SE Asian classic makes itself at home


Chicken rice. The entire bird, simmered whole then sliced with a cleaver, arranged on a plate with a mound of steamed rice, garnished with sprigs of coriander and anointed with dabs of thick soy and piquant ginger sauce. And served with a bowl of light, fragrant broth — chicken bouillon, of course. This is more than just a simple, tasty meal; for millions of people it’s a way of life.

The Hainanese take the credit for the original recipe, but it is in Southeast Asia that chicken rice has come into its own. In Singapore, jifan is considered the national dish; but you’ll find it in similar form throughout the region, wherever the Chinese diaspora has made its home.

Not that you need to travel that far to find it. Last week, we sat down to lunch on this classic dish at two different places — both within strolling distance of Roppongi Hills but with very contrasting approaches.

The Thai version of chicken rice, known as kao man gai, is a mainstay of that country’s hawker food counters and no-frills roadside eateries. In terms of atmosphere, nothing could be further from that than Coriander’s sleek basement dining room in genteel Nishi-Azabu. Shunning all “ethnic” trappings, it adopts a contemporary feel that would fit in seamlessly in Sydney, London or Hong Kong — monochrome decor, simple dark wood furniture, pure white ceramics, well-placed lighting, a few unobtrusive oriental artifacts and an eclectic soundtrack of chilled beats.

Hip but casual, style-conscious but easygoing, Coriander is run by a friendly young staff who imbue it with a personal touch. They call their food “modern Thai cuisine,” by which they mean that, instead of striving for bogus authenticity, they have taken the traditional seasonings, spices and recipes of Thailand and created a menu that reflects the sophisticated preferences of contemporary Tokyo. For us, the surprise was just how good it all tastes.

Their approach to jifan — served only at lunchtime, and not on a daily basis — is far more refined than you would get in Bangkok. They cook the jidori chicken till it’s firm but still moist, using only the tender, white breast meat, with no trace of skin, fat, bone or even a hint of pinkness. It is served with long-grain Thai jasmine rice, garnished with fresh coriander leaf, chopped scallion and fried onion bits. The three dipping sauces — thick, black soy; brown, slightly sweet peanut-based sauce; and piquant white grated ginger and garlic sauce — are subtle enough not to smother the flavor of the chicken.

The basic recipe may be Thai-Chinese, but the execution and presentation is entirely Tokyo. In lieu of the standard side-bowl of chicken broth, Coriander presents a warming minestrone-style soup, with plenty of tomato and vegetable chunks, plus an attractive side salad of grated red cabbage.

We found this hybrid approach also informs the evening menu, when we went back for dinner on another day. We settled in with a nice bottle of Alkoomi Sauvignon Blanc (all the wines are from New Zealand or Australia) and nibbled our way through an order of delectable deep-fried shrimp breaded with flakes of coconut, and a seafood salad (squid, scallop and shrimp, with noodles).

Besides using good basic ingredients, the kitchen also understands Thai condiments. The shrimp were paired with a dip made with gapi (the fermented shrimp paste that is the sine qua non of real Thai cooking), chili and lime. The dressing for the salad blended vinegar, chili and nam pla. Both seasonings were spicy without being too fiery; both were well balanced.

Ditto with the Tom Yum soup. The powerful, vivid red broth was not intolerably hot; the shrimp, baby corn and straw mushrooms were highlighted by plenty of tangy kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass. Our grilled Tsugaru chicken had been given an excellent marinade of garlic, ginger and nam pla. And we closed with gapi-flavored fried rice and congee rice porridge (“A Healthy Dish” it says in the menu, but don’t let that deter you), which was bolstered with shreds of chicken meat and the yolk of a full-flavored, free-range egg.

Coriander’s take on Thai cuisine, sophisticated yet relaxed, is a perfect match for the setting. This is the sort of place where you feel equally comfortable dropping in for a light lunch, having an early-evening bottle of wine with a few snacks before moving on, or settling in for the evening over a leisurely and very pleasant meal.

No prizes for guessing what’s on the menu at Hainan Jeefan Shokudo. Not only does the name advertise their signature dish — Hainan-style chicken rice — but also their no-frills modus operandi. Here the guiding principles are from Singapore. The aim is to recreate the tasty street-stall cooking that until recent years you would find at outdoor hawker encampments (Newton Circus being the best known to tourists), but which are now mainly inside shopping-mall food courts.

Hidden away on a back street on the cusp between Azabu-Juban and Roppongi Hills, Hainan Jeefan is a modest place, with a low ceiling and plain, whitewashed walls. The tables are small and packed in close together, giving a friendly, unaffected feel that can turn to a merry clamor as the evening progresses. The small outdoor terrace will be pleasant on sultry summer nights, though the view out onto a sheer wall of plain concrete does little to conjure up the tropics.

Their chicken rice is more robust than the version at Coriander. The chicken is served in fatter chunks with sauces that are more demonstrative (especially the rich, fire-red sambal). At lunchtime, you can choose between this and a curry of the day. In the evening, they have a wider range of a la carte offerings — a choice of curries; Chinese-style stir-fries (we especially enjoyed the wok-fried squid with nira greens and ginger); roti flatbread or Chinese steamed buns (overly sweet to our taste) to mop up the garlic-rich juices; and a number of noodle dishes, including a very good laksa lemak, the spicy, coconut-rich noodle soup that is Singapore’s other national dish.

Judging by the lines that form at lunchtime and the numbers being turned away at night, this food is finding a receptive audience here in Tokyo. To avoid disappointment, call ahead for reservations and arrive in good time. Since they only prepare a limited amount each day, they often run out of chicken early.