“I believe Temasek is an important restaurant in Sydney’s dining landscape because of its Hainanese chicken rice. Served at room temperature, this chicken has all the hallmarks of greatness ~ smooth, tender and flavoursome. The holy-trinity of condiments being caramel black sauce, ginger and chilli sauce make this the iconic dish that it rightfully is.”
I have a theory about Malaysian food lovers and this is how it goes.
Malaysians live in a country where the sheer variety of local food plays an important part in everyday life. The nostalgic flavours of hawker and street food back home are hardwired in their brains from a young age and eventually becomes a personal benchmark for ‘authenticity’, in itself, a subjective notion.
Street food in Malaysia is also relatively inexpensive and being so used to paying dirt cheap prices, Malaysians are value hunters when searching for a feed. Coupled with the rigid taste paradigm acquired from childhood, the typical Malaysian food lover is a fussy eater with a tight wallet. Not only must food be tasty and ‘authentic’, it must also be cheap.
Restaurants sometimes bear the brunt of the Malaysian palate because no matter how ‘authentic’ its food might be, an odd Malaysian ‘Ah Seng’ might come along and declare it ‘not authentic’ because flavours were not quite the same as those from his the hometown village.
So my advice to Malaysians food lovers is simple – lighten up and you may enjoy your food better. Food is subjective and you will discover more by keeping an open mind. Tasty as it may be, Malaysian food is all but a tiny slice in the spectrum of world cuisines because its food history is relatively young compared to those of China, France and Italy.
As for value, there’s a lot more of it if you don’t convert prices back to the measly ringgit. Difficult as it may be, Malaysian tourists and expats living in Australia need to equate a dollar to a ringgit. After all, Australia is a much richer country and operating costs are a lot higher here than in Malaysia. By changing this mindset, your nasi lemak in Sydney can suddenly become a lot more tasty and ‘authentic’.
And for Malaysians who have not been to Temasek, Parramatta’s stalwart of Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine, there is one dish in this restaurant that might change your perception about ‘authenticity’ and value.
We are a group of hungry seven tonight on a mission for Hainanese chicken rice which Temasek is so renowned for.
Temasek, meaning Sea Town in Old Javanese was the name of an early city on the site of modern day Singapore. Here in Sydney, Temasek is a Singaporean / Malaysian restaurant serving some of the most popular dishes from both countries.
It might have been more than ten years since my last visit and nothing much has changed by the looks of it.
The dining room is full die-hards looking to satisfy their Malaysian taste buds.
We are nursing a couple of wines from New Zealand tonight.
Sauvignon blanc with its grassy and minerally taste is always a good match with Asian food. The Marlborough region in the south island is famous for this varietal where a 2013 Squealing Pig is citrusy with sweet passionfruit flavours.
The ever so dependable Main Divide Pinot Noir from further south of Marlborough in Canterbury is a little heavier than the average pinot with a good body and subtle spice notes.
Mysaucepan bought a 2010 Two Figs Shiraz during a recent trip to the South Coast of New South Wales.
I fondly remember this winery with its breathtaking view of the Shoalhaven river. Plummy with dark berries, this wine could get more complex with a few more years in the bottle.
It’s a Saturday night and the second dining room across the alley way is also full of Asian diners.
Over the years, Temasek has forged a reputation for good Hainanese chicken rice where the rice is fragrant with hints of garlic, ginger and screwpine or pandanus leaves.
For those new to Temasek, it is noteworthy one of its former chefs, Alex Lee left a few years ago to set up his own restaurant called Ginger & Spice in Neutral Bay where the food is very similar for obvious reasons.
We pre-order two whole chickens when we made our booking to ensure they don’t sell out when we arrive at the restaurant.
Each chicken arrives in a large platter, de-boned and nicely sliced. It is drizzled with special light soy sauce, sesame oil and garnished with coriander sprigs, cucumber slices and tomato.
Presentation alone is enticing and taste wise, this chicken is right up there among one of the very best in Singapore.
I believe Temasek is an important restaurant in Sydney’s dining landscape because of its Hainanese chicken rice. Served at room temperature, this chicken has all the hallmarks of greatness ~ smooth, tender and flavoursome. The holy-trinity of condiments being caramel black sauce, ginger and chilli sauce make this the iconic dish that it rightfully is.
Origins of Hainanese chicken rice
There is also the food debate between Malaysians and Singaporeans about the origins of Hainanese chicken rice because Singaporeans have claimed this dish their very own with a bit of savvy marketing and tourism promotion.
I’m not trying to ignite a debate here but as far as I know, Nam Heong restaurant on Jalan Sultan in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia has been serving chicken rice since 1938. In the 1930’s, Singapore was one state among the Malay states all of which was collectively known as the Malayan Union. Prior to that time, all the Malay states, including Singapore, were colonised by British rule since 1874.
Perhaps it might be a futile ‘food fight’ between the two countries as Hainanese chicken rice in its earliest version might have even originated from Hainan island in China.
There is also the individual preference for either breast or thigh & drumstick meat among chicken rice lovers.
The texture of breast meat is firm and stringy while thigh & drumstick is smoother and more succulent. It is ironic that some restaurants serving chicken rice would charge more for thigh and drumstick meat when breast meat is actually more expensive in supermarkets.
Personally, I am indifferent to breast or thigh and drumstick because they both have their own attributes. Also, it matters little because when I am really hungry, I can devour one whole chicken on my own. So here’s a little poll for all you chicken rice fans:
Good chicken rice is fragrant because it is cooked with chicken stock, ginger, garlic and screwpine leaves. Each grain is firm and there are no lumpy rice balls on my plate.
Malaysians and Singaporeans who yearn for oyster omelette or ‘oluak’ will find this omelette more scrambled compared to those seared with fragrant wok aromas back home.
Ginger & Spice’s version is seared more intensely with a crisp texture compared to this one.
Nevertheless, this dish is tasty but I suspect at $26.80 a pop, value-conscious Malaysians will do the maths and whinge that it’s literally ten times the price of a plate of ‘oluak’ costing eight ringgit in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Quality wise, this one has a lot more oysters compared to the street versions in Asia.
Sambal snake beans should be crunchy and fragrant with the pungent aromas of belachan or fermented prawn paste.
Tonight, this dish is utterly disappointing because the belachan is undercooked and literally gooey with its raw taste. Ginger & Spice’s interpretation is definitely a few notches better.
Singapore style fried hokkien noodles is a combination of egg noodles and vermicelli stir-fried with egg, prawns and squid, then flash-braised in seafood stock.
Prawn flavours are bold and slurping down the noodles is not the same without a dash of sambal belachan.
Ice kachang in Malaysia and Singapore is popular because the climate is hot and humid. Rather than a dessert, I see this more as drink to cool down after a spicy meal. And being a non-dessert fan, I am indifferent with little expectations.
Rose syrup, condense milk, gula melaka, black bean jelly and corn are refreshing with shaved ice as long as stray ice bits are not too big.
The standout dish tonight is definitely its signature Hainanese chicken rice. It is the one and only dish I will come back for and so should you.
Better still, come with a group of Hainanese chicken rice lovers and order whole chickens rather than individual portions for better value. This strategy might just work even for the fussiest of Malaysians with the tightest wallets.
So dear readers, are you a fussy or open-minded eater? And do you know where Hainanese chicken rice originated from?
The Roxy Arcade
71 George street, Parramatta
New South Wales
Tel: +61 2 9633 9926
Opening hours: Lunch & Dinner Tuesdays to Sundays, closed Mondays.