Hainanese chicken rice is startlingly different, strikingly delicious. That’s especially true if you haven’t already experienced this truly extraordinary dish. If that’s the case, you’re in for a wonderfully satisfying, rather thrilling adventure that stars delicately poached chicken, a super-savory rice, and three terrific sauces.
Although it has its roots on the island province of Hainan in the far south of China, ‘chicken rice’ is routinely ranked as the national dish of food-crazy Singapore, as well as being mega-popular in Malaysia and Thailand.
And some big-name chefs have certainly raved about how fabulous it is. Twenty or so years ago, Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain were both being knocked out by Hainanese chicken rice, hailing it as one of the world’s most exceptional chicken dishes.
And here’s what another big-name chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, said about it back in 2013, “A few subtle and simple flavors – namely ginger and spring onion – create so immense and compelling an impact. And that is even before you douse everything with those intensely delicious chili and soy condiments. Make it once, and it is likely to turn into a habit.”
So why is Hainanese chicken rice so unusually good?
Well, that’s partly because this is a signature dish from a country whose cuisine has been lauded by the likes of Bourdain as being among the best in the world. And a quick glance through Terry Tan’s book, Singapore Cooking: Fabulous Recipes from Asia’s Food Capital, reinforces the country’s claim to culinary fame.
Let’s start with why the chicken’s so good. Served at summery room temperature, the poached-and-cooled chicken is juicily tender, delightfully firm, beautifully pale beneath its creamily silky skin, and absolutely packed full of delicate, subtle flavors.
Summery room-temperature? Yep. This is a dish for brightly hot, sunny days, when the thought of something piping-hot is all too much. Make it with a first-class, fresh, free-range bird, and Hainanese chicken rice will reward you with many exquisite fresh tastes.
Then there’s the jasmine rice, which is so outstanding that it shares equal limelight with the chicken. Rather than just being simply boiled or steamed, the rice is lightly fried with sliced scallions (or spring onions), ginger, and garlic. It’s then simmered in the well-seasoned stock that was used to slowly poach the chicken.
Now, many food writers say this glorious rice is really the highlight of the dish. I’m not sure about that. I found it every bit as good as the poached chicken and would definitely make it to accompany any number of curries, char-grilled skewered meats. Satays spring to mind, or big, rich stews like a goulash or an osso buco.
Some people have given this rice even higher praise. Anthony Bourdain was so awed by it that he said, “Chicken rice is so fragrant and delicious that it can be eaten on its own.”
The traditional trio of sauces
There’s a range of contrasting tastes and texture in this easily made trio that introduces powerful heat, intense umami, and spicy warmth.
The powerful – and I mean powerful – heat comes from a pale-orange, clean-cutting sauce made from finely ground, fresh bird’s eye chilies, plenty of fresh ginger and garlic, sesame oil, fresh lime juice, a little sugar, and some of the chicken’s poaching stock.
As for the intense umami, that’s courtesy of a very simple, slightly syrupy sauce that’s made by gently heating dark soy sauce and caramelly palm sugar with a little water.
Finally, the spicy warmth comes from a faintly golden, thinnish sauce that infuses sesame oil with the flavors of gently fried, finely chopped garlic, ginger, and spring onions.
What you taste is not always what you expect
Two days after I first cooked this, I was still marveling at how amazingly special Hainanese chicken rice is, and how keen I was to make it again. And, just like Yotam Ottolenghi says, making it is likely to become a habit.
But most of all, I kept being struck by how strongly influenced we are by the appearance of what we eat. There’s an old saying that we eat with our eyes, and this dish really bears that out – what we see before us can create powerful taste expectations.
And, I must admit, with this dish, my expectations weren’t that high. But all my nervy concerns vanished as I soon as I started tasting it and savoring each of the sauces with the chicken, the rice, and the chunky slices of cucumber.
Cucumber? For sure. Those thick slices are an inspired, traditional addition to Hainanese Chicken Rice. With their cool taste of summer, they’re a fab foil to that seriously hot chili sauce, and they look just dandy on your plate.
Straightforward prep, straightforward cooking
This is another pleasant surprise – prepping and cooking your Hainanese chicken rice is a lot simpler than you might think. The instructions’ list might look dauntingly long, but there’s nothing at all complex in there. There are no hard-to-find ingredients and certainly no tricky cooking techniques.
Anything unusual in the cooking? Perhaps one. Once the chicken has finished poaching, it gets immediately immersed for 15 minutes in a mix of cold water and ice cubes – known as an ‘ice bath’. This has the vital effect of firming the meat and turning the skin and fat beneath it into a creamily silky layer of deliciousness.
The ice bath certainly cools down the chicken but doesn’t turn it stone-cold. After its ice bath, the chicken’s ready to be carefully carved and served with the rice, sauces, and that all-important cucumber.
Approach making this dish with confidence, and I’m reckoning you’ll be delighted with the results, and very happily surprised by just how good they are.
Like this recipe? You’ll love these too:
- Indonesian Braised Beef With Spiced Rice: All the big spices you’d expect from an Indonesian dish.
- Hong Shao Rou: Otherwise known as spicy red braised pork belly. It’s chock full of spices and spicy flavor.
- Kung Pao Chicken: This recipe is simple, fast, and oh so tasty.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
For the chicken
For the chicken’s poaching-stock
- 2 ½ ounces ginger root cut into 1/8-inch slices, skin and all
- 4 scallions or spring onions. Roots trimmed off and halved lengthways. Use all the white parts and all the crisp green leaves.
- 1 chicken stock cube This I recommend so that you create an obvious chicken flavor in your poaching stock.
- Water enough to just cover the chicken in the pan you use to poach it
**For the poached chicken’s ice-bath
- 20 ice cubes together with enough cold water in a good size bowl to cover the just-poached chicken.
For the rice
- 2 ½ cups jasmine rice
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1 ½ ounces ginger root grated, skin and all
- 3 scallions or spring onions. Roots trimmed off, sliced into 1/3-inch disks – use all the white parts and all the crisp green leaves.
- 3 tablespoons pure clarified chicken fat a.k.a. schmalz
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 4 cups chicken’s poaching stock from above
For the ginger and garlic sauce
For the chili sauce
- 8 Thai bird’s eye chilies fresh, red, and very finely chopped, skin and all. I used red bird’s eyes, but if you can find them, orange ones would be even better. Size? About 2 ½ inches long will be fine.
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and very finely chopped
- 1 ½ ounces ginger root finely grated, skin and all
- 1 heaped teaspoon white sugar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 limes the juice and flesh from both limes
- 2 tablespoons chicken’s poaching stock from above
For the soy sauce
- 1/3 cup dark soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons palm sugar I use those hard, sort of half-spheres of palm sugar, and each of those equals approximately a level tablespoon of ground palm sugar.
- ¼ cup water
For the cucumber
- 1 English cucumber medium-sized, peeled in lengthwise stripes, and cut on the diagonal into 1/3-inch slices.
Poaching the chicken and cooling the chicken
- For this, you’ll need a medium-to-large saucepan that’s big enough to hold the chicken with an inch or so’s space all around it. The pan needs to be big enough so you can just cover the chicken with water, and it needs to have a snugly fitting lid.
- Thoroughly rub the chicken all over with 2 heaped teaspoons finely ground sea salt. This will help to create a glossy sheen on the skin as it poaches and ‘bind’ it with the layer of fat beneath it. Set the chicken aside for a few minutes while you prep the poaching-stock and bring it to the boil in your selected saucepan.
- Fill the pan two-thirds full of water, and add the scallions (or spring onions), ginger, stock cube, and salt. As soon as the pan comes to a good rolling boil, drop the heat to low and let the water settle into to an evenly bubbling simmer.
- Lower the chicken – breast-side up – into the simmering pan. Now adjust the level of the water so that it’s just covering the chicken. I added a little more boiling water to do that. Time now for an important taste test.
- Taste a little of the stock – what you’re looking for is a level of savory saltiness that’s just verging on being a touch too salty for your taste. So, you might want to add a little more salt to reach that level. This matters because your rice is going to be cooked in this stock, and that’s where a good deal of the rice’s chicken flavor comes from.
- Now, for the next 50 minutes, you want the chicken to poach in your covered pan at a constant, gently bubbling simmer. You’ll probably find you need to adjust the heat a few times to maintain that constant, gentle simmer. You’ll also need to give the stock a few gentle stirs to encourage a bit of simmering water flow in and out of the chicken’s cavity.
- Just before the 50 minutes is up, add the ice cubes to a bowl or pan that’s easily big enough to hold the chicken. Once the 50 minutes’ of poaching is done, turn off the heat, carefully remove the chicken and set it in its ice bath for 15 minutes.
- The poaching stock with its ginger and onions can just sit where it is. Do not discard any of it. Some of the stock is going to be used to cook the rice, and you’re going to add a little of it to your chili sauce.
- Once the chicken had its 15 minutes in the ice bath, carefully remove the chicken, and let it thoroughly drain on a few sheets of kitchen towel. That’s it, your chicken is now ready to be carved and served.
- Do take some special care when you lift the chicken from its stock, set it in the ice bath and then remove it. The skin is fragile and tears easily – especially when it comes out of the hot poaching stock. The skin will firm up as it cools, but it’ll still need some careful handling.
- While the chicken’s poaching and then cooling, you’ll have ample time to make the trio of sauces, cook the rice, and slice the cucumbers.
Making the trio of sauces
- For the ginger and garlic sauce, begin by heating the sesame oil in a small saucepan over high heat.
- As soon as the oil starts shimmering – but not quite smoking – quickly stir in the ginger, garlic, and scallions (or spring onions). Keep stirring the mix as it sizzles away for 90 seconds on that high heat, and then turn off the heat.
- During that 90 seconds’ hot sizzle-and-stir, you want the mix to just start picking up a little golden color, and for its flavors to infuse the oil.
- Stir the pan a few times as the sauce cools – the garlic, ginger, and onion will darken a little more in the still-hot oil and continue to release their flavors into the oil. So, keep stirring until the sizzle stops. Done. Let the sauce cool, and it’s ready to serve.
- For the chili sauce, you want to chop the chilis and garlic very finely. Once you’ve done that, sprinkle the salt and white sugar over them, and use the side of a heavy blade to crush them into quite a fine paste.
- Add the paste to a mixing bowl and thoroughly stir in the sesame oil and lime juice. Almost done. All that’s left to do is to add 2 tablespoons of the chicken’s hot poaching stock once the chicken’s cooked. Stir that in really well, and your chili sauce is ready to serve. So, as soon as the chicken comes out of its poaching stock, do remember to add that hot stock to your chili sauce.
- For the soy sauce, simply add all the ingredients to a small saucepan set on medium heat. Let the pan come up to a slow simmer, and then drop the heat to low. Keep stirring over that low heat until the palm sugar completely dissolves. Done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool, ready for serving.
Cooking the rice
- Fry first, then boil, and a word about timing. You want to start cooking the rice as soon as the poached chicken goes into its ice bath. That way, the rice will be ready to serve as soon as the chicken is ready to be carved.
- So, for the frying, add the schmalz and sesame oil to a big, heavy-based skillet (I used a 12-inch one) and set it on medium-high heat. Let it heat for about a minute, then stir in the garlic, ginger, and scallions (or spring onions) so they all get a good coating of the fatty oil.
- You want to stir fry the mix over that medium-high heat until the edges of the onion greens start to darken and crisp a little. That’ll take about 2 minutes or so. As soon as that happens, stir in all the rice. Take some care here to make sure that the rice is thoroughly mixed with the garlic, ginger, and onions, and that all the grains pick up a glossy shine from the fatty oil.
- Keep stir-frying the rice mix on that medium-high heat for another 3 minutes. You want to be stirring all the while – slow-and-steady – until the rice picks up a pale golden color. You’ll find that some grains get much darker and turn crisp – that’s just dandy. The same goes for some of the onion and garlic.
- Turn off the heat and let the skillet sit while you get ready for boiling the rice.
- To do that, add 4 cups of the chicken’s poaching stock to a medium size pan and bring it to a boil over high heat.
- As soon as it comes to a boil, stir in everything from your rice-frying skillet. I used a little of the boiling stock to make sure everything from the skillet went into the boiling poaching stock. Cover the pan and turn the heat to low – very low.
- On that very low heat, you want to give the rice enough time to absorb all the liquid in the covered pan. That’ll probably take about 10 minutes or so. But do check the rice near the end of that time. It’s ok then to give the rice a slight stir if you feel it might be about to start sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- But ideally, you want to leave it alone until the rice absorbs all the liquid. As soon as that happens, the rice is done and ready for serving.
Carving the bird and serving your Hainanese chicken rice
- Set the cooled, drained chicken on a carving board. Using a heavy, sharp carving knife, remove the legs and wings as cleanly as you can from the body of the chicken, and set them on a plate ready to be served on your big wooden board.
- Now cut the body of the chicken in half – lengthways and straight through the center of the breast. A bit of determined confidence helps here, together with some firm downward pressure on that sharp knife.
- Turn each half of the body, so the breast-meat side is upwards, and carve neat, ½-inch thick slices of meat right through each breast.
- And, with all this carving, do take care not to tear the skin. However, if you do tear some – just like I did – not to worry. Just patch it back together as best you can.
- Gently remove any bones from the breast slices, and let the slices sit on your carving board while you start arranging things on the big board.
- Spoon the rice in an even pile diagonally across the board. Now arrange the slices of breast along one side of the rice, and the legs and wings on the opposite side. Leave a dividing gap between the two ‘lines’ of chicken, and then arrange the cucumber all down the central gap. Done.
- Set the board on your dining table with a couple of serving spoons, and the trio of sauces presented alongside in pretty little bowls. All that’s now left to do is to encourage folks to help themselves.
8 ounces fresh root ginger
10 – 12 medium size scallions / spring onions – choose the freshest you can find, with lovely, crisp green leaves
14 cloves garlic
6 tablespoons sesame oil
And, although it’s only used for frying the rice, you will need a few tablespoons of schmalz – that’s pure, clarified, flavorful chicken fat.
You’ll also need 20 or so ice cubes, a good size wooden board for serving the whole dish, and a heavy, sharp – and I mean sharp – carving knife for the chicken.