Is it awfully impolite to laugh like a drain, even a covered, quiet drain, at some other customers’ mishaps in a restaurant? Well, then I am awfully impolite. Sitting alone at the table right next to the front of house – a bright-eyed, stern-faced grandfather perched on his old-school wooden counter – my back is turned to him, and to the hapless family that stumbles in, clearly disoriented from walking along Purvis Street. I empathise, I really do.
‘Can we see the menu?’ They ask, expecting tze char.
‘The kitchen’s closed!’ Barks the front of house. ‘We’ve got chicken, roast pork, steamboat.’
‘Do you have vegetables?’
‘Kitchen’s closed! Chicken, roast pork, or steamboat!’
‘Oh… so do you have-’
Gramps doesn’t even let them finish the question this time, and I’m staring very hard at my food, focusing on it just so I don’t have an audible outburst. Thankfully the food – the whole restaurant, actually, bustling with steamboat broth vapours and chatter – helps me out tremendously here. I didn’t even have to order; stumbling inside, I take a seat, an uncle confirms that it’s chicken rice for one, and the front of house conveys the order in Hainanese to his colleague with the chickens and the cleaver while I gawp at the surroundings.
This is a place that looks like it’s from the 1940s, not because a consultancy wrote a brief recommending ‘an authentic local environment’ to serve Corona and cheeseburgers, but because it is from the 1940s. The tables are marble, and pitted by sheer long term use – another thing no amount of retro decor consulting can do for a restaurant. The only concession to modernity is also the wisest, namely air conditioning.
Yet Con has been in this spot since 1940, which means that the opening act of their history was to survive the Second World War. Everything after that probably looks quite easy in comparison. Certainly the other grandfather, the chopper of chickens, goes about his work with graceful ease, punctuated by the tok tok tok of steel on wood. It’s a lovely tease, that sound, and I’m nicely primed by the time the chicken rice comes in.
Chicken rice is ubiquitous in Singapore, but Yet Con’s chicken – how they handle it, and the result as tasted – is distinctly different from the ‘standard’ rendition. Actually the relationship runs the other way; Yet Con is the place that insists on doing its chicken the way it always has, before Hong Kong’s formidable roasting and braising traditions entered Singapore’s culinary mainstream and influenced all our habits. The practice of hanging up meat to let the fats drip and flow over the skin? Yet Con doesn’t do that; the chicken is rested after poaching on plates, steeping in its juices. The prized layer of taut, springy skin which is formed by cold-soaking the poached chicken? It’s a Hong Kong practice, used to prepare soy-braised chicken among other things; Yet Con doesn’t even serve skin with its chicken breast.
And this traditionalist approach does make a difference. Breast meat always runs the risk of becoming fibrous and dry, but here it is delicately balanced. Poached longer than usual, it’s surprisingly firm, yet supple and moist, and the fragrances from the poaching broth – scallion, ginger, the slightly nutty sweetness of chicken fat – suffuses into the meat.
Many foreign commentators have talked about how bland and boring chicken rice looks when it’s served – all whites and off-whites and yellows. But I’ve always felt that that’s like looking at the timpani score for Holst’s Mars, and declaring that The Planets is a boring, repetitive piece of music. The condiments – and the rice itself – are also key. Here, the chili is crimson and forceful, made simply from minced and seasoned chilis without any vinegar; ginger puree, on the other hand, has a savoury undertone. It’s the rice that’s most intriguing, though – it looks drier than I’m used to, and is clearly boiled, but the richness of poached chicken broth bursts with an intensity more reminiscent of fried rice with ginger puree.
Curious about the only other thing on the menu, I order some roast pork as well, and once again this is a take quite distinct from the usual Cantonese influences. While siu yuk Hong Kong style is a medley of firm muscle and melting fat, here the layers are coaxed into a common front – the fat layers springy, the meat much firmer, the outer skin charred brown instead of golden. Served atop crunchy, mischievously tangy pickles (mustard greens and ginger) and drizzled with a dark sweet Hokkien-style sauce, it is very much its own medley.
And so is Yet Con – a medley of strongly held ideas, independent of the trends that sweep Singapore’s food scene this way and that constantly, doing its own, timeless thing. It’s the sort of place that, by its own history, also gives Singapore’s cuisine its own historical context – a foil to the easy assumption that the way we eat chicken rice is the way it has always been. And on a street where super chic modern fine concept dining is crashing headlong into the colonial-era buildings, Yet Con is a humble but weighty anchor.
I’m glad for it. I’m glad, too, that now I have a new place to show people who gush about the wonders of the [insert dish here] that’s newly introduced to Singapore, carry on about how it’s a new concept and an instant classic. A classic, you say? Do you reckon it’d survive a world war? Yeah, I thought so too. Now let’s be classic, and go eat at Yet Con.
Yet Con Chicken Rice
25 Purvis Street
Hours: Daily, 10 AM – 10 PM