In Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
Hainanese chicken rice may be the quintessential chicken dish, superior to any other—and I’m including fried chicken. While fried chicken is an easy dish to love, you can’t deny that the meat itself is little more than a conveyor of fried chicken’s main draw: crispy skin. The allure of Hainanese chicken, on the other hand, is a celebration of chicken’s natural flavor and texture. The dish is cooked without much fuss—a young, plump chicken is poached in stock before being dunked in an ice bath—which means what you’re enjoying is simply the pure, delicious essence of chicken.
When you sink your teeth into a piece of Hainanese chicken, you’re getting a double whammy of the sweet and savory tenderness of the meat and the slippery succulence of the skin. That flaccidness may throw off Westerners not used to that texture, but it’s revered in Asian cultures. The Hainanese chicken experience is heightened by a mouthful of the accompanying rice—perhaps equally if not more important that the chicken itself—which is made by frying rice grains in chicken fat before being boiled in chicken stock and a handful of herbs including pandan. This leaves you with such golden, flavorful rice that you’ll understand why Singapore and Malaysia have crossed cleavers over the ownership of Hainanese chicken rice.
Brought over to Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand by migrants from the Chinese island of Hainan in the mid-19th century, contemporary Hainanese chicken rice is the descendant of Wenchang chicken, a Hainanese dish made by boiling the local free-range chickens known for their small but fleshy bodies. According to Singaporean food expert KF Seetoh of street food culture site Makansutra, the Hainanese were among the last groups of migrants from China, and by the time they arrived in Singapore, the other industries had already been taken over, leaving the Hainanese to either work as domestic helpers or sell food.
Since Hainanese food wasn’t well-known back then, they adapted to the local tastes, innovating with an ice bath to lock chicken juices and prevent them from escaping, cooking the rice with stock to add flavor, and adding a thick, sweet soy sauce, a chili sauce, in addition to the classic ginger sauce that is usually served with Wenchang chicken. (Today, that trio of sauces is mandatory with every plate.) As Seetoh observed, Hainanese chicken rice isn’t actually very Hainanese at all.
The dish has since become one of, if not the national dish of Singapore, and as a dish reinvented in a country full of migrants, its heritage is terribly important to the country’s identity and culture. Seetoh summed it up: “Almost every Singaporean is a chicken rice expert.” The local pride in chicken rice has spawned both a 2000 movie called Chicken Rice War and an actual war of words when a declaration in 2009 from then-Malaysia Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen claimed that chicken rice belonged to Malaysia caused outrage.
I’m not going to step into this minefield and potentially endanger my chicken rice access in either country, but it’s worth noting that the father of the Hainanese chicken rice industry in both Malaysia and Singapore was a Singaporean vendor in the 1940s called Wong Yi Guan, also known by the very Singaporean nickname of “Uncle Commie” for his habit of giving chicken away to the needy. Uncle Commie started off selling chicken rice from baskets he carried with a bamboo pole over his shoulder and eventually saved up enough money to open his “Commie Chicken” hawker stall.
Although Uncle Commie was its first vendor, Hainanese chicken rice only became popular after his apprentice, Moh Lee Twee, opened his own shop, Swee Kee. Swee Kee, which shut its doors in 1997 after three decades, created such a demand for chicken rice that other vendors seized onto the opportunity and an industry was born.
Nowadays, the title of best chicken rice hawker stall in Singapore is bitterly contested, with food blogs and publications conducting regular best-of lists, which are often followed by objections from commenters. Singaporean food writer Dr. Leslie Tay of ieat.ishoot.ipost believes that in general, most chicken rice stalls in Singapore make decent chicken rice and are differentiated only by their sauces since most of the stalls get their chickens from Malaysia. “We used to have better chicken when Swee Kee was around,” he said.
Seetoh concurred, lamenting that the old techniques of cooking chicken rice have been lost, with even the art of choosing the right chicken—a technique that includes poking the chicken’s ass to determine its quality—is gone.
Although Singaporeans have their individual preferences when it comes to chicken rice, all will agree that chicken meat should be supple and juicy, whether it’s white or dark meat, and the skin should have a gelatinized texture, one that comes from its ice bath. Dr. Tay believes that the best chicken has skin with a slippery, “lively” feel along with a good layer of gelatin formed from the chicken collagen.
The chicken should also be chopped into evenly sized pieces without messy bone fragments (although some places will debone the chicken first), each piece with its own complete set of skin, fat, and meat. Seetoh said that it should be served at room temperature or “nearer to cold” to contrast with the hot rice and soup.
Then there’s the rice, which should be glossy and luscious but not cloyingly oily. Dr. Tay advised that the grains ought to be plump and whole and that the essence of chicken can be discerned from the smell of the steaming hot rice alone.
And finally, the sauces. Many stalls in Singapore live and die by their homemade chili sauce, and the exact blend of chilies, lime juice, ginger, oil and other ingredients are ferociously guarded. Ultimately, though, Dr. Tay emphasized that the deliciousness of chicken rice all comes down to how the three different elements—chicken, rice, and sauces—combine together.
Hainanese chicken rice can be found in most major U.S. cities, and with its simple cooking method, it’s not too difficult to make the dish at home as well. There’s only one problem—most American chickens are bred for size, and as such, taste comparatively bland and flavorless compared to its Southeast Asian counterparts. It’s the superior breed of chicken, plus its method of preparation accentuating those flavors, that makes Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore and Malaysia the apotheosis of chicken dishes—maybe worldwide. As Seetoh told me, “We Singaporeans say, ‘If you don’t know what to eat, you eat chicken rice.’”