(Recipe) Hainanese Chicken Rice

Recently, I was asked if I knew about chicken rice and more importantly, if I could prepare it. With a pot luck party coming up, chicken rice seems just about right. Hainanese Chicken Rice is a quintessential Singapore hawker food and any* self respecting Singaporean foodie should know a thing or two about it. None of my previous attempts have actually been successful, but over the course of one week, I was about to find out why I failed so miserably, and why you should eat chicken rice in moderation.

Like most hawker food, there is nothing immediately pleasing about chicken rice. To an untrained eye, the dish probably looks like nothing more than a few pieces of boiled chicken pieces served over a boring plate of white rice. If I didn’t know better, I would probably be chanting, “Boiled chicken! tasteless and dry! Booo!” Yet, time and time again, this simple-looking dish have wowed locals and tourists alike, with offerings ranging from an affordable SGD$4 for a few slivers of chicken breast meat, to an outrageous $27 for slightly chunkier pieces in an up-scale restaurant setting. Despite its Hainanese origins, chicken rice has become ubiquitous in South East Asia, with multiple variations depending on the region. Singapore’s version tend to be paler and oiler compared to the Ipoh ones, and the latter is usually served over a plate of bean sprout instead of cucumbers. They are all great without a doubt, and the secret lies in the way the chicken, the rice, the soup and the sauces come together. You can invite an international chef like Gordon Ramsay to recreate the dish and even he will run into trouble if he does not know the rationale behind what makes a good plate of chicken rice. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXg_-ejNk8w

To understand chicken rice’s appeal, let me first break it down into its individual elements. Google chicken rice, you will notice that the chicken pieces are typically glistening in fats. In fact, the epitome of boiled chicken is one where you get a thick layer of jelly just under skin. The thigh and drumsticks are the prized pieces, and most people are more than willing for fork out a premium for those cuts, though breast and wing meat do have its loyal followers. To enhance the taste of the chicken, a generous splash of light soy sauce, sesame oil and shao xing wine (for drunken chicken) is typically added, along with a garnish of coriander leaves and/or scallions. All in all, the chicken should be fragrant, succulent, fatty, without being overly salty.

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As for the rice, chicken rice’s rice is shiny and fluffy, unlike the matte looking white thing we get from typical chinese takeouts; when you bite into it, you can almost taste each individual grain bursting with flavor, like a chicken equivalent of caviar. To heighten the level of shiokness, chicken rice is typically accompanied by a selection of sauces, from spicy tangy chilli sauce, earthy savory ginger paste, to the sweet delicious ketchup manis (this is what I use). It may come with a side of soup made from the chicken stock, and a plate of chinese yu-choy seasoned with oyster sauce. Most chicken rice aficionado will prefer one element of the dish to another, which is why it is so difficult to create the perfect chicken rice.

My attempt was based off rasamalaysia’s recipe, which yielded a respectable version of chicken rice that will easily beat any one found within a 50 mile radius of boston. (Yes Penang, you heard me right.) A couple tips from my experience. Do not hold back on the oil (That’s why its unhealthy). The reason why chicken rice taste so good boils down to one word – fats. Fry the rice with a generous serving of sesame and vegetable oil. Skim off the oil from the chicken broth and add it to the rice. If you don’t see a layer of oil in the rice cooker, drizzle more olive oil. Don’t hold back on the salt, sugar, and chicken bouillon either. The broth should taste almost salty enough that it just crosses the line of unbearable. The plain jasmine rice will dilute the saltiness once it starts absorbing the liquid. My previous attempts were plagued with dry flavorless rice and needless to say, it was missing the two most important ingredients I just shared with you. Also,do not use store bought chicken broth either, or one made from celery, leek and onion etc. (Basically, the western version of chicken broth will not work)

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Why is the chicken served sliced? For aesthetics? For the ease of eating? Personally, I think it is for the taste. The only seasoning the chicken has received so far are the ginger scallion pieces stuffed into its cavity, which flavors the broth more than chicken. This places a huge emphasis on the post seasoning. By cutting the chicken up, you increase the surface area available for the sauce to coat. When cutting the chicken, try to cut along the joints. Debone the chicken for a more enjoyable eating experience. The only part which I recommend leaving intact is the wings for obvious reasons. The following video shows an example of how it is done with bone. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFwb26y5o74

If preparing for multiple meals, you can pre-fry the rice, pre-soak it in the broth and leave it in the fridge until use. This way, you save some volume in the fridge while getting freshly cooked rice every time. Storing the chicken is a little more tricky. Once I debone the chicken, I partition them out, drizzle them with sauces and keep it in the freezer. They warm up nicely, and the time spent in the sauce helps flavor the chicken further.

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