This Hainanese chicken rice recipe deserves to be added to your usual dinner rotation.
Hainanese chicken rice is one of those incredibly delicate dishes that fools you with its apparent simplicity, but captivates you with its love and beauty. This is a comfort food with a long history (it evolved from Wenchang chicken which dates back to the first dynasty of imperial China).
The dish today is one of the national dishes of Singapore and Malaysia, brought by immigrants from the Hainan province in south China. There is some friendly competition surrounding the origin of the modern dish, with both countries claiming it as their own creation. Controversy aside, sadly for a lot of us, the dish is largely underrepresented in many parts of the Western hemisphere.
The Importance of Each Ingredient
This dish is kind of perfect to make at home these days. The base (the chicken, rice, and cucumber) is beyond pantry-friendly. The trick is to learn the technique, perhaps new to some of us, and add an amazing variation to your chicken dinner rotation.
As a bonus, Chef Mehta also shows us how to make the three amazing condiments that go with Hainanese chicken rice: the ginger topping, the Hainan chili, and the Hainan soy, all equally delicious in other dishes. These days we want the biggest arsenal of condiments and toppings on hand at home, and learning how to use unfamiliar (to some) ingredients and learning about a different culture is always a win.
The skin is important—chef Mehta says to look for whole chickens, and specifically the ones raised for this type of dish; one recommendation: Go visit an Asian market in your area and try new things. That’s the way we learn, grow, and become better humans to other humans. The Hainanese technique focuses on the chicken skin as an important part of the dish, so it should be of the best quality. After the chicken is poached in the broth, it gets shocked in ice water which results in a very unique texture and feel. To complete the technique and compliment the treatment of the chicken, it is served at room temperature.
The rice is undeniably the binder and the most important part of the dish. Chef Mehta says that cooking the rice right is what makes it successful, and what ultimately brings you joy. The grains are cooked with some of the chicken broth (sometimes unskimmed so some of the natural fat and oils from the chicken transfer to the rice an enrich it during cooking), and it’s perfectly complemented by the ginger, shallots, and pandan leaves that are part of the cooking process. It’s subtle, but highly aromatic and rich—think of comfort at the chicken soup level.
Like the chef tells us, there are variations of the dish now—the Thai version tends to be garlic-forward, the Singapore-Malay version is more heavy on the ginger. The root is used in the broth, the rice, and to make a topping. Another important and unique ingredient here are pandan leaves. This is a staple of Malay and Singaporean cuisine, and it’s a flavor that really elevates a dish; though subtle, it makes this rice shine.
Hart 2 Heart Farm Fresh Pandan Leaves, $5.95 from Etsy
You can buy them online if you have trouble finding them near you.
There’s also an idea of no waste—this is a sustainable dish; fat from the chicken is used to add flavor and to start the cooking process of the aromatics, discarded usable parts are all used in the stock. Leftovers like the feet can be fried and eaten separately. The experience of eating the dish is unique, even for those who think this sounds out of their comfort zone. There is something truly magical about this dish, and eating it once will make you want to eat it again and again.
Hainanese Chicken Rice Recipe
Courtesy of chef Salil Mehta
Hainanese Chicken Rice
- For the chicken:
- 5 ½ to 6 ½ pound whole chicken, ideally free-range
- Water – enough to cover the chicken in a pot
- 6 slices ginger, peeled
- 1 bunch scallions, trimmed
- 2-3 shallots
- For the Hainan Soy Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 2 shallots, minced
- 6 slices ginger, peeled
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 4 tablespoons soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons dark caramel soy sauce
- For the Hainan Chili:
- 3 or 4 red chili peppers (select variety depending on heat preference, or use mild chilies)
- 6 slices peeled
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 cup chicken stock
- Juice from 2 limes
- Salt, to taste
- For the Minced Ginger Topping:
- 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
- 1 bunch of scallions, trimmed and chopped
- 3 tablespoons sesame oil
- Vegetable oil, to cover the ginger
- Pinch of salt
- For the Chicken Rice:
- 4 tablespoons sesame oil
- 5 shallots, sliced
- 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 pandan leaves
- 2 tablespoons powdered chicken bouillon
- 2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed
- 3 ½ cups chicken stock
- To garnish:
- Sliced cucumber
- Make the chicken: Rub salt all over chicken to clean and wash. Season again with salt and let the chicken rest for 30 minutes. Bring water to a soft boil and immediately add ginger slices, scallions, and shallots. Add the chicken, cover, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken set for another 20 minutes. Submerge the chicken in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process and then chop chicken into pieces. Use a mesh strainer or cheesecloth to strain out stock (if desired), then set aside.
- Make the Hainan soy sauce: Heat a saute pan to medium, add the sesame oil and swirl to coat. Add the shallots, ginger and garlic and saute until golden brown. Add the other ingredients, cook for 5 minutes on medium and strain out solids. Set aside in a small bowl.
- Make the Hainan chili: Add all ingredients to a blender and pulse until the mixture reaches a chunky consistency. Set aside in a small bowl.
- Make the ginger topping: Heat the oils in a saute pan until smoking hot, add ginger and saute until golden and crispy. Set aside to cool, then add to a bowl along with the other ingredients. Set aside.
- Make the chicken rice: Heat a saute pan on medium, add the sesame oil and swirl to coat. Cook the shallot and garlic until golden, then add to a rice cooker along with the rice. Add stock, pandan leaves, bouillon powder and ginger slices and cook in the rice cooker according to manufacturer’s instructions.
- To assemble the dish: On a large platter, arrange carved slices of room temperature chicken breast and thighs along with the wings and drumsticks. 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 platter in a cone shape and top with the ginger topping.
Header image courtesy of Laut Singapura