Almost every family in Singapore has a version of Hainanese Chicken Rice, a dish of gingery poultry with aromatic jasmine rice, the country’s unofficial national dish made popular by its Chinese immigrants.
Restaurateur Tse Wei Lim of Cambridge, whose family settled in Singapore from the city of Chaozhou in eastern China, has his own interpretation of the specialty. Lim came to the United States in 1998 to go to Harvard. While he was here, he was wowed by the seasonality of food, a stark contrast to urban Singapore, an island nation in Southeast Asia that imports much of its food. “Seeing that ingredients actually do have this ephemeral quality was really magical,” he says.
When he returned to Singapore after college, he spent time in restaurant kitchens, learning classic French cuisine. Then in 2010, he and his wife, Diana Kudayarova, opened Journeyman in Somerville with seasonal tasting menus, followed by Ames Street Deli and Study, both in Cambridge. All are closed now.
Lim has only recently delved into the food of his native country. “I’ve gotten a lot more into Singaporean food over the last few years, exploring my roots a bit. It’s not something I really had the chance to cook or learn in a professional setting, and on some level, I regret not getting to it earlier.” Over the past year, he’s been working for a startup and during the pandemic, spent time in the kitchen of the craft cocktail spot, Backbar, in Union Square, which he co-owns, making ramen and Singaporean specialties for carry out.
Hainanese Chicken Rice begins with a poached chicken, which is served with rice cooked in the chicken poaching liquid. The dish has lots of crisp garnishes, such as cucumbers and scallions, and is accompanied by Chinese dark soy sauce and an intense garlicky condiment made with ginger and chiles. There are many steps in the method, but also plenty of flavors and textures.
When Lim’s not in the kitchen, he’s at the keyboard. You can find his “frankly irregular” (his own description) musings on food systems, and food itself, in his newsletter, Let Them Eat Cake. His September 2020 post about his two-week quarantine in a Singapore hotel, with details about the food sent to him — “Dinner is spaghetti in bechamel. It tastes like it came from somewhere very far away” — is priceless.