A Taste of Home: Hainanese Chicken Rice

Anthony Bourdain is right, “Singapore, if you love food, may be the best place on earth”.  It makes perfect sense (to me at least) that the first episode of his new show Layover featured this tiny city-state where food is a national obsession.

I cannot even express how much I miss the amazing food I grew up eating without getting wistful and perhaps even a little teary eyed.  Of all the dishes I miss, I perhaps miss Hainanese Chicken Rice the most.  It is a rather simple and humble dish which consists of poached chicken, rice and condiments like a tangy, spicy chilli sauce and dark soy sauce.  The sum of it’s parts is far greater that the individual components.  Trust me (and Anthony Bourdain).  If you are from South-east Asia, you understand what I am talking about and if you aren’t, then you may have to get on a plane.

I am sad to say, I have not had a good version of this dish in the US. Until recently I thought it was impossible to make at home.  I stand corrected.  It can be made it home.  Perhaps, it isn’t as good as what you get at the hawker centers back home, but in my deprived, home-sick state the home-made version tasted pretty darn good.

Somehow I managed to convince Stacie who has never been to Singapore or tried the dish, attempt to make it with me.  It is always fun to cook with a friend, especially Stacie because she is adventurous and manages to track down ingredients you’ll never find yourself.

The kids loved the dish and Ria has been asking for it since.  Dark, salty, gooey soy (she LOVES soy) with tender chicken and “oily”, chicken flavored rice – what’s not to like?

Hainanese Chicken Rice (from a blog we like, droolfactor)

Buy the best possible whole chicken you can find (it is worth it for this dish since the chicken is front and center and with so few ingredients quality of ingredients is paramount).  Before poaching, be sure to give the chicken a sea-salt scrub.  It sounds odd but apparently even Gweneth Paltrow (apparently, she cooks and eats) in her book “My Father’s Daughter” advocates salt scrubs for poultry. It leaves the chicken skin smooth and clean and produces less scum when you are poaching the chicken.  Stacie made me do this 🙂

For the chicken:

  • 1 whole chicken (about 3.5 to 4 lb), preferably organic
  • Coarse salt / sea salt
  • 5 inches of fresh ginger, sliced
  • 2 stalks spring onions
  • sesame oil (2 Tbsp)
  • light soy sauce (2 Tbsp)
  • ice bath

1. Exfoliate chicken with the salt till the chicken’s skin is smooth and shiny
2. Stuff ginger and spring onions in the chicken’s cavity
3. In a big pot, boil some salted water. Immerse chicken breast side in, make sure there’s enough water to cover the chicken. Let the water come back to a boil, lower heat and let it simmer slowly on low for about 40-45 minutes.
4. Lift the chicken out of the stock and immerse in ice bath for about 10 minutes to stop the cooking. Let chicken cool completely before carving into pieces (they use big cleavers in Asia to do this and the hawkers have impressive skill)
5. Once de-boned, drizzle lightly with mixture of sesame oil and light soy sauce. Garnish with scallions (optional) and serve with rice.

For the rice:

  • 3 cups of jasmine / long grained rice, rinsed and drained well
  • 2 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 2 stalks of screwpine leaves, washed and knotted (pandan leaves – omit of you cannot find.  We found some at New Mei Wah in SF)
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp cooking oil (or chicken fat – this adds a ton more flavor)
  • 6 cups of chicken stock (which is why you need to cook the chicken first)
  • 1 tbsp of chicken stock powder (optional)

1. In a hot pan, heat the oil, add the garlic and fry till fragrant (do not burn!) add the rice, salt and stock powder and fry till the rice is slightly translucent.
2. Place rice in rice cooker, add the screwpine leaves and stock and cook per directions for your rice-cooker.  You can make in a pot as well if you don’t have a rice cooker

For the Chilli Sauce:

  • 2 – 3 large red chillies which are less spicy (we used the Thai Bird’s Eye chillies)
  • 2 – 3 cloves of garlic
  • 2″ ginger
  • 2-3 tbsp orange juice/lime juice
  • 2 tbsp of chicken stock
  • a generous pinch of salt

1. Blend in a blender/food processor.  It’s good.  Make extra.