For a dependably indulgent chicken wing, Eng Kee Chicken Wings is the one many flock to. Even our Prime Minister once famously stood in line for half an hour to get his chicken wing fix at the Redhill branch back in 2014. Indeed, the taste of Eng Kee chicken wings is as fresh and delicious as it was when I first started having supper at their original Commonwealth stall twenty years ago. And joy of joys, they now have a new branch serving up the same famous wings in West Coast Drive.
Opened just last year, the family behind the famed wings has taken over management of an entire kopitiam at Block 505. With a daily best of three thousand chicken wings sold across all three branches, I needed to check if things were up to scratch at the newest Eng Kee branch. My concerns might have been premature, because owner Mr Lim informed me that their seasonings are “all standardised” and the wings (imported from Brazil) are marinated overnight at Commonwealth before being distributed to all three branches. For the perfect signature product, they even have one staff member whose sole purpose is to choose only frozen chicken wings of similar size to ensure an even cook.
For the next six hours or so, the chosen wings luxuriate in a marinade of oyster sauce, light soy sauce, salt, white pepper and other “secret seasonings”. The next day, they get a vigorous massage so that the marinade melds into every nook and cranny.
The next step is preparing a simple, light batter of rice flour and water, in which the marinated wings get a dip, before their final destination – a wok full of sizzling-hot vegetable oil. For wings that are juicy on the inside, yet crispy on the outside, Mr Lim said two factors need to be well-controlled: temperature and time.
How hot the oil gets is crucial. Too much heat and the wings’ exterior burns but interior remains raw. Too little heat and the wings absorb too much oil, resulting in unappetizingly greasy chicken. Less experienced staff might use a thermometer to monitor the temperature of the oil, but his more experienced staff need only eyeball the wok to know.
How long the wings are fried for is also important – seven to eight minutes is the optimum cook time in their boiling bath of oil, which is changed often so it doesn’t darken or turn stale. Mr Lim insists that the wings need to be wok-fried by hand, not in an automated fryer, because they require constant watching and turning for that coveted even, golden colour.
Their adherence to tradition activated a powerful nostalgia in me. These were the kind of wings you remember eating as child, the kind mum might fry up for a special occasion like a birthday or class party. Eng Kee’s fried chicken wings smelt enticingly savoury and were becomingly burnished, with a light crusting over tender, juicy meat. A gentle umami had penetrated right down to the bone and the light flavour of its oyster and soya sauce marinade permeated the chicken.
I especially appreciate a chicken wing for the different textures you get – the winglet portion is smooth and succulent, the drumlet portion is slightly drier yet yields a meatier bite, while the wing tip is all about the texture of crispy-fried chicken skin. Surprisingly, the deep-fried wings were not too oily, especially when eaten hot. Chilli sauce was provided for a sweet and not-too-spicy contrast to the wings, but I didn’t need it. The decadent dish was good enough on its own. I easily polished off four wings in one sitting.
Eng Kee’s secret to success was evident. It’s all about consistency, keeping to tradition and preserving the original taste of the wings without skimping on quality or ingredients. “No shortcuts,” Mr Lim said firmly. That, and maintaining their low prices, which have remained unchanged for years. “Our wings are still $1.30, noodles only eighty cents. Very affordable.”
The signature dish of Eng Kee has always been fried chicken wings, but they’ve also supplemented their menu to include fried noodles ($0.80), along with extra ingredients like ngoh hiang ($1.10), fishcake ($0.50) and vegetables ($0.50). Kind of like econ breakfast beehoon, except served through lunch and dinner.
For all these reasons, Eng Kee has always enjoyed brisk business, with generations of loyal customers who continue returning for their favourite chicken wings, in spite of the long lines. For now though, the new West Coast outlet appears to be the best bet for a queue-free experience. But to cut any wait time, Mr Lim left me with this parting hack: get online and order your wings for pickup or free island-wide delivery!
Denise ate at the Eng Kee Chicken Wings branch located at Block 505 West Coast Drive, Singapore 120505. It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays, 8am to 2pm and 4pm to 8pm. Closed on Mondays.