If I had to choose my desert island dish it would be this one – Hainanese Chicken Rice.
I remember the first time I tried it. It was March 1992, my 25th birthday and I was in Singapore with the man who would become my husband. From that day Hainanese Chicken has been my ultimate comfort food. I can’t remember the number of times I’ve had it in Singapore over the years, I’ve tried it in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and I’ve even found it in Hong Kong and Taipei. The Vietnamese do a version of it (com ga) that I sampled in Hoi An and the Thai’s also have khao man gai – which is also similar. Same same but different. I’ve had some good ones in Sydney, some great ones in Melbourne and had a dreadful imitation in Perth that I’ve tried to erase from my brain.
When I think of Malaysia and, in particular, Singapore, this is the dish that I think of. Indeed, many people will tell you that it’s the national dish of Singapore – and they wouldn’t be wrong. Just a few dollars will buy you one a great at one of Singapore’s hawker markets. The best ones we had this trip were in the hawker markets – in both Singapore and Penang. The most ordinary one we had was also the most expensive – in the hotel on our first night in Singapore when we were too tired to go out.
Chicken rice originated in the Hainan province of Southern China a ridiculous number of years ago. It was then brought to Malaysia and Singapore by migrants in the late 19th and early 20thcentury. Naturally, as these things do, with the use of local ingredients it developed into the chicken rice we now know.
In essence, this appears to be a simple dish – poached chicken, chicken stock, chicken rice and a couple of dipping sauces. There is, however, a world of difference between okay chicken rice, a good one, and a really great one.
That difference usually lies in the flavour of the stock and the cooking of the chicken – it should be poached well but not over-cooked. The texture of the flesh is soft and the skin on the best chicken rice a tad gelatinous – you get this by dunking the chook into ice cold water after the cooking is finished. Oh, and don’t even think about using anything other than a free-range chicken.
The rice should be well flavoured and fluffy. I reckon we get the best results from doing it in a rice cooker, but hubby doesn’t use one when he makes it and it’s perfectly good. The flavour in the rice comes from chicken fat that you render down from the little flappy fatty bits that you cut away from the chook before poaching it, garlic and onion oil and the stock that you poached the chicken in. You can buy chicken rice flavour bases from Asian supermarkets but I think it’s worth doing this step properly.
The sauces are also important. The chicken itself has a really subtle flavour so needs the seasoning added by the sauces. Don’t hold back on these. I like to pour mine over the top, but it’s okay to dip instead. You can shortcut it a tad by using bought chilli sauce, but don’t even think of skipping the ginger and spring onion oil step.
Quite often it’s served with kecap manis, or sweet soy. This seems to be more common in hotel and airport versions and less common in food halls and hawker markets. I’m not fussed but my family like to have some on the side for dipping.
We regularly prepare it at home – especially if any of us are feeling rundown, stressed out or just not great. The recipe I make is one by Adam Liaw. He originally published this, his Hainanese grandmother’s recipe, in his first cookbook “Two Asian Kitchens” and has updated it since to this recipe. You’ll find it in his “Destination Flavour” cookbook, but it’s also online here.
There are a lot of ingredients and a lot of processes, but you’ll find the same ingredient used in different processes. It really is a layering of flavours. Give it a go – if you can’t be in a hawker market in Singapore, this could be the next best thing.