The mouth-watering low down on what is widely considered to be Singapore’s national dish, Hainanese chicken rice.
Farah Celjo

21 Jan 2019 - 9:59 AM  UPDATED 12 Nov 2019 - 4:22 PM

You’ve probably scoped it out on your local menu, read about it on travel blogs, gazed at the snaps on social media or perhaps you just love chicken and rice by the plateful, but who knew that this poached chicken was so darn popular? If you love chicken and rice then this much-loved Chinese classic is the ultimate comfort food. Very popular throughout Asia, especially in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, each country carries its own versions and you can find this ubiquitous dish from hawker centres and food courts to high-end restaurants. So it really is no wonder that the humble chicken rice is considered to be one of Singapore’s ‘national’ dishes.

The evolution

The origins lie in Hainan in the south of China and the chicken rice dish “wenchang chicken”, which is poached and served alongside rice and sauce. Hainanese chicken rice came hand-in-hand with the Chinese migration to Singapore in the late 19th century. The original Hainanese chicken rice dish was adapted to suit the styles and flavours of Singapore. A Cantonese cooking technique of poaching the chicken in the stock for a more tender result was used. The main differences between the Singaporean and Hainan versions lay in the use of young chicken in both meat and broth to cater for the Muslim population as well as the dish being served with a red chilli sauce made from chicken oil, ginger and garlic. This dish became very popular because of its taste, affordability and convenience.

Food wars

In 2009, Hainanese chicken rice was at the centre of the great debate, when Malaysia’s Tourism Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen, laid claim over the dish. Of course, Singapore being equally food-savvy was not, too pleased with their stand and so a tug-of-war ensued with talks of food patents followed. We are staying on the fence on this one as we just simply love both versions and welcome the opportunity to indulge in chicken rice in all the delectable ways it comes at us – steamed, poached, roasted chicken or even Malaysia’s chicken rice ball, see for yourself.

And even earlier this month, there was another #hainanachickengate as The Guardian published a 'Waitrose & Partners' recipe for Hainanese Chicken Rice. Seems harmless enough until the ingredients list featured honey and lime and completely overlooked ginger, garlic and sesame oil - it certainly seems like if it ain't broke why fix it?

So let’s break it down, Singapore-style

Essentially, Hainanese chicken rice is made up of four key players- poached chicken, the rice cooked in a chicken broth, a side soup and a selection of dipping sauces - chilli, ginger and thick soy.

While it’s a chicken dish, the rice is just as much a star. As Adam Liaw says, “this is the secret to chicken rice, getting all of that flavour into the chicken rice itself”. Cooking the rice in the chicken broth and dousing it in dipping sauces is really what makes this chicken rice dish a standout. It’s all about the right balance of oil, flavour, chilli & spice that comes together perfectly for so many plates.   

When chicken rice reaches goes big

Chicken rice at 30,000 ft

Singapore chicken rice is flying high and you can expect to see it on the menu across several airlines, this includes Jetstar Asia.

Street food to Michelin stars

This Singaporean chef and street food vendor has taken his Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle from street stall to Michelin starred and you can expect to find chicken rice on his menu. The queues certainly tell the tale and it can be up to a two-hour wait during peak times!

Turned rom-com 

When you think of chicken rice it most definitely could evoke strong emotions and be love at first sight. But let’s go back to 2000 Singapore when the film ‘Chicken Rice War’ was released. Two families, two chicken rice hawker stalls and one family feud about whose chicken rice reigns supreme. This tangled web of an inter-family feud is challenged when the eldest child in each family fall for each other. Who knew chicken rice could spur romance as well...

A few tips to Adam Liaw's cousin's Hainanese chicken rice recipe

Star of Destination Flavour Singapore, Adam Liaw, goes on a culinary adventure of the small island nation of Singapore. This series delves into food, culture and family discovery like no other. Here Adam shares a family recipe for Hainanese chicken rice and learns a few tricks from his cousin who ran a chicken rice stall in Singapore for over 30 years. Here are a few tips to think about next time you want to make your own.

• Once your chicken has cooked place it straight into an ice bath

• Take your cooled chicken, rub with sesame oil to preserve the skin

• Focus on getting all the flavour in the rice rather than the chicken

• When cutting your chicken focus on direct cuts through the joint of the bird

Feeling inspired?
1. Simplified Hainanese chicken rice

Hainanese chicken rice has played a significant part in Adam Liaw’s upbringing. Adam says, “It’s not just about a dish that I enjoy eating, it’s a part of my family history. It tells a story of who came here [to Singapore], where they came from, and what they did. And even though I’ve probably eaten my grandmother’s version about a thousand times, there’s always room to learn from someone else: in this case a cousin on my father’s Hainanese side of the family.” In Destination Flavour Singapore, Adam Liaw caught up with his cousin from his father’s side to learn how he's been making Hainanese chicken rice for over 30 years.

In true Hawker centre style, this version contains MSG, a very common and completely safe food additive. If you prefer not to use MSG, replace the water, salt and MSG for poaching the chicken with a very strong, salted chicken stock.

with Adam Liaw's easy chilli sauce

This versatile sauce is a perfect accompaniment to all kinds of chicken dishes. It will keep in an airtight jar in the fridge for months, always at the ready to be served with the likes of grilled chicken wings, Hainanese chicken rice or even just a simple poached chicken breast.

2. Poh's Hainanese chicken rice  

As well as the traditional ginger and spring onion sauce, Malaysians also serve it with a garlic-chilli sauce and kecap manis - sweet, sticky soy. 

3. Food Safari's Hainanese chicken rice

A much-loved Chinese classic, this Singaporean recipe is an interpretation of chicken rice, using pandan, kecap manis and cucumber to complement the balance of flavours. The key to this recipe is not to boil the chicken but to gently poach it.

4. Hainan-style poached chicken with ginger

This style of briefly poaching the chicken and allowing it to cool in the stock ensures the chicken remains juicy and tender. Don’t remove the chicken from the stockpot for at least one hour. Serve hot or cold with steamed Chinese greens and rice for a complete and utterly delicious meal.

Lead image by cegoh via Pixabay.

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