• Hainanese chicken and rice is the result of immigration. (Duncan Lu)Source: Duncan Lu
Uncovering the immigrant history of China's Hainanese chicken rice.
By
Duncan Lu

20 Oct 2021 - 10:26 AM  UPDATED 26 Oct 2021 - 5:29 PM

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The feud between Malaysians and Singaporeans over which country has the best Hainanese chicken rice is well documented. However, did you know there's a Southeast Asian country that's closer to Hainan island province in China's south than both these countries, which lays claim to its own version of this iconic dish?

Cơm gà Hải Nam, which literally translates to Hainanese chicken rice, was widely consumed in Vietnam's south before the Vietnam War (1955-1975). It can still be found on the odd menu at restaurants in the country. 

Not to be confused with the popular Hoi An chicken rice, which is characterised by its herbaceous qualities and served with turmeric rice, cơm gà Hải Nam is closer to traditional Hainanese chicken rice: simple and lightly flavoured.

This dish originates from Wenchang in Hainan. Wenchang was home to the famous Wenchang chicken — a breed fed on coconut and peanut bran and known for its tender meat. These chickens were prepared in various ways, but the most popular method was to poach them and serve with steamed rice. Eventually, a wave of immigration took this to other countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

"Cơm gà Hải Nam is closer to traditional Hainanese chicken rice: simple and lightly flavoured."

Both sides of my family have a version of Hainanese chicken rice. During my childhood in Vietnam, my mum considered this a special dish, because chicken was expensive. This meat was reserved for special occasions and so was cơm gà Hải Nam. Four decades on, chicken is now readily served in restaurants and sold at street food stalls. You can find well-known chicken dishes such as goi ga (Vietnamese chicken cabbage salad) and pho ga (chicken pho) in abundance.

Vietnam has its own version of Hainan chicken, known as cơm gà Hải Nam.

Mum's version of cơm gà Hải Nam involves a fragrant soy, ginger and shallot dipping sauce that gives it a distinct flavour. She crushes and bruises shallots and ginger in a mortar and pestle until their aroma fills the room, then infuses them in oil that's been brought to smoking point. She then adds this mixture to soy, sugar and the liquid in which the chicken's been poached to make the most delicious sauce to accompany the chicken and rice.

The other variation of Hainanese chicken rice in our family is my aunt's. Her family actually migrated to then-South Vietnam from Hainan. My aunt's recipe is similar to traditional Hainanese chicken rice but with with one notable Vietnamese influence — nuoc mam. The combination of this ginger-tinctured fish sauce with juicy poached chicken coats your palate with a burst of umami. It's similar to the sauce often served alongside other popular Vietnamese poultry dishes such as chao vit (duck congee) and bun mang ga (chicken and bamboo noodle soup). 

These two recipes have influenced my own iteration of cơm gà Hải Nam, which you'll find below. This version includes both sauces, served with poached chicken on a bed of fragrant, steamed chicken rice.

It's an easy recipe that's part of my weekly dinner rotation, and I hope it becomes a staple of yours.


Hainanese chicken rice

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 poached chicken
  • 4 chicken marylands 
  • 1 brown onion, halved
  • 15 g dried shrimp
  • ½ tbsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp anchovy salt or 1 ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 10 g rock sugar or ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 small knob (20g) of ginger, crushed
  • 2.5 L water
  • 1 bunch coriander roots
  • 1 tbsp premium fish sauce
  • 4 tsp sesame oil

Chicken rice

  • 500 g long grain rice
  • 1 small knob (25 g) of ginger, crushed
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • ½ tsp sea salt
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil
  • Trimmed chicken fat (see Step 1)
  • 750 ml chicken poaching liquid

Soy and ginger dipping sauce

  • 1 small knob (25 g) of ginger 
  • 1-2 (50 g) shallots crushed
  • 20 ml cooking oil
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp chicken poaching liquid
  • ½ tbsp sugar

Ginger and chilli dipping sauce

  • 60 g ginger, peeled and grated or crushed in mortar and pestle 
  • 1 tbsp sugar 
  • 3 tbsp poaching liquid 
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce 
  • Juice from half a Lime 
  • 1 red chilli, deseeded
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Garnish
  • 1 bunch coriander leaves
  • 2 Lebanese cucumbers, sliced
  • 1 tbsp fried shallots

Method

Poached chicken and rice

  1. Wash chicken and trim off any excess fat, but do not discard. Set aside for the rice.
  2. Place chicken in a large pot with remaining ingredients (except fish sauce and sesame oil) and fill with 2.5 L water. Bring to the boil then simmer on low for 10 mins. Skim off any impurities throughout the process, then remove from heat and cover. Allow the residual heat to poach the chicken for 20 mins then remove the chicken from the broth, and place in a bowl of ice water for 5 minutes to stop the cooking process.
  3. Chop chicken into 1-1.5cm pieces with a cleaver or alternatively debone the chicken marylands, before slicing by running a small paring knife along the thigh and leg bones and carefully separate the meat from the bone.
  4. Strain the remaining chicken poaching liquid and return it to the boil. Add premium fish sauce then keep on a moderate rolling boil for 5 mins to concentrate its flavour. 
  5. Rinse the rice a few times under water and agitate with your hands to remove excess starch. Once the water is clear, strain well with a colander and set aside.
  6. Add chicken fat to a large saucepan or pot and render on a low-medium heat until lightly golden (about 5 mins).  Add garlic and ginger and sauté until lightly golden and fragrant, then turn the heat up to medium-high, and add rice and salt. Stir well for 3 minutes.
  7. Add chicken poaching liquid and bring to the boil. Reduce on low until most of the poaching liquid has evaporated (about 5-7 minutes), then cover and simmer on the lowest heat you can for 10 mins. Do not stir the rice in this step. 
  8. Remove from heat, keep covered and allow to cool and gently steam through for 10 mins before serving. 

Dipping sauces

  1. To make the ginger and chilli dipping sauce: In a mortar and pestle, crush and bruise ginger, garlic and chilli, then mix in sugar, fish sauce and chicken poaching liquid, then stir in fresh lime juice.
  2. To make the soy dipping sauce: In a mortar and pestle, crush shallots and ginger well but kept slightly chunky (not into a paste). Remove and add to a small mixing bowl. Add sugar and mix to dissolve. Bring oil to smoking point then add to the bowl and mix well; be careful as it can pop and sizzle. Add soy sauce and poaching liquid then mix until well combined. Store any leftover chicken poaching liquid in the freezer to add to stir fries such as lobster and snow peas or beef and zucchini stir fry.

To serve, glaze the chicken with sesame oil, and dress with half the soy and ginger dressing sauce and garnish with coriander and fried shallots. Serve with bowls of rice and accompany with sides of cucumber and both dipping sauces.

Note: Add a few teaspoons of both sauces to your bowl of rice and mix well for additional flavour.  

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @duncanluFacebook or keep up to date with his Vietnamese home recipes at duncalu.com.au.

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