Despite the popularity of “Crazy Rich Asians,” you might not be as familiar with the cuisine of Singapore as you are with other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam. But along with dishes like fragrant curried rice noodles, grilled chicken satay, and lip-tingling chili crab is Hainanese chicken rice. Considered one of the island city-state’s signature dishes, it consists of chicken poached in a flavorful broth served with seasoned rice, chili sauce, and often other garnishes including cucumber and cilantro.
Hainanese chicken rice was created by immigrants from Hainan, the smallest and southernmost province in China, who adapted it from Wenchang chicken, a similar dish made by cooking chicken in almost-boiling water and then dipping it in ginger, salt, and other spices. It was a dish born out of frugality, where immigrants were trying to eke out as much flavor as possible from lowly boiled chicken.
Laut Singapura in New York City’s Gramercy neighborhood is chef Salil Mehta’s follow-up to his critically-acclaimed and Michelin-starred Laut. His second concept focuses on Singaporean street food, also called “hawker fare,” and his Hainanese chicken rice is one of the best you’ll ever come across. It’s become one of his most ordered dishes—the umami-rich chicken broth alone is absolutely slurp-worthy.
Ironically though, the dish was not an immediate success when he first added it to the menu at Laut Singapura. “I don’t think people were aware or had heard of the dish so that new experience was not what they had in mind,” Mehta admits. “They weren’t really used to eating meat at room temperature.”
On the menu at Laut is a crispy fried version, which is admittedly not as traditional nor as authentic, but one that diners were more apt to order. Cue New York’s Asian food renaissance and the rise of social media though, and guests started to warm up to the, um, room temperature, poached iteration available at his second concept.
“Hainanese Chicken Rice…made its way to Southeast Asia through a series of migrations,” he explains. “As a result, it took on a personality of its own in Malaysia and Singapore as the sweet soy and chili sauce is very Southeast Asian.”
It’s admittedly not a quick dish to make, but the results are definitely well worth the effort. There are a few steps and inclusions you’ll want to be sure to follow. Seek out dark caramel soy sauce, which is not the same thing as black soy sauce. The former is also labeled “cooking caramel,” and it lends a molasses-like viscosity and rich, mildly sweet flavor. Select whatever chili peppers you like for the chili topping; Anaheim peppers are mildly spicy, while jalapeno and serrano are medium and Scott red bonnet and Thai red chilis really bring the heat. You can keep the chicken broth as-is for more flavor or texture, or use a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth) for a crystal-clear broth.
Since the chicken is traditionally served at room temperature, Hainanese chicken rice is a perfect prep-in-advance dish. To assemble, arrange carved slices of room temperature chicken breast and thighs along with the wings and drumsticks on a large platter. Serve the chili sauce, soy sauce, cilantro, and sliced cucumber in small bowls for garnish along with a bowl of heated broth. Mound the rice on a separate dish in a cone shape and top with the ginger topping. To eat, spoon some rice on your plate, top with chicken and garnish as desired; the broth can be poured on top or you can dip your chicken as you go.
Header image courtesy of Laut Singapura