Singapore Stories: Hainanese Chicken Rice
Almost no matter where you are on the globe, you'll find some sort of chicken and rice dish. Singaporeans perform their version with delicious justice, standing out as one of the simplest and purest versions I've ever seen. This Singaporean staple is hands down one of my favorites, which says a lot given the multitude of over the top, tasty dishes that surround me. Chicken rice is simple and soothing—exactly what you should order when you want to take a break from the usual fiery dishes. I eat it just about every week.
And not just because it's good value for your money, although it doesn't hurt. A plate of it can cost as little as $2.50 SGD—an unbelievable $1.98 USD! For that you get a plate of perfectly tender and expertly sliced chicken (roasted or steamed) mildly flavored with sesame oil, a bowl of rich broth, and a mound of fragrant rice cooked in stock and chicken oil, all garnished with cucumber slices and fresh cilantro. I like to think of it as a deconstructed chicken soup. Shell out a little more change to get a "set," which comes with steamed greens topped with a sprinkle of crispy fried shallots. For those who crave more flavor or heat, you can drizzle on dark, thick soy sauce (kecap manis) and spoon on some fresh and tangy chili sauce. Though I like the flavor of the skin on the roasted option, I like the moist meat texture of the steamed chicken.
Chicken rice, specifically known as Hainanese chicken rice, is from Hainan, along the southern coast of China. Immigrants brought the dish to Singapore and now you can find it everywhere—and I mean everywhere. My local hawker center, Maxwell Food Centre, has no less than five stalls dedicated to the dish (Maxwell, Heng Heng, Ah Tai, Tong Fong Fatt...). Just look for the rows of plump poached and roasted chickens hanging on display in the shop windows.
But all of the shops look the same, so how do you choose? Singaporeans seen to have their favorites for sure. There's always a ridiculously long queue at the well known Tien Tien Chicken rice*, but I'm pretty loyal to Maxwell Hainanese Chicken Rice. The folks are super friendly, the chicken is juicy, and if I'm super hungry I can ask them to pop a hard boiled tea egg onto my plate.
Being that Hainanese chicken rice is cheap, easy to procure, and delicious, I will admit I haven't had much of a need to cook it at home. Now it's time. While there are many parts to this recipe since I decided to go full out and cook the "set," all in all it's simple to make. The trickiest part is getting the chicken just right. If you overcook the chicken it will be tough and dry. I had a hard time achieving this the first time—I'm so used to simmering the chicken until it's falling off the bone, but that's not what you want here. Gently poach the bird just until done. In Singapore it's even common to get a plate of chicken with a few bloody bits near the bone, though I wouldn't suggest you do that at home.
The stock (including the chicken oil in it) that you've created is chicken rice gold. It ties the whole meal together. You'll ladle some up in bowls to serve as the soup, braise the greens in it, and use it as your cooking liquid for the rice. The oily fat from the flavorful stock makes the rice some of the best you'll ever have.
About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of the new cookbook One Bowl Baking: Simple From Scratch Recipes for Delicious Desserts (Running Press, October 2013), also available at Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell's, and The Book Depository. Watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. Follow her Chocoholic, Chicken Dinners, Singapore Stories and Let Them Eat Cake columns on Serious Eats. Follow Yvonne on Twitter as she explores Singapore.