It’s chicken, and it’s rice.
I know. Understanding the “big deal” about Hainanese Chicken Rice is a bit of a stretch of the imagination. But as we all know from the delicious simplicity of Italian food, the tastiness of a perfectly ripe fruit, and (for us coffee lovers) the excitement of the PERFECT CUP OF COFFEE . . . simplicity in food is an art, and most certainly a desired trait in most of my favorite meals. So with this in mind (and, of course, fresh off re-watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on this dish), we wandered through Singapore in search of the “perfect” chicken rice.
Singaporean cuisine, like its culture, is a melting pot of cultures and foods. The figurative “pot” in this cultural mosaic is the Hawker Center: a large covered area that reminds me of the pavilions we visited once a year for the local fair.
Vendors line up along the sides of the hawker center, each one specializing in one thing. You get your coffee from the coffee man; your Indian appetizer from the vindalu man; your mango lassi from the mango lassi guy. And you get chicken rice from this guy: Tian Tian Hianenese Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Center.
A five-minute wait in line (along with some other excited, food-loving tourists), and less than $4 later, we were staring at a plate of chicken, rice, and soup. A plastic plate. On a plastic tray. (Hey: hawker centers are the “fast food” of Singapore . . . what more did I expect?)
There are times when something is so hyped that you actually wonder before you take a bite if you will truly love this dish, or if you will trick yourself into thinking it is incredible because everyone (even Mr. Bourdain) has said it is. And there are times when you taste the dish and realize that you do not need a celebrity chef, a Trip Advisor review, or a travel book to know that something is good because . . . it just is. Thankfully, this was the case with Tian Tian’s Chicken Rice. The rice was delicious and flavorful, the chicken had a delicious texture, and the broth was perfectly light. We haven’t stopped talking about Tian Tian’s Hiananese Chicken Rice since our trip to Singapore.
After being home for a while, we were really craving this dish. I was hesitant to try my hand at making Hainanese Chicken Rice because there have been so many times that we have failed at recreating the flavors of a dish we had on our travels. Luckily, my cravings got the better of me! As it turns out, this is actually an incredibly simple dish to make. (Check out the list of ingredients: surprisingly few items are required!) What you truly need is some time (about an hour; perhaps more the first time around), and of course, a very high quality chicken.
Hainanese Chicken Rice Recipe
For the chicken and broth
- 1 small chicken (3- to 3 1/2-lb)
- 3 teaspoons salt (1 for chicken; 2 for the broth)
- 4 qt water
- 4 slices fresh ginger (1/8-inch-thick)
- 1 bunch or 1 (4-oz) bag watercress, coarse stems discarded OR radish sprouts
For the chile sauce
- 3 (3- to 3 1/2-inch-long) fresh hot red Thai chiles, chopped
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped peeled fresh ginger
- 2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup fresh lime juice
- 2 cups jasmine rice
- 4 shallots, thinly sliced
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
- Garnish: fresh cilantro leaves or sprigs
Chicken and broth:
- Trim any excess fat off the chicken that you can. This will be reserved for the rice.
- Rub the chicken inside and out with salt.
- Place 2 teaspoons salt and the ginger in a large (6- to 8-quart) pot that is large enough to hold a chicken. Bring the water/salt/ginger to a boil.
- When the water has reached a boil, place the chicken in the water (breast down). Cover and bring the water to a boil again.
- Once the water reaches a boil, bring it down to a simmer and only partially cover the pot. Simmer for 20 minutes. While the chicken is cooking, prepare your chile sauce (see below).
- After the 20 minutes is up, remove the pot from the heat and allow it to sit in the hot broth (covered) for another 20 minutes. If you chicken is small, you might want to consider 15 minutes. Prepare your ice bath (a large bowl of ice and cold water.) During this 15-20 minute wait, move on to cooking your rice. (See below.)
- Dunk the chicken into the ice bath and turn it over to make sure that all sides have come in contact with the ice and that the chicken has cooled. Make sure to save the water in the pot: this will be your broth!
- Once the chicken has cooled, drain it and let it set aside.
Using a food processor (or a spice/coffee grinder), combine all of the ingredients and pulse until they are mixed.
- Remember the chicken fat you saved? Cook it in a large saucepan over medium heat until you render all of the fat from it. This is your flavor! Discard the remaining solids that do not render.
- Add the shallots to the fat (still over medium heat) and cook until browned. Add garlic and cook for just one minute. Add the rice and cook for an additional minute. (Make sure that you washed your rice!)
- Add three cups of the broth to the rice and allow it to come to a boil. Let it continue to boil for about three minutes.
- Lower the heat to a low simmer and cook for 15 minutes (covered). Let it stand (off the heat) for five minutes. Fluff with a fork.
Putting it all together:
- Spoon the rice onto a plate. Chop the chicken and place on top of the rice.
- Did you notice that we still haven’t used two ingredients: the soy sauce and sesame oil? Stir them together. Drizzle this over the chicken.
- Take 6 cups from the broth. Add the watercress (or radish sprouts) and bring to a boil. Simmer for one minute, then remove from the heat to allow the flavors to infuse for another five minutes.
- Serve the chile sauce on the side.