Singaporean Cuisine: Hainanese Chicken Rice

Singapore has a true melting pot culture.  Malays (the “native” Singaporeans), Chinese, Indians, English, Portuguese, Sri Lankans, Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Arabs have all at one time or another come to Singapore en masse and left their mark on the culture, especially the food.  Food is a national obsession in Singapore, the most common conversational topic, and a matter of great national pride.

Singapore quick facts:

  • Capital: Singapore
  • Population: 5,399,200 (2013 estimate)
  • Notable Singaporeans: Fann Wong, Ivan Heng

Many popular foods in Singapore have their origins in one of the cultures that have immigrated to the tiny island.  Several generations of exposure to Singapore’s other cultures (and respective techniques and ingredients) have often left these dishes unrecognizable compared to the original versions.  This is especially obvious in Singapore’s food courts, large indoor malls of food stalls.  Singapore is tiny and crowded, and home kitchens are as a result very small, so these inexpensive, fresh meals are hugely popular.  Malay, Indian, Mandarin, and Cantonese vendors hawk their foods side-by-side, creating not only stiff competition but a free exchange of successful ideas.

One of the most popular hawker foods in Singapore is Hainanese chicken rice (recipe follows).  Singaporean immigrants from the Hainan province of China brought the dish with them decades ago, and since then it has evolved on its own.  In Hainan, where it is called Wenchang chicken, boiled whole chickens are cut into bite-sized pieces and dipped in a ginger-heavy spice mixture.  The Singaporean version still has the boiled whole chicken and the bite-sized pieces, but has also added a couple of different (better, if we’re honest) dipping condiments, sambal oelek (red chilies crushed into a paste) and kecap manis (sweetened soy sauce), both found in abundance in Malay cuisine.  Furthermore, the flavorful broth created from simmering the chickens is used to make a rich, chickeny rice to go on the side.

Hainanese chicken rice

adapted from the July 2007 issue of Saveur

For the chicken:

  • 1 4 pound whole chicken
  • 1 3″ piece ginger, peeled and crushed
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1 green onion
  • 1-2 Tbs salt
  • 5 quarts water

For the rice:

  • 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
  • 2 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 3 shallots, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt
  • 3 cups chicken broth (retained from chicken simmering liquid)

To serve:

  • Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce available in Asian markets, can be homemade with equal parts by volume soy sauce and brown sugar heated just until the sugar dissolves)
  • Sambal oelek (Malay/Indonesian crushed chili paste)
  • Ginger sauce (recipe follows)
  • Sliced cucumbers
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Julienned carrots
  • Cilantro leaves

First the chicken ingredients were prepared and gathered:

wholechickenready

Next the chicken was rubbed with a generous coating of salt, inside and out:

saltingthechicken
It was important to be generous with the salt here, since it would be relied upon to season the chicken and the broth.

Next the green onion (which was tied into a knot; one thing we’ve learned about Southeast Asian cookery is that they love to tie green things in knots), ginger, and garlic were stuffed into the cavity of our chicken:

stuffingthechicken

…and the legs were tied together with kitchen twine to hold everything inside while it simmered:

tyingthechicken

Meanwhile, five quarts of water were simmering on the stove ready for the bird:

chickeninwater

The heat was increased to medium-high until the water was back to a simmer (having been cooled by the introduction of the chicken), then reduced to medium-low, the pot covered, and our chicken cooked gently for about fifteen minutes.  At this time there was some skimming of surface scum to be done:

brothreadytoskim

Once the scum was removed, the chicken was flipped over:

chickenflipped

…and simmered another fifteen minutes until fully cooked but still moist and tender:

chickendone

The chicken was removed from the broth (the broth saved for the rice with any leftovers going into jars in the refrigerator for later use) and covered in foil to keep warm while we worked on the rice.  First, the garlic, shallots, and rice were measured and prepared:

riceingredients

The oil was heated in a heavy pan over medium heat, and once hot the shallots and garlic were added:

softeningaromatics

Once the garlic and shallots were softened and fragrant, about four minutes later, the rice was added and stirred to coat with oil.  Three cups of the still-hot broth from the chicken pot were added and brought to a gentle boil.  The heat was then reduced to low, the pot covered, and the rice simmered for twenty minutes until it was tender and fluffy:

ricecooked

While the rice was cooking (and after the chicken had cooled a bit, importantly) Angie got to work pulling the tender meat off the chicken carcass and cutting it into bite-sized pieces:

pullingapartchicken

Once the chicken was cut we were ready to serve, setting our sauces in small bowls alongside a large bowl of chicken, two bowls of rice, a nice bowl of our vegetable garnishes, and of course a couple of Singaporean lagers:

hainanesechickenrice
Center: chicken. Clockwise from upper left: Tiger lagers; tomatoes, cilantro, carrots, cucumbers; rice bowls; kecap manis; sambal oelek; ginger sauce (recipe follows).

 

Ginger sauce for Hainanese chicken

adapted from the July 2007 Saveur

Combine the following ingredients:

  • 2 Tbs crushed fresh ginger
  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil
  • a pinch of salt

We had never boiled a whole chicken before, and were surprised at just how tender and moist it ended up.  Hainanese chicken rice is served in Singapore with the chicken either hot, at room temperature, or chilled.  We opted to refrigerate ours and serve the chicken cold, which would have been terrible with a dry, tough bird, but ours was wonderful.  The great thing about the dish is that the diner can use the condiments and garnishes however he or she chooses, as there are dozens of possible combinations of chicken, rice, vegetables, and sauces available.  Our favorite combos were chicken with kecap manis or with sambal and a cucumber slice, or rice with a bit of chicken on top with ginger sauce and sambal.  Spicy, salty, sweet, cool, and crunchy flavors and textures were layered on top of each other in whichever permutations we felt like trying, and everything was delicious.

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