Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sergeant Chicken Rice - The Return of Sergeant Kiang in Hougang Kopitiam Food Court

I have been waiting to write this post for some time now, almost 10 months in fact, and the reason for this is twofold.

For one, I have hardly, if ever reviewed any food from a food court, and the reason is simple. Nothing really special ever comes out from food courts, and most of the time, you are getting overpriced but inferior hawker fare.

The second reason, and more importantly, is I was told to withhold this write up by the man himself, Sergeant Kiang.

You see, ever since Jiang Ji Chicken Rice was reviewed way back in early 2011, the Sergeant had suddenly enjoyed a burst of media attention and had wanted to expand his stall into an eatery. Perhaps rather too hastily on hindsight.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the expansion did not materialize, and although Sgt Kiang did eventually open another eatery in Jurong Point, that too, was rather short-lived and folded after only a few months.

But as luck would have it, Sgt Kiang met up with the owner of the Kopitiam boss who happens to be an old friend, and last July, Sgt Kiang resurfaced at the Kopitiam outlet at Hougang Point, now renamed as Hougang ONE.

And that was where I met him since my last encounter at Jiang Ji. We sat down and had a long chat where he related to me what had transpired and what his plans were, and it was then that he requested that I withhold from writing about his new venture at Kopitiam until a more suitable time.

It was evident that he wanted to be more settled before letting the general public know that he is back, and I could understand where he was coming from. After all, the last 2 years prior must have not been easy on him.

The Man Himself

And over the last 10 months, I had been visiting him on a rather regular basis, and most time, he was most obliging to having very long chats with me. I even brought a number of friends and fans of his down to meet him, many eager not just to eat his chicken rice, but just to meet him and talk with him.

Even Masterchef Peter had a very good chat with him when Peter had opened his own restaurant for only a few months, and in fact, is just a stone's throw away from Sgt Kiang.

Sgt Kiang, himself also underwent some changes as I realized over the months. At Kopitiam, he is no longer working with his family, but rather with a group of staffers that he is passing down his valued culinary skills down to.

Usually, I am quite skeptical of outsiders taking over his cooking, especially PRC cooks, but Sgt Kiang assures me that the team he is overseeing has the dedication and willingness to learn, which is promising. In the early days, I used to remember him complaining that he had to mull over every detail and was always on the backs of the cooks.

These days, it seems, he sounds far more relaxed and now that his Hougang chicken rice outlet has stabilized, he is now intent on growing other Kopitiam outlets to implement his Sergeant Chicken Rice.

As such, he hardly stays at one place, but has to move around the various food courts to ensure that the quality is met. And you may be wondering, how good is it now that he does not cook himself?

Well, the honest truth is, it may not be 100 percent the same chicken rice when he does the cooking and chopping himself. But it is about 95 percent there I reckon, and that to me, is good enough. As I first mentioned in this post, I have never given regard to food court and has refrained from posting food court food.

But Sgt Kiang is an exception, he has elevated Kopitiam to something higher than other food courts simply because of his chicken rice. The steamed chicken, is as how I remember it, super slippery smooth on the skin side, and moist tender meat on the inside.

His chicken is lightly seasoned and lets you savor the chicken flavors without overpowering the seasoning, unlike Tian Tian and Boon Tong Kee, which I religiously avoid nowadays. The rice is still fragrant, and though not the best chicken rice, is still one of the better ones with its lack of fat and balances the chicken nicely.

And the condiments are still freshly made, with the ginger and chilli as perfectly balanced as I remembered it from Jiang Ji. And strangely enough, chicken rice is one of those dishes that do not suffer in an air conditioned environment, so thankfully, even in a food court, it survives well.

As for Sgt Kiang, I am delighted to have so many wonderful chats over the last year or so. Away from the controversies, the sergeant is simply a man very dedicated to food and very particular on standards and even somewhat health conscious.

But unlike the sergeant from 2011, Sgt Kiang is somewhat more open these days, and he has been more than willing to share his chicken rice secrets and tips during our long chats, none of which I will reveal here. You just have to take the time to know him to let him tell you himself.

Personally, seeing him back in action and in full flow, brings a smile to my face. As I talk with foodies about Jiang Ji, I still have a sense that certain perceptions of Jiang Ji and of Sgt Kiang are unfounded, but the simple fact of the matter is that he is doing well today should be good news to fans of his.

After all, I am mostly thankful that Sgt Kiang has now found a way to continue his legacy, and though it may mean going outside of family, at least there are now more ways to savor his unique chicken rice dish than before.

And in a way, he has also come full circle in the last decade or so. From starting Food Republic's chicken rice stalls (which has been changed from his original recipe, and is inferior), to starting his own place, and now returning to Kopitiam, Sergeant Kiang is a true journeyman of Singapore food.

Only time will tell if this will succeed on a higher level, but from the crowd that patronize his Hougang place, it is evident that the chicken rice there is doing more than brisk business. It is even ironic that the young kids and teenagers who come by may have no idea that he is a legend in the chicken rice world.

Well, here's to more good years from the legend.

Sergeant Chicken Rice
Kopitiam Hougang ONE
1 Hougang Street 91

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