Why It Works
- Scrubbing the exterior of the chicken with salt produces a smooth skin with a superior final texture.
- Poaching the chicken until each piece registers the ideal temperature on an instant-read thermometer keeps the meat moist.
- Using the poaching liquid—including any rendered chicken fat—to cook the rice and bok choy infuses the whole meal with rich chicken flavor.
- Letting the broth stand for several minutes allows the chicken fat to rise to the top, making it easier to collect and add to the 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 US dollars! 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 chile 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 certainly have their favorites. There's always a ridiculously long queue at the well-known Tien Tien Chicken Rice (Tien Tien's chicken rice beat Gordon Ramsay's at Hawker Heroes Challenge in 2013). 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.
Since 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 (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 broth (fortified with rendered chicken fat) 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 schmaltz from the flavorful stock makes the rice some of the best you'll ever have.
This story was originally published as part of the column "Singapore Stories."
This recipe was cross-tested and updated in 2022. For the chicken, we call for scrubbing the skin of a whole chicken with salt which delivers a smooth skin and better final texture. Once cooked, the chicken is shocked in ice water, patted dry, and rubbed all over with sesame oil. For the rice, we added in aromatics, cooking garlic and ginger in the melted chicken fat until lightly golden before adding the rice. Lastly, for the bok choy, we scaled down the quantity and reduced the cooking time, cooking the bok choy until just tender.
For the Chicken:
1 small whole chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds; 1.3 to 1.6kg), giblets removed
2 tablespoons (18g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (for table salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight), plus more to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons (30ml) rice wine, such as Shaoxing
2 tablespoons (30ml) soy sauce
One 3-inch knob ginger, peeled and sliced (3 tablespoons; 40g)
3 medium scallions (2.5 ounces; 71g), trimmed and halved
2 pandan leaves, tied into knots, optional (see notes)
1 tablespoon (15ml) toasted sesame oil
For the Rice:
1 tablespoon minced garlic (20g; from 3 cloves)
1 tablespoon minced fresh peeled ginger (15g; from a 1 1/2–inch piece)
2 cups long grain white rice (12 1/2 ounces; 355g), rinsed well
For the Bok Choy:
3 tablespoons (45ml) vegetable oil
2 medium shallots (2 1/4 ounces; 64g total), peeled and sliced into 1/16-inch-thick rings (about 1/2 cup)
8 ounces (227g) baby bok choy (6 small heads), washed, trimmed, and halved lengthwise
1 small cucumber (9 ounces; 255g), sliced (2 cups)
1 bunch fresh cilantro (4 ounces; 113g), stems and leaves chopped (2 cups)
Chile garlic sauce
Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce; see notes)
For the Chicken: Pat chicken dry and trim excess fat and skin from neck and tail areas; set fat and skin aside for rice. Sprinkle chicken with salt and vigorously rub and massage salt all over chicken to “exfoliate” skin. (Skin should look smooth and be free of any lumps, bumps, or imperfections. Take time to exfoliate it well; the better scrubbed the skin is, the better the final texture will be.) Sprinkle with white pepper.
Place chicken, breast-side up, in a large stockpot and add rice wine, soy sauce, ginger, scallions, and pandan leaves (if using). Cover chicken with water by about 1 inch, ensuring that chicken is fully submerged.
Heat over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce heat to low to maintain a bare simmer and poach chicken until breast registers 155°F (68°C) and legs register 165°F (74°C) with an instant-read thermometer (avoiding bone), 25 to 30 minutes (the breast and leg pieces may reach their respective temperatures at different times; make sure to remove each as it is ready). Remove chicken from pot and immediately transfer to a large bowl of ice water. Soak chicken in ice bath until cool, about 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate, gently pat dry, and rub sesame oil all over chicken. Set aside until serving.
Strain broth, discarding solids. Return broth to pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil until reduced to approximately 9 cups (do not skim fat). Season to taste and let cool 15 minutes to allow fat to rise to surface.
For the Rice: In a small saucepan, cook reserved chicken fat and skin trimmings over medium heat, stirring often, until fat begins to render and surface of saucepan is coated in melted fat. Add garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant and lightly golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in rice until coated in fat, then remove from heat. Transfer rice mixture to a rice cooker and cover with 3 cups broth (using as much fat as possible from broth). Cook rice according to manufacturer’s directions.
For the Bok Choy: In a small saucepan, heat oil and shallots over medium heat, stirring, until deep golden brown, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer shallots to a small bowl lined with a paper towel.
In a large skillet with a lid, bring 3/4 cup broth to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add bok choy and cover. Cook until just tender but still bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with fried shallots.
To Serve: Reheat remaining broth and ladle into bowls. Carve chicken off bones and slice thinly (you can leave the bone in the drumstick, if desired). Arrange chicken on a plate, spooning a small amount of broth over top. Serve with rice, bok choy, sliced cucumber, cilantro, chile sauce, and kecap manis.
Pandan leaf is used in Southeast Asian cooking. It may be found in your local Asian market. Pandan adds subtle flavor but is not integral. Do not substitute pandan flavoring.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 37g||48%|
|Saturated Fat 8g||39%|
|Total Carbohydrate 37g||13%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 6g|
|Vitamin C 44mg||222%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|