If you are wondering what Hainanese Chicken Rice is, it is a simple dish of poached chicken and specially seasoned rice, served with a variety of sauces, and garnished with thin slices of cucumber. It was adapted by the Hainanese population of southern China who came up with a dish called Wenchang chicken. Many countries in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, have a version of their own, but all largely similar.
We both grew up eating this dish. I mostly ate the Vietnamese version, whilst Mel who grew up in Singapore, had the Singaporean version. Honestly, the difference is so subtle, mainly with the sauces. We concluded we like the Singaporean version, because we love the ginger sauce. This dish is considered one of the national dishes of Singapore, and its meant to be a very cheap dish, commonly found at hawker centres or food courts. Mel claims that the best chicken rice she’s ever had is still at Chatterbox in Singapore, which serves the most expensive Hainanese Chicken Rice. The dish is meant to be $5 to $7, but at Chatterbox, it’s around $30. Yes… it might not be a lot for some of you, but relative to what it should be, it sure is!!
Rice in general is usually not my first preference. I usually go for noodles. However, if it is Hainanese Chicken Rice rice, serve it to me anytime! When it is mixed with all the amazing sauces, the explosive flavour is the bomb! I remember as a child, my parents would make this dish on special occasions, and there’s always left overs as they always cook more than the normal serving size. What surprised me always, was that even after reheating it with the microwave the next day, it still tasted so amazing.
Now that we are grown ups, we have decided to finally face our fears and attempt this. What is meant to be a simple cheap dish… is SO not simple! It took us MANY tries, MANY birds, SO MUCH rice, and MANY clean ups before we finally felt we have ‘kind of‘ mastered it to our standards. We had so many attempts that we even tried cooking 2 chickens in one go before.
Initially, our main fear was under cooking the chicken, as this poaching method required cooking the chicken at a sub-boiling temperature. To our surprise, on our very first try, it was a great success! The chicken turned out so succulent, that when Mel had the first bite, she swore, and she hardly or almost never swears. Every part of the chicken was perfect. It was so good, we demolished the entire bird in one meal. I kid you not.
Now… let’s break it down to the steps.
First and foremost, wash the chicken including the insides, and then exfoliate the chicken very well! The better you do it, the smoother the skin would be. Exfoliating the chicken is like removing the old dead skin after you get a sunburn. Grab a paper towel to rub it off if you need to. Don’t forget to check the chicken for its fat and trim it off, and save it for the rice later on. The amount of fat in every chicken varies. Most of the time there should be some near the neck area or the bum! If there is barely any, you may need to use butter instead. We have been very lucky so far and never had to use any butter before.
For the broth, you can tie the pandan leaves into a couple knots and chop the spring onions into halves if the pot is not large. I usually crush the pandan leaves a little, as well as the spring onions and lemon grass, either with my hands or the knife just to easily extract the strong flavours. Some recipes do not include lemon grass, but from our experience, we discovered that it is in fact one of the key ingredients.
For the poaching of the chicken, it begins with a quick initial cook of the skin and an immediate cooling down of it. This is to lock the juices in the chicken as it cooks. You must not skip the cooling down parts of this recipe. Be careful when dipping the chicken in and out of the pot of hot broth. We are still waiting on the special hooks ideal for poaching chicken, so we have been using cooking twine to tie around the wings of the chicken. DO NOT tie around the neck. Done it, tried it, never again! It’s dangerous because when its cooked, it’ll snap off real easy. When submerging the chicken, make sure it is entirely submerged, but still floating inside the pot, not touching the surface of the pot so that it will cook evenly, and not get burned. I would also highly recommend using a thermometer. There were several times where the chicken would either be cooked faster or slower than previous attempts. Just going by time may give you an inconsistent result because every bird size varies.
The combination of various sauces is what makes this dish so fantastic. The three main sauces are the ginger-garlic-spring onion sauce, chilli-ginger sauce and sweet dark soy sauce. Out of the three, our favourite is the ginger sauce. Usually it should only have ginger and garlic in it, but we like to add in a bit of spring onions. A life saviour to making these sauces is a food processor. We impulsively purchased one recently, which definitely saved us a lot of time having to mince them bit by bit.
How to dissect and chop the chicken? A heavy cleaver can help bisect the chicken into equal halves. Most of the the thigh pieces should be soft enough to easily remove by hand. A very sharp knife will cleanly slice the chicken breasts. For the proper techniques, we suggest You-tubing, which definitely helped us especially for the thigh area.
One of the greatest challenges to this dish is the rice. Mel was very particular about the rice. It not only needs to smell right, it needs to taste right. Lots of recipe will only produce a very mild flavour and we were not happy with them. We went through multiple attempts, exploring several techniques, before we were finally satisfied. What worked out best for us in the end, was cooking the rice in a pot over the stove, followed by baking it in the oven, which is a special technique Chatterbox restaurant uses. The rice cooker always browned the bottom layer and the flavours were not as intense. After frying the shallots, ginger, garlic and rendering the chicken fat in them with a wok, we would transfer it to a small pot, and let it simmer for a few minutes with some of the chicken broth, together with the pandan leaves. We would then add in the pre-soaked rice, and cook for about 20 minutes in low heat. The rice will still be a bit wet by the time it is done on the stove, so we transferred it onto a baking tray, and baked it for 10 minutes in the oven at abut 150°C. No overly browned or burnt rice, and flavors are amazing! FYI, don’t forget secret ingredients – sesame oil and salt.
What to do with the broth once the chickens all done? A couple ideas… first and most common use, is to turn it into a soup served as a side with the chicken and rice. It’s clean and refreshing, and goes well with the chicken rice. All it takes is to discard all the remaining contents, and season it with some salt and white pepper to taste. Add in some finely chopped spring onions and fried shallots. Some may add some finely chopped iceberg lettuce as well. Second option is to reuse it. Make another batch as one chicken is not enough! Another idea we have but yet to try out, is to put in all the remaining chicken parts, reduce it until it thickens more, then place it in the refrigerator until it becomes a jelly. If it works, maybe we will use it for dumplings!
Last point to mention is that another challenge we faced in making this dish was organisation. There were so many components to this dish, the kitchen room can become chaotic, and we would barely have time to take a break, as there is so much preparation, cooking and cleaning all at the same time. This dish definitely tested us as amateur home-cooks, and particularly, how well we can work with each other as a couple! Our advice is to pre-read the instructions well, plan ahead, and prepare all the ingredients first, especially ingredients for most of the sauces. Whilst the chicken is getting cooked, begin making the sauces, and whilst the rice is cooking in the pot, don’t forget to prepare the soup. You can let it continue simmering over low heat, and when close to serving time, quickly discard contents and season.