I feel a bit bashful for putting up a recipe for Chicken Rice. There are countless versions on the internet, many handed down from mothers or mums’ mums, others gleaned from chefs who sell chicken rice for a living, and most written by Chinese, and rightly so because Chicken Rice as we know it is Hainanese in origin. And if you didn’t know (though I’m sure you do. Right?) the Hainanese are Chinese.
But here I am, this Malay chick who looks sort of Chinese, whose accent has an identity crisis, who’s spent more than half her life away from her non-birthplace of Singapore, is going to share with you her version of Hainanese Chicken Rice.
At this point, I’m writing this post to myself because I’m sure at the end of that last paragraph, anyone reading would have shut their browser tab on me. So I console myself that this post is for me to remember, for posterity, for my children when they’re grown, given I’m still around to pay for my domain.
Interestingly, this is one recipe I don’t have written down in my tattered notebook of hand written recipes, I’ve made it often enough that I remember what to add to it every time I make this dish. But also, Chicken Rice is actually really, really simple to make, it just takes a bit of care and attention. Don’t turn your back on the stove, you want to see exactly when the stock reaches a boil, at which point you turn it down to the gentlest of simmers. Seriously, that’s the hardest part, everything else is a cinch.
I’m sure you know by now from your readings on the internet, that the Chicken Rice we speak of is peculiar to Singapore and Malaysia, but originates in the Hainan province of China and was imported by some of our, ahem, pioneer immigrants. Yes, it is essentially poached whole chicken served with rice cooked in chicken stock, and as simple and boring as that sounds the combination of flavours, sing. Like, really sing, like Beyoncé Patti LaBelle Pavarotti sing. No Chicken Rice of value can be served without its condiments, ie, soy sauce, sesame oil, freshly made chilli sauce, and ginger dressing. Certainly there are other versions of Chicken Rice that can be found in Singapore, and maybe Malaysia too, that are prepared differently and served differently, known as Nasi Ayam or perhaps also Nasi Ayam Penyet. Yes, both translate as Chicken Rice, and one has the added element of its chicken being squashed for whatever reason I can’t fathom and served with sambal belacan, but these are Malay translations where inevitably deep frying is involved, good in their own right but should not be mistaken for the Hainanese variant. They also taste different; Nasi Ayam uses onion in its recipe and has a slightly sweeter flavour compared to Hainanese Chicken Rice which does not have onion but does include spring onion/scallion/green onion in the stock.
I never really paid attention to the making of Chicken Rice until we moved to New Delhi a few years ago and were involved in selling chicken rice as part of an informal representation of Singapore. It was for an International Fair to raise funds for charity and was a major team effort amongst the colleagues of my husband and all the spouses. The first year, we sold Chicken Rice, Nonya Laksa, Soto, Pandan flavoured cupcakes (thanks to yours truly who, whilst pregnant, made over 200, frosted and sprinkled!) and drinks. Subsequent years saw much of the same menu with a few changes (I didn’t make cupcakes again), but the point is, everybody chipped in as we cooked absolutely massive amounts, and despite that, the stall always sold out.
So because of the fair I learned two ways to cook chicken rice, one from the personal cook of our first boss, and the other from the cooks of successor-boss and each time it was they who were in charge of the chicken rice for the fair (mainly because they had the biggest kitchens, built for regular entertaining of large crowds). Subsequently I learned from another spouse who was my neighbour and who swears by her own method one she had developed over decades. I was doing a lot of chicken rice reading as well by this time, but the one that stuck in my mind the most was the recipe by Adam Liaw, the Malaysian Australian winner of MasterChef Australia. Then I remembered that in 2007 I had taken notes from our cooking lesson at The Raffles Hotel in Singapore (we were sent there, along with other officers and spouses, for a crash course in Singapore cooking before going on our postings abroad). But the most recent lesson was, unexpectedly, from waiting in line at the Chicken Rice queue one day at Changi Airport Terminal 3.
I knew at the time that that was the last chance I’d get to order Chicken Rice in Singapore before we were to leave for Jeddah, as the following days running up to our departure were already scheduled to the brim and there wouldn’t be another opportunity. And it was for this reason too that I decided to order a second plate for myself, something I don’t ordinarily do. As I stood in line saying my silent goodbyes, eyes wandering taking mental photographs of everything, I noticed the kitchen guy holding lemongrass and pandan leaves in his fist while he stirred a pot that had something sizzling in it. As I stared, I realised he was at the initial step of cooking the rice, which is to fry it before adding the stock and he was holding a stalk of lemongrass and pandan, waiting, I speculated, to chuck it into the pot along with the stock. I was intrigued; I’d always eaten this stall’s chicken rice and liked it, and these were ingredients I’d never tried adding to my rice though I’d vaguely known of this method, but seeing him about to, and knowing how it tastes, I told myself these are two additions that I ought to try next time I cook Chicken Rice. Then front of house guy put my plate of chicken rice in front of me, and as I picked it up to walk away, kitchen guy turned his face away from the pot he was watching and repeatedly coughed towards the rest of the kitchen.
For the most part, I follow Adam Liaw’s timings and instruction for poaching the bird, keeping it between 1.2 and 1.5kg and it works well. I’ve read on many blogs, including Adam Liaw’s, the step of stuffing the bird with the ginger and garlic and spring onion; I do this too, but stop at trying to sew the bird’s bum shut after stuffing it. The point of the gentle poaching method, according to my neighbour in Delhi, is so that the meat doesn’t overcook, it remains tender, and the skin (the best part for some) doesn’t split and start ripping all over the place, a sign of over doneness. I don’t do this myself, but once the bird is cooked, many swear by dunking in an ice bath to halt cooking and for the skin to take on a gelatinous texture, in fact, a layer of jelly forms between the muscle and the skin of the bird, a sign of good technique and to many Chinese the favourite part of Chicken Rice. Said neighbour insists on using a pot large enough such that the bird is completely submerged in water. Cook of first boss taught us to poach with a small pot that just barely covered the bird. I have used both methods (also because I only have one medium pot for now), and to me, both were delicious, and the stock from the smaller pot understandably was more flavourful. Some will debone the entire bird and serve beautifully deboned chicken on a platter, which I have done in the past, but recently I’ve given up this step in favour of sitting down and simply stuffing my face. You can find several youtube videos of Chinese cooks expertly deboning whole chicken with cleavers in mere seconds like it was butter, pretty friggin awesome.
Don’t forget, before poaching, to snip off some fat from the chicken’s rear end to render down for cooking the rice. The chef at Raffles Hotel fried it up briefly for about 3-4 minutes along with whole garlic cloves and a knob of ginger before adding the rice and then adding the stock. Adam Liaw dedicates an hour to rendering chopped up skin and fat slowly until the skin browns and crisps up (which I then crumble over chicken soup noodles the next day). Both techniques are delicious. I remember at the Raffles Hotel lesson being completely stunned at how such few ingredients were needed to result in that unmistakeable savoury aroma that is Chicken Rice.
The stock is the basis for everything, and if you follow the instructions to cook low and slow, the stock will be completely clear, as it should be. Use this stock to add body to the chilli sauce (don’t be alarmed if you find yellowy lumps that weren’t there before you stored the left over chilli in the fridge, it’s fat from the stock; just reheat gently and all will be right again). Use the stock to cook the rice. Add some chunks of carrot to whatever is left and serve it alongside the plate of chicken rice for slurping (carrots are not traditional but I put it in the stock for my Malay chicken rice, along with celery, and always felt it added a lovely, sweet dimension to the slurping. Also a Cantonese friend of mine, and expert cook, kept refilling her bowl with this soup so obviously I feel very proud). Or make chicken congee the next day using the stock, or chicken soup noodle, always a favourite and as easy as instant noodles but miles better.
The chilli sauce is a hybrid recipe of another neighbour of mine (who also adds chicken stock granules for umami, trust the Malaysian Chinese for their excellent cooking skills), and the Raffles Hotel chef. Try to find Southeast Asian chillies, the flavour is more accurate, although Indian chillies are fine if you can’t. Try not to use Scotch Bonnets, those taste entirely different. The ginger sauce I’ve blatantly taken from the cook of our second boss during our time in Delhi. Enjoy!!!
P.s. If you’re not from southeast asia, and are one to think anything Asian is exotic, please, please do not eat this with chopsticks, it is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Grab a fork and spoon and shovel it in! Reserve the chopsticks for regular steamed rice if you must be ‘authentic’.
p.p.s. this is me making ginger dressing: