In much of Southeast Asia, chicken rice is the ultimate comfort dish. This simple plate of poached chicken with rice and broth is so popular that almost every country in the region has its own spin on it: Singapore chicken rice, Thailand’s khao mun gai, Malaysia’s nasi ayam and Hainanese chicken rice.
On the menu at Drip Line café in West Oakland, Chef Nora Dunning features a version of chicken rice close to what she remembers growing up eating in Singapore. Just like how her mom made it, the Singapore chicken rice dish includes slowly braised chicken that is flashed fried for a crispy skin.
“We felt we were in West Oakland and we weren’t sure if people would be okay eating poached cold chicken,” said Dunning, explaining how the chicken is traditionally served in Southeast Asia. So she recalled how her mom sometimes fried the chicken. At Drip Line, the quick drop in the fryer warms the chicken while adding a crispy texture to the dish.
Singapore chicken rice is Dunning’s favorite childhood dish, and it’s one she eats often when she visits Singapore. “It’s this one dish or nasi ayam. As soon as I get off the plane, I know what I’m having.”
Drip Line, which celebrates its one year anniversary this month, opened in an industrial section of West Oakland, drawing crowds with dishes that infuse flavors Dunning recalls from her childhood with some of the Southern comfort dishes inspired by her husband’s family in America’s South. That’s why you’ll see items like koji fried chicken and waffles or a burger with sambal aioli.
“My intent is to serve food that is near and dear to me,” said Dunning, “but serve it in a way that you’re familiar with, using what is sensible to California.”
The Singapore chicken rice, which is one of the more traditional dishes on the menu, is also one of Drip Line’s most popular. Chef Dunning guesstimates that she probably sells between 80 to 100 chicken rice plates over the weekends. The dish can be ordered for breakfast or lunch.
While the dish is traditional, Dunning has made it her own and uniquely different than other versions in town. Besides the crispy texture, the dish is made with chicken thighs instead of breast for more flavor, and the dipping sauce is a mixture of a house sweet soy sauce (also used for the chicken and waffles) with a chili sauce made with Fresno peppers.
It’s also one of the longest dish to make. “People ask me what my secret ingredient is,” Dunning said, “and my answer is always — time.”
Her kitchen crew starts by making the broth with bone-in chicken thighs, using an aromatic base of sesame oil, ginger, garlic, scallions and onions. The thighs are cooked at a low temperature for two to three hours and then removed. The broth is used to cook the jasmine rice, leaving the fat in the broth to give the rice more flavor. Another round of aromatics is quickly sautéed with the rice before cooking it in the broth with pandan leaves infusing more aroma.
When the rice is ready, the dish is assembled. The flash-fried chicken thighs and combination dipping sauce are placed on a plate with a mound of rice topped with cucumber slices. The broth is poured into a tiny jar used for sipping — the fat skimmed from the top just before serving.
So how to eat this dish?
“I get that question a lot,” Dunning said. “There’s no right or wrong way. Any way you want to eat it is fine.” The chef said each element of the dish plays off of each other and the flavors marry well. She’s seen people start from one end to the other, and others mixing everything together.
Dunning did share that she does prefer to start by sipping the hot broth to wake up her palate and then digging into the rice. The rice, which boldly carries the flavors of the chicken and aromatics like ginger and garlic, is the star of the dish in her opinion. “The dish isn’t called chicken and rice,” Dunning said, “It’s chicken rice.”
From 8-11 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 14, Drip Line is celebrating its first anniversary with free Valentine’s Day treats. Then, in the evening, at 6 and 8 p.m., it’ll host two seatings of a special Valentine’s Day dinner. Tickets for the dinner are $55-$65. Drip Line recently added evening hours on Friday nights from 5:30-9:30 p.m. The dinner menu includes Nasi Padang, a seven-course tasting menu featuring flavors from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.