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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013

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Mr. Chicken serves chicken rice, a delicious down-home dish created by Hainanese immigrants in Singapore. REBECCA MILNER


Searching for Singapore: Chicken rice and more in Tokyo


Considering that Singapore is famous for being one of the world's most delicious cities, it is surprising that Singaporean food doesn't have more cachet, or at least more of a presence, in Japan.

News photo
Taste of the streets: A chef prepares hokkien mee, a simple Singaporean specialty featuring stir-fried rice, egg noodles and shrimp in broth, at the soon-to-close Tokyo restaurant YacMan. REBECCA MILNER

As Japanese teenagers growing up in Singapore, Daimu Kato and Kota Nagai plotted to change that. "We would eat chicken rice once or twice a week and talk about how we would spread chicken rice in Japan," Kato explains.

Fast-forward several years and the two friends, now back in Japan, have their own restaurant, Mr. Chicken (1-15-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; [03] 5772-1931; www.mrchicken.jp), which specializes in — you guessed it — Hainanese chicken rice.

This classic street-stall dish was created by Hainanese immigrants in Singapore, featuring tender poached chicken perfumed with ginger (and sometimes garlic or scallions), served with jasmine rice steamed in chicken broth. Nagai, who does the cooking, spent six months studying how to make it alongside the cooks at Zheng Swee Kee Hainanese Chicken Rice in Singapore.

But is it authentic?

"Our concept is to keep the same local taste," says Kato, who speaks English and is happy to explain to chicken rice newbies what to do with the caddy of chili, ginger and syrupy dark soy sauce that grace the tables.

Mr. Chicken, which opened last July, builds on the following the two friends picked up with their food-truck business, which delivers chicken rice to the lunchtime crowds in Omotesando, Yurakucho, Mita, Kojimachi and Harajuku (check the website for their schedule and exact locations).

When it comes to Hainanese chicken rice in Tokyo, there is one name that comes up over and over again: Hainan Jeefan Shokudo. There are two branches, one in Azabu-Juban (6-11-16 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; [03] 5474-3200; www.route9g.com) and another, Hainan Jeefan Shokudo 2, in Ebisu (1-21-14 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; [03] 3447-3615). I'm more familiar with No. 2, first recommended to me by a Singaporean acquaintance. The chicken here is incredibly juicy and its cooking gives the restaurant the most divine aroma. And if you want to try making the dish at home, the paper placements come with a handy recipe.

Hainan Jeefan Shokudo's owner, Shigeki Koshiba, is a self-professed "Singapore food geek" (and a graduate of both the London School of Economics and the Culinary Institute of America) and writes an English and Japanese blog (singaporecooking.blogspot.jp) on Singaporean food — good stuff if you want to dig deeper, or are planning an eating tour of Singapore in the near future.

Sadly, Tokyo will lose one of its newest Singaporean restaurants, YacMan (4-29-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; [03] 6434-0848; www.yacman.com), before it had much of a chance to spread the gospel of its specialty, hokkien mee. Another classic hawker dish, hokkien mee consists of stir-fried rice and egg noodles served in a broth richly flavored with shrimp, topped with more shrimp and bean sprouts.

Genna Kojima opened YacMan in collaboration with Singaporean noodle shop Thye Hong and spent six months training there. He just announced he will close shop March 3 — so you only have a few weeks to visit Tokyo's only hokkien mee specialty shop.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet's travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.

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