’s barely noticeable, but it’s there. But everyone was ordering in Chinese – I recognised Cantonese and Mandarin; the woman taking the orders understood everyone perfectly.
They all ordered by saying the name of the dish, followed by the price. I searched my brain for the right Cantonese words to say “Chicken porridge, three dollars. ”
The other speciality of Zhen Zhen is raw fish salad (yee sang). Raw fish salad and rice porridge is an unusual combo but everyone seemed to be ordering both, and since Jac loves raw fish and enjoys my family’s yee sang at Chinese New Year, I ordered her a small yee sang as well. “Chicken porridge, three dollars. Yee sang, three dollars. Chicken porridge, three dollars. Yee sang, three dollars.” When it was my turn to order, I was chuffed that I managed to not embarrass myself in front of all the Chinese-speaking Singaporeans.
My chicken porridge was fantastic. The perfect consistency, steaming hot, full of flavour, with lots of chicken and a generous topping of fried shallots and spring onions. Instant pleasure and foggy spectacles! If I lived in Singapore, out of all the wonderful hawker breakfasts I could have, I’d choose rice porridge the most.
Jac enjoyed the yee sang, dubiously served on a paper plate – sliced raw fish lightly marinated in vinegar and sesame oil topped with fresh spring onions, roughly chopped lettuce and sesame seeds, served with three limes. Raw fish probably doesn’t seem like a ‘safe’ dish to order in a hawker centre but I was certain the popularity of the stall was testament to its ‘safeness’. The fish tasted fresh, and Jac suffered no ill-effects from eating it.
Hawker stall ratings
In Singapore, most stalls at food centres will display a rating as assessed under the Grading System for Eating Establishments and Food Stalls by Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA). The rating is based on the hygiene, cleanliness and housekeeping standards of the eating establishment/food stall. The grades are:
A – score of 85% or higher
B – score of 70% to 84%
C – score of 50% to 69%
D – score of 40% to 49%
Zhen Zhen and Tian Tian were both rated ‘B’. In fact, most of the stalls we saw and ate from during this trip were rated ‘B’. I never saw any ‘D’s on display.
More info: Food Hygiene Standards in Singapore
With so many stalls to choose from at Maxwell Food Centre, we barely scratched the surface. We’ll definitely return on future trips to Singapore.
Maxwell Food Centre
1 Kadayanallur Street, Singapore
Tian Tian chicken rice – 11am to 8pm, closed on Mondays
Zhen Zhen rice porridge – 5.30am to 2.30pm, closed on Tuesdays
Both stalls can sell out before their stated closing time, so get there early to avoid disappointment (and long queues).
Jac and I were in Singapore for 8 nights in July 2014. We paid for this trip ourselves and our friend Mandy was our local guide and makan kaki (eating buddy).
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