What is Hainanese Chicken Rice?
It is a one dish meal with poached chicken, a fragrant chicken fat rice, a bowl of chicken broth and served with a fresh chilli garlic sauce, dark soy sauce and sometimes a ginger sauce. Sauces are served on the side and never poured over the chicken.
A really good chicken rice is where the skin and meat is silky. This is texture that is much loved by the Cantonese. In my opinion, they must also have a really good chilli sauce or the dish will be incomplete.
Jump to the chicken rice recipe here and the chicken rice chilli recipe here. My chilli recipe is the one that I shared with Sorted Food when they did their series of Malaysian and Singaporean food.
Even though the name suggests that this dish is from Hainan, there is nothing that resembles this on that tropical island in China. In north-east Hainan, they have a dish called Wenchang chicken which is named after the famouswell fed and pamered local breed. This chicken was so prized after the Qing Emperor declared it the best chicken he had tasted.
Inn Hainan, it is cooked differently and the chicken is usually older which results in a tougher meat and chewy skin.
Hainanese food legacy in South East Asia
The Hainanese were one of the latest Chinese immigrant groups of Chinese to arrive on the shores of Malaya. Without the benefit of the clan associations and kin relationships of the earlier groups like the Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese, they had to take on the only available jobs, working as cooks.
Some of them worked for the British in their colonial mansions and wealthy Chinese families. Through this, they invented a whole new cuisine that we still find in some Hainanese coffee shops. This cuisine was their interpretation of Western dishes like chicken chop, a breaded and fried chicken served with non descript gravy and a scoop of diced frozen mixed veg. This dish is stil inexplicably still quite popular.
These coffee shops (of Kopitiam in Hokkien) that they opened served the now ubiquitous Kaya Toast, always served with a strong black Malaysian coffee, Kopi O.
But I digress.
Cofffee shops all over Malaysia including the then Malayan Singapore would gather other food sellers to offer other dishes while they serve up their Hainanese delights.
In almost every coffee shop, you will inevitably find a chicken rice stall. You can identify them by the row of chickens hanging ready to be chopped up and served. Since chicken is one of the only meats that is not prohibited by either Hinduism or Islam, all the races loved this dish too.
As chicken rice is ubiquitous around the country and also accessible, cheap and filling it has become a national favourite and a national dish of Singapore.
Celebrities who have visited Malaysia and Singapore had a hand in promoting chicken rice. Anthony Bourdain, Rick Stein and Gordon Ramsay have highlighted this dish on their programmes and Ottolenghi shared a recipe in the Guardian (although his chilli sauce recipe was all wrong). Singapore Tourism board has been marketing this as one of the must eats when you visit the island.
How to order chicken rice in a kopi tiam
The evolution of the humble chicken rice dish has seen this dish elevated beyond it’s humble beginnings. In the last few decades, hotels in KL and across South East Asia have started to offer this dish. Of course, they had to elevate it from a humble worker’s lunch to something fit for a 5 star hotel. The Mandarin Hotel in Orchard Road Singapore was one of the first to do this by plating up a tray with the fragrant rice, beautifully cut chicken, a bowl of soup and accompanying dips and sauces. Their bespoke boat shaped bowls were then much copied by everyone else.
Where to find the best Chicken Rice
Best Chicken Rice in London
My go to place was my local Singapore Mandarin in Holland Park but unfortunately the uncle there retired and the restaurant is no more. (They also did the best Char Kway Teow Best in town.)
Bugis Street in Singaporean owned Gloucester Hotel does a good version.
Mei Mei in Borough Market – I have not tried this one yet but other Malaysian friends rate it.
Mr Lim’s in Croydon has been mentioned but I found it disappointing. The chicken was dry and the rice lacked flavour.
Best Chicken Rice in Malaysia
In Kuala Lumpur, the best Hainanese chicken rice that our family loves is Nam Heong in Sultan Street, Chinatown, which has been there for decades. In the days when parking was easier, you can just drive up, park outsides and pile in for a mid day feast. Nasi Ayam Hainan Chee Meng in Bukit Bintang is a recent favourite and has much better parking options.
In Ipoh, there are 2 very famous coffee shops for chicken rice as their chicken is known to be extra silky. One of them was doing so well that it attracted the interest of the tax men as they were suspected of under declaring their income. One day, one of them went to buy chicken heads from one of the vendors, pretending to need them for some dish or other. This vendor went around collecting chicken heads from other vendors to sell to this guy. From that they estimated his income and got stung with a big tax bill.
Here they serve it with their equally famous bean sprouts. Ipoh beansprouts are especially plump and sweet and are a must have. When you visit, don’t miss the Poh Piah stall which is in the same coffee shop.
In Melaka, they serve their chiken rice with golf ball sized rice balls. You can find this at Chung Wah, near Jonkers Street. I personally don’t like rice like this.
Best Chicken Rice in Singapore
In Singapore, Chatterbox in the Mandarin Hotel is still the go to but is a bit spendy. This is our family’s go-to place when in Singapore. If that is too expensive, you will find Hainanese Chicken Rice in every food court.
There is a stall in a food court that has have a Michelin star Chicken rice but they use roast chicken instead of the poached chicken so it is not the same dish at all.
If you can’t get to any of these places, you can just cook it at home. It is a very simple recipe but not that easy to perfect.
How to cook the perfect chicken rice
My sister and I used to cook this all the time as it was one of the easiest dishes to make when we were left to fend for ourselves during half term from boarding school. We always came back from Malaysia with big precious jars of the chilli sauce to keep us going for the next term.
I have included both the recipe for the chicken and rice and a separate recipe for the chicken rice chilli sauce. As with all recipes, the flavour begins with a good quality chicken. Here I used a free range chicken which has a nice layer of fat under the skin that renders down and creates the lovely silky texture.
You must never boil the chicken, just a gentle simmer ensures that the meat stays tender and the skin soft and silky.
- Using a good qualkity chicken will result in an infinitely better dish.
- Make sure you adequately season and salt the rice and the broth for a delicious result.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
- 1 free range chicken about 1-2kg, organic if possible.
- 100 g ginger peeled and thinly sliced
- One bunch spring onions save 2 whole spring onion for garnish
- 1 large cucumber scrape skin with a fork for design
- 3 tsp dark soy sauce
- 25 ml light soy sauce
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 3 cloves garlic
- 420 g jasmine or basmati rice
- A handful of coriander leaves for garnish optional
- Prepare the chicken by removing any internal fat and cutting off excess skin. This will be used to cook the rice. Salt generously.
- Using a big pot that will fit your chicken, bring a bit pot of water to boil, adding in the sliced ginger and spring onions.
- Once boiled, rinse off the salt from the chicken and add the whole chicken into the pot and lower to a simmer. Simmer the chicken for about 15 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave the chicken in the broth for 45 minutes.
Cook the rice
- Meanwhile cook to cook the rice, we start by rendering the chicken fat and excess chicken skin in a wok. I like to add in a few pieces of crushed ginger and whole cloves of garlic here. Fry this until it is slightly golden.
- Add the washed rice and stir fry until the grains are translucent.
- Then add enough broth to cover the rice, using the first knuckle measuring technique. Season with salt to taste. Cook in your rice cooker or in a pot.
Make the sauces
- Meanwhile, blend or pound the garlic and chilli to make the chilli sauce. Detailed instructions here.
- After 45 minutes, take the whole chicken out and dunk it into a bowl of ice water. This stops futher cooking and sets the gelationous fat under the skin which imporoves the texture.
- Optional, you can add some carrots, onions and green vegetables like watercress, pak choi to make a soup.
Cut and present the chicken
- When the chicken has cooled, you can chop it into pieces, Chinese style with a cleaver.
- I start by removing the wings and the thighs and drumsticks. Then I cut off the breasts in one big piece and slice them into a smaller bit sized pieces. I arrange the whole chicken on a big platter with some sliced cucumbers, as per pic.
- If you don't have a cleaver, you can break down the chicken into pieces in the European way, boned or deboned. The Chinese prefer to serve their chicken on the bone.
- Serve the chicken with a bowl of the fragrant rice, a bowl of broth and all the sauces. Alternatively, you can serve individual portions on one plate with some rice, a few pieces of chicken and slices of cucumber.
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