海南鸡饭 Hainanese Chicken Rice
Ask for recommendations to local delights from Singapore and surely a couple of familiar names would pop up! Chilli Crab, Katong Laksa, Rojak, Bak Kut Teh and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice comes immediately to mind! Despite its name, Hainanese Chicken Rice actually has its roots in Singapore. Well, others may fervently swear by Malaysia as the point of origin but we ain’t gonna bicker about that because it would be utterly pointless and no one really cares! And could someone please drill that notion into Ng Yen Yen? Anyway, one thing we know for sure is, Hainanese Chicken Rice did not come from Hainan Island! Well, there is a version there callede 文昌鸡 Wen Chang Chicken, which bears a remote resemblance to what we are accustomed to seeing and eating over here. This is just one of the very many food-naming idiosyncrasies, much like how 星洲炒米粉 Singapore-styled Fried Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli), a very popular 大排档 roadside hawker dish in Hong Kong, characterised by the liberal use of curry powder, is quite virtually non-existential here in the city state!
Hainanese Chicken Rice and I go back a long way, as far as my recollectable memory has it. Having resided at Jalan Tenteram when I was young, Whampoa Wet Market and Food Centre was only a stone’s throw away, home to many delectable authentic hawker fare like char kway teow, orh luak (oyster omelette), cantonese porridge and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice. And Balestier Road’s long trail of bak kut teh and even more Hainanese Chicken Rice joints were just around the corner, not too far away. Despite the proximity of this plethora of good food, my family didn’t dine here that often, simply because we couldn’t afford to. Our flat at Jalan Tentaram was a one-bedroom rental apartment. As much as we could, my family had our meals at home largely as its cheaper that way. And it often meant cooking the day’s meal during lunch and a quick reheating of the pre-cooked dinner portion, to save on gas. Our family was poor, but never unhappy as my parents, especially my mother doted on my sister and I. We had several brushes with poverty to the point of being excruciating but there’s one episode which struck me the most and it has to do with Hainanese Chicken Rice.
It was crunch time, several months just before one of the biggest hurdles of my life, “A”-level examinations. Several friends and I often stayed back in school, which then opened til very late, to mug for the exams. And that often meant settling dinner outside. I didn’t have that much pocket money then and being all hungry, I did what I thought was the wittiest thing to do. I went to a Hainanese Chicken Rice stall at a coffeeshop near my school and asked for a packet of rice without meat. A packet of chicken rice then cost 2 dollars while a bowl of rice would only be 50 cents. The stall owner auntie looked rather bewildered at first, but understood my intentions and sold it to me nonetheless. And I did this repeatedly over the next couple of days, to curb my hunger while studying and it worked perfectly. Her husband. the 头手 “tao chew” uncle who was in charge of chopping the chicken would “casually” throw in scraps of skin and neck from roasted chicken for free, since they were not meant to be sold anyway. He even asked if I wanted the parson’s nose, which I politely declined of course. I didnt know it was such a delicacy then! Alas, “exam mugging dinner” during that time was plain chicken rice with whatever scraps of roasted chicken skin and meat from the neck and lots of cucumber slices, together with 2 big packets of fresh garlic chilli sauce stirred in. My mother, being the clever woman she was, got rather suspicious as I’d often come home to tell her that I’d already had dinner, because she knew that whatever daily pocket money I had would not suffice lunch and dinner altogether. Finally one evening, she asked what I had for dinner. Thinking that it was a rather clever thing to do, I told her about the “chicken rice without chicken dinners” story. She felt silent for quite a while and then began to weep. I was initially worried that she was being angry with me for skipping dinners at home. But I soon realised that she was being frustrated with herself. It was then, that I told myself that as much as I could, and as fast as I could, I must not make myself or my family feel poor anymore…
The recipe I’d been using is a simple one, albeit having tweaked it many times over the years. And I foresee that it would still continue to “evolve” and change in years to come. It may not produce exactly the same results to that of what the famous chicken rice joints offer but I’m personally quite happy with it at the moment. Until another inspiration comes along for me to make modifications to it once again. So if you have suggestions or tips to making it better, I would most certainly love to hear it from you!
海南鸡饭 Hainanese Chicken Rice (serves 4 – 6)
1 medium-sized chicken appro. 1.2 – 1.4 kg
1 knob of ginger, thumb-length sliced appro. 2-3 thick slices
1 bulb of garlic, outermost layers of papery membrane removed, leaving inner layers intact
water, enough to submerge chicken in a pot
1 tbsp of shaoxing wine
1 tbsp of sesame oil
2-3 chicken liver (optional)
2) Chilli Dipping Sauce
3 large chillies desseeded and chopped coarsely
1 cili padi i.e. bird’s eye chilli (optional), deseeded and chopped coarsely
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 knob of ginger, thumb-length eeled and chopped coarsely
5 large calamansi lime, juiced into a small bowl
1-2 tbsp of sugar
1/4 tsp salt
3) Homemade Chicken Rice Paste
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 knob of ginger, thumb-length peeled and chopped coarsely
5 shallots, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 stalk of lemongrass, outmost layer removed and cut in half. Discard the top greenish part as only the lower white part is used.
Half a cup of cooking oil
1 cube of chicken bouillon, equivalent amount of chicken powder (I used Knorr’s MSG-free essence of Chicken stockcube)
4) Chicken Rice
3 cups of long-grain rice, e.g. jasmine rice rinsed
3 cups of chicken stock from cooking chicken (see 1)
Ginger and garlic from cooking chicken (see 1)
2 generous tbsp of Homemade Chicken Rice Paste (see 3)
4-6 pandan leaves, rinsed and tied into a knot
5) Drizzling sauce
2 tbsp light soya sauce
1/2 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp hot water or chicken stock
6) Topping and Garnish
Thick black soy sauce (酱油膏)
1 sprig of chinese coriander, leaves with a bit of stalk
1 stalk of spring onion, cut lengthwise into long strips. Submerged in ice water
1 cucumber, cut lengthwise into quarters, deseeded and sliced
2 tomatoes, sliced
Clean and rinse chicken thoroughly and remove any stray feathers, especially around wings and parson’s nose.
Place chicken in a deep pot and pour sufficient water to completely immerse chicken by at least 1 inch.
Remove chicken from the pot and set aside. Make sure that the intestinal cavity is drained properly.
Add garlic, ginger into pot of water and bring to a fast boil.
Carefully lower chicken into the pot of boiling water, breast-side down. Turn the flame down to a gentle simmer for 10 min, lid on.
Turn off heat and let stand for 15 min.
Remove cover, rotate to rib-side down, cover lid and let stand for another 10 min.
Remove chicken carefully from pot, making sure that the intestinal cavity is drained properly once again.
Rub the skin with shaoxing wine, followded by sesame oil.
If chicken liver is used, simply ladle about 2-3 cups of chicken stock into another smaller pot.
Bring the stock to a boil and add chicken liver. Top up with water if necessary.
Bring everything to a boil once more and lower heat to let it simmer for 1 min.
Turn off flame and let everything stand for 10 min.
Remove from liquid, rinse with tap water and set aside to cool.
While the chicken was steeping in the pot of hot water, prepare the homemade chicken rice paste.
Place all the ingredients in a good blender and blitz to form a smooth paste. Add a small portion of cooking oil if necessary to bind and homogenise everything together.
Heat up a wok with remaining cooking oil.
Add ingredients which had been blended into a paste and gently fry under lowest heat possible until aromatic.
Dish into a bowl and set aside.
To prepare rice, first carefully ladle and skim off 3 cups of hot chicken stock containing the layer of oil floating on top into a rice cooker.
Place rice into pot together with 2 tablespoons of homemade chicken rice paste, gently stirring the rice with the paste to mix thoroughly.
Add ginger and garlic from the cooking chicken stock and knotted pandan leaves.
Let the mixture sit for 10 min.
Turn on rice cooker and let it cook until the rice is done.
While the rice is cooking, prepare the chilli dipping sauce.
Place all the ingredients into a food blender and blitz everything until a smooth paste is formed. Add a tbsp of water or chicken stock if the mixture is too clumpy, but this shouldn’t be necessary.
Transfer into sauce dishes or a small bowl and set aside.
When the chicken has cooled down to more or less room temperature, chop into pieces and debone as desired. Cut chicken liver and arrange in serving plate.
Reserve chicken bones and set aside.
Mix ingredients from “drizzling sauce” in a small bowl, making sure that the sugar is well dissolved. Taste and adjust flavours accordingly with more condiments. Gently drizzle the sauce over chicken and liver, garnish with cucumber slices, tomato slices, coriander and spring onion.
To serve rice, scoop rice into serving bowl and invert onto a shallow plate.
Serve with chilli dipping sauce and thick dark soya sauce.
The bones and remaining chicken stock can be used to make “Cabbage and Fish Maw Soup” which requires very little time to whip up. Simple and yet delicious!
1/2 a beijing cabbage (do not use white cabbage as they are less flavourful), rinsed and chopped into large pieces.
Bones and rib rack from chicken
Remaining chicken stock from cooking chicken
Fish maw, presoaked
10-12 fresh fish balls
dash of pepper
pinch of salt to taste
sprinkle of chopped spring onions and chinese coriander leaves
Return chicken bones and rib rack to chicken stock and top up with water if necessary.
Bring the soup base up to a boil.
Meanwhile, rinse fish maw thoroughly in warm water and squeeze gently to remove as much oil as possible. Cut into bite-size chunks
When the soup base comes to a rolling boil, add cut cabbage, fish maw, fish balls.
Lower flame to medium low and let it simmer, lid on, for 10-20 min.
Add salt to taste
Ladle into a bowl, sprinkle with pepper, chopped greens and serve immediately.
The choice of chicken is rather important for this dish. Though most families are small nowadays, do not choose a chicken that is less than 1.2kg. Hence no spring chickens please as they are quite tasteless and drab, despite the meat being ever so tender and best batter-fried or perhaps roasted. So do use a reasonably sized chicken, even when your family might not be able to finish it in one sitting. The remaining meat can be shredded and used for other dishes from a simple 鸡丝皮蛋粥 Shredded Chicken and Century Egg Porridge, 鸡丝香菇面 Shredded Chicken and Mushroom Noodles, to more elaborated dishes like 本邦扣三鲜, a signature Shanghainese dish, or my favorite 四川手撕鸡 Szechuan Spicy Shredded Chicken! Having said that, do not use chicken which are too big as the meat would be overtly tough and fibrous. When in doubt, tell the market poultry seller that you are cooking Hainanese Chicken Rice and ask for recommendations.
The steeping method after turning off the flame ensures that the meat remains extremely moist and juicy after cooking. This is the traditional method of cooking 白斩鸡 Poached Chicken or 贵妃醉鸡 Drunken Chicken for its much-desired soft and succulent textures. However, do note that the chicken, though cooked would still bear a hint of pink especially near the bone. This is perfectly normal. However, if this is a concern, especially for young children and those with a weak constitution or simply haemophobic, cook the chicken through by perpetuating the gentle simmer intead of turning off the flame. The addition of shaoxing wine as a skinrub is entirely my own idiosyncratic nuance. I do like a slight hint of alcohol, reminiscent of 贵妃醉鸡 Drunken Chicken with all its wonderful shaoxing aroma. But this can be entirely omitted if one favours otherwise.
The texture of rice is important and it takes quite a bit of experience to get it done properly. Each rice grain should be individually separable but yet cooked properly to the core without any hint of grainy hardness. It should be moist and slightly oily but not mushy and cloying. So do experiment with your own rice cooker and prepare to your own liking. Skim as much fat out of the chicken stock as possible to cook the rice. In the past, I used to get chicken fat from my neighbourhood poultry seller, especially the fat glands around the paron’s nose. He gave it to me for free since it is mostly discarded anyway. Render the fatty bits over low heat to get as much of the oil out as possible and add it to the rice, the flavours and ooomph the fat provides are unbelievable! But as one gets older and become more health conscious, chicken fat soon became a commodity of lavishness and luxury. But I guess an “once-in–a-blue-moon” kinda indulgence is permissible yeah?
Calamansi juice is used to prepare the chilli dipping sauce, as I was taught so eons ago. most chicken rice stalls and storebought bottled chilli sauce uses vinegar (ethanoic acid/acetic acid) instead which simply doesn’t make the cut. Try it with calamansi and you would wanna go back to bottled ones ever again. Deseed or not to dessed, this is entirely up to one’s personal preference. Although I love the fiery qualities the seeds impart, I find them rather jarring when they get stuck between the teeth. So I generally remove the seeds. Chili padi is more than sufficient for the heat. So please use sparingly!!! Sometimes, I omit the smaller variety altogether as it could mask the other components in the taste profile, even ingredients with robust flavours like garlic and ginger. Unlike you are a chicken rice chilli fanatic like me, the portion from the recipe above is more than what’s normally eaten over one meal. So do use whatever’s need for consumption for the meal and bottle the rest and refrigerate. As the ingredients are all fresh with no addition of preservatives or bacteria-fungal suppressing agents, finish it as soon as possible.
I love liver, with that lovely creamy textures. It cannot be cooked for too long as it would become tough and somewhat powdery.But once again, its one of those things which one can only eat with moderation and modular control! Life is such a bitch!
Almost a decade after graduating from college, I was back in that area again. Needless to say, I had to visit that chicken rice stall once more, to visit the couple and thank them for their generosity and kindness to me, the poor JC student then. The auntie recognised me instantly, as the “ah boy who bought chicken rice without chicken”. We chatted quite a bit and I tasted their chicken rice again once more. Alas the wonderfully familiar aroma…I didn’t see the “tao chew” uncle. Instead it was a young son helming the stall over the chopping board which I later knew to be her son. “Tao chew” uncle passed away a couple of years ago. Bless his soul…