Hainan Chicken Rice – foodie chat trivia

Last weekend I went out to shop for pork belly, but the butcher shop closed earlier than I had expected. Ended up at the local Moroccan halal butcher, buying entirely different ingredients. Came home with two fresh Halal broilers to prepare Hainan Chicken Rice 海南鸡反 for dinner. A family favourite dish with loads of stories attached, where to go to sample and taste, and company who joined. Asians habitually talk about food, so everyone chimes in to share at the table with fellow travellers and foodies.

Once upon a time… of course it’s not a fairy tale, but this dish has a long history. An old saying “Whoever wants to go to China must cross the Seven Seas” opening up food chat trivia with many questions and even more answers. This Chinese dish must have accompanied Admiral Zheng He with his treasure fleet on his expeditionary voyages. Throughout south-, south-east Asia all the way till the east coast of Africa from 1405 till 1433. Diaspora of Chinese communities emerged far from home with immigrants bringing with them their skills and reminders of home in preparing comfort food.

Let’s jump forward in time, across the Pacific Ocean at the beginning of the 19th century first immigrants arrived known in American history as Chinese railroad workers. Sailing the opposite direction over the Atlantic Ocean, the first Chinese seamen arrived in The Netherlands in 1911. This time frame and distance show a glimpse of a long history; it explains how widespread early Chinese peasant cooking has caught on all continents and the adaptability of Chinese dishes to local taste.

Hainan Chicken Rice

This famous dish named after a Chinese sub-tropical island 海南岛 in the South China Sea, where a local dish prepared with the main ingredient “Wencheng Chicken” originates. Long after the first immigrants, the present dish is still named as Hainan Chicken Rice. Recognised for its simplicity, aromatic rice and the tender poached chicken it remains a favourite dish trending on top of many food lists with fans in- and outside south-east Asia. Singapore proudly lists as one of their national dishes, available at almost every street corner coffee shop called Kopitiam, food courts, hotels and even highlights on Singapore Airline menu.

If you have travelled throughout this region e.g. Taiwan, HongKong, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, you will recognise a resembling chicken dish. In taste and presentation slightly different as influenced by available produce and local taste. Hong Kong has it’s own cooking style and their way of preparation gained popularity as Pak Kai or BaiJi, 白鸡, also resulting in succulent meat cuts.

The Thai variation is known as Khao man kai, in Vietnam, it is called Com Ga Hai Nam. Every mouthful of Chicken & Rice are as good as the source dish, most importantly it shares the same characteristic of poached succulent chicken meat and fragrant broth.

Hainanese Chicken Rice is about simplicity

Chicken – Traditional Hainan free-range Wencheng chicken feed is with coconut and peanut shells. The adopted Singaporean national dish version is claimed prepared best with a Kampung chicken (Ayam Kampung means free-range village chickens, common in Indonesian and Malaysian). Home in The Netherlands I have prepared this dish with corn-fed free-range chicken, broilers and cut chicken parts, foremost it needs to be fresh.

In all fairness, during the week I will buy supermarket cuts or broilers, but for this dish, I will opt for a poultry butcher. To buy specialities such as Bresse Chicken from France very flavoursome and worth the cooking effort to prepare a particular dish. A rare, the only bird with an A.O.C. a national quality label of origin. Once plucked the chicken are all naked and look the same (right?), but the Bresse chickens have blue feets. A slightly cheaper option is the free range Dutch corn-fed Kemper chicken, very tender and tasty meat. You can easily recognise a corn fed chicken by its yellow-orange skin and when cooked the meat flavour differs from a battery or factory production.

BROILER: A meat chicken processed at the age of 7-12 weeks when it reaches 2 ½ to 3 ½ pounds live weight. Historically Broilers were marketed as birds ranging 1 to 2 ½ lbs.

fresh broiler chickens, Hainan Chicken Rice

Halal broilers

Cooking technique: Use the stock for poaching the chicken, with all the extracted aromas the broth can be used to cook the rice. Served as clear soup accompanying the dish or reserved liquid used for flavourings of stir-fry dishes. Click for “Chinese stock methods” on the highlighted link.

Hainan Chicken - Poaching Chicken legs

Poaching Chicken legs – Hainan Chicken

Chicken fat – Chicken fat is used to stir-fry the rice first or made into a paste with additional spice and herbs, to enhance the flavour and then add the stock with ginger, garlic (and optional adding of pandan leaves and other herbs). Use the chicken fat in making the original Singaporean style chilli dip-sauce (if I use a whole chicken I pull out the chicken fat especially to make a big batch, for taste it is worth the trouble of preparing the chilli dip).

Chicken fat

Remove chicken fat and use a rice paste or chilli paste as dipping sauce

Accompaniments – dipping sauces

By looking at the various dipping’s you can retrace the serving country;

  • Hainan the dish is accompanied with typical oyster sauce and minced garlic, along with chilli dip and finely minced ginger with a bit of green onion (shortly heated in oil to draw out flavour and sharpness without darkening).
  • Singapore a customary hot chilli paste sauce (consisting of minced peppers, lime juice with chicken fat, chicken broth, garlic & ginger), along with pounded ginger served with dark soy sauce. Recent years the Thai Sriracha sauce has become a very popular condiment, due to its close spicy sourness and garlicky taste.
  • Hongkong has lime/lemon juice added to the ginger, next to a hot chilli sauce.
  • Thailand a sauce mix made with yellow soybean paste, thick soy sauce, chilli, ginger, garlic and vinegar instead.
  • Vietnam serves the accompanying sauce mix made of salt, pepper, lime juice and fresh chilli (use of fish sauce too).

Rice – Standard cooked white rice is just what it is plain rice. The chicken rice uses a rice paste with chicken fat for intense aromatic flavour. The stock included a variety of fresh herbs; it influences a different result as in soup or cooked rice. If you add Pandan leaves it enhances the grass fragrance, combine or interchange with lemon grass and galangal (aka blue ginger, Leng Kua/Laos, Kham, etc.) for a more defined citrus aroma. Have the pandan leaves combined with coconut milk (and lemon grass) to make Nasi Lemak another fragrant and traditional rice dish.

Hainan Chicken cooked rice

Hainan Chicken Rice either cooked with rice paste or poaching stock.

Hainan Chicken Rice assembly

Hainan Chicken Rice assembly – remove herbs from the rice – cut up the chicken

Almost ready to assemble our Hainan Chicken Rice plates – Singapore style. You can easily recreate this dish, for more information click on “Chinese stock methods” or “Hainan Chicken tutorial” or recipe post.

Chinese stock methods and variations

Preparing Chinese chicken stock, often a whole chicken is used in recipes. Poultry butchers or supermarket, just choose your preferred cut if you rather like using chicken legs/chops or breast fillets.  You need to watch and adjust the cooking time, however when you can do try an organic corn fed chicken for a flavour range discovery.

Preparing poaching chickens

Seasoning poaching chickens

For a photo overview, click on this link for Hainan Chicken Rice step-by-step or start with the recipe. Here I share my method of poaching and stock variations for different results in flavour and taste with a variety of used ingredients.

Broth method to poach:  In this recipe, I use the whole chicken (chicken fillets or fish fillets), flavoured with Pandan leaves (or in the photo below a bunch of spring onion) garlic, ginger, Chinese wine and dash of pepper, bring to a boil. Add the chicken wait for the broth to come back to boil, turn down the heat, adjusting the level where you can see bubble’s breaking through the surface.

For poaching, it is important to keep the heat near boiling point. The chicken is lightly salted and peppered, cavity stuffed with leek, spring onion or pandan leaves, garlic & ginger slices then submerged into the stock.

Try a variation of oriental herbs and spices (as with court bouillon), this will guarantee a good flavour base and incorporates flavour. Poaching remains and accentuates a burst of flavour impact.

Cook for  15-20 min then turn the heat off it will cook in the residual heat remaining tenderness (if 1-2 chicken fillets only 10-12 min turn down the fire and let it cool in the stock).

Cooking time may vary due to the weight and size of chicken, chicken breast, legs or wings make adjustments accordingly. Rule of thumb, check for an internal temperature reaching 73° C(this level eliminates bacteria) max. 75º C never below!

Another poaching method is to place a double hook under the wings of the bird to slowly submerge into the boiling stock. When the bubbles subside pull out let the stock come back to a rolling point, submerge again and repeat 3-4 times till the meat is done.

Poaching chicken legs

Poaching chicken legs

Preparing stock method: A standard stock uses pork bones and chickens carcases, which is stronger with more gelatin and intenser taste. Set a pot on the stove with cold water and the bones. Bring to a rolling boil, turn heat down to mid fire and remove all the greyish scum (blood and proteins) which floats up.

Keep skimming the surface constantly. After 35-40 min removes the bones or as soon the grey scum subsides, clear the water. Start frying the chicken fat (if not enough or none available use a bit of lard, this is all for taste). Fry slices of ginger, garlic and spring onion.

Add Chinese cooking wine, salt & pepper as soon as it all releases its aroma add water enough to cover it all this is the base.

To make stronger infused stocks and stews at this point, you can add the following spices e.g. cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves etc roast them first to release their aromas. Using spices in food to enhance flavour also adds a powerful antioxidant puch.

Submerge whole chicken in the stock, depending on size and meat with bones or boneless for 15-45 minutes watching the colour changing from pink to milky white. With time experience will increase to recognise the various stages in the cooking process.

After cooking time has finished lift carefully chicken up and pour the cavity empty into the pan. Plunge the chicken directly into an ice-cold water bowl. This stops the cooking process keeping tender meat with a jelly-like (pale-yellowish) skin. Finish with a final rub using a bit of sesame oil for shine and taste.

Traditionally the cut up chicken meat (Bai Ji) was served with the bone still colouring a tiny bit of red, while the meat is perfectly cooked fully white without any trace of pink meat. You know when the cook kept a close eye because too long means it has lost its tenderness resulting in dry and hard meat.

poaching whole chickens

Submerging whole chickens in poaching stock for 30 min, turn off the fire and with the lid on let it cool down in the stock

Herbal stewing method – a stock filled with medicinal Chinese herbal ingredients and seasonings to extract medicinal qualities. Often in a separate container referred as a “double boiling jar”.

The soup in the double jar is cooked in a pan filled with water, this is a Chinese cooking method called double-boiling. It cooks through the heat of the water and not the original heat source (a bit like puddings in a hot water bath).

Not to be confused with steaming. The double jar keeps all flavour, nutrients and essence all locked in while being cooked for several hours for extraction. This cooking method is mainly used for high regarded medicinal herbal ingredients (often expensive) and/or preparing soup tonics for strength and healing purposes. A step-by-step photo post will follow soon focusing on this technique.

Steaming method – Chicken is chopped in pieces and marinated. Traditional the plate is placed in a wok (or a wide saute pan) on an elevated stand filled with rolling boiling water and a dome lid on top for full circulation of steam. Spread chicken pieces in a single layer on a platter surrounded with other ingredients as vegetables.

Steam approximately 10-12min for chicken breast (thickness may influence steaming time). Using a steam cooking equipment or a rice cooker makes this, even more, easier with automatic settings no need to watch the clock and water level.  When the temperature reaches 74º Celsius/15-20min it is done.

Stove pot/pan method: Without a thermometer keep a close eye to the chicken bones, the meat turns from opaque to white and when the bone has turned light brown, the meat is cooked. However, if the bone turns dark brown in colour it means overdone, still good in flavour but less tender meat.

Stock use characteristics:

Preparing nutritious homemade stock or broth is gaining popularity due to an unbeatable flavour.

  1. Poaching broth for chicken with the liquid often used in stir-fry dishes or a light clear (tea) soup.
  2. To cook the rice in the stock or the traditional way by first stir-frying chicken fat with ginger and garlic. As soon as it releases aroma add the rice while stirring coating the kernels all around (or use a pack Hainan Chicken rice paste). Add the stock and cook the rice till it is done.
  3. As soup base for various type of noodle soups.
  4. As soup base
Hainan Chicken rice

Hainan Chicken rice flavoured with chicken stock or paste.

Serving of Chicken Rice: The Chicken is nicely cut in easy chopstick size with sliced cucumber and tomato complementing the meal. Served with a bowl of clear soup broth sprinkled with green onions or a bit of coriander on top. Accompanying dipping sauces; spicy chilli with ginger paste and dark soy sauce.

For other serving style suggestions and information, read Hainan Chicken Rice foodie chat trivia post.

Stock base variations:

Standard Chinese stock base – boil water add 4-5cm ginger and a whole bulb of garlic (quantities may vary according to weight and personal preferences, but this is what I use for a whole chicken). Additions of Pandan leaves, leek/green onion, Chinese wine, black pepper, use of light soy sauce (dark soy sauce is for colouring the stock more than flavour use sparingly).

Chinese herbal stocks – the above with Chinese herbs to infuse the broth into a tonic to improve and strengthen the functioning of the body or increase the feeling of well-being. Most Chinese households carry their own favourite combination of herbs to aid, but Chinese herbs with medicinal qualities are widely available at Chinese Supermarkets and of course Chinese pharmacies in Chinatown or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practices.

In Taiwan at the Shilin Night Market there’s a famous stall for 十全汤 literally translated “ten complete soup”, customers would line up every night. The making of this herbal soup starts during the day and simmers for hours impregnating the air filled with herbal fragrance, just smelling would flock customers through the whole evening and night.

TCM practice believes bone broth nourishes our kidneys, supports our “chi” (life essence) and builds blood. Here is a link with informative facts including other recipes “Bone broth for health building” by Jade Institute. Cooking with bone broth especially with pork trotters will make a very good dish and soup stock, in our regional cooking the cooled stock turn gelatinous and is another favourite way to be eaten cold known as “dong jiao” 东郊.

South-east Asian stock base – the above with additions of less ginger or none, with galangal, lemongrass, peppers or bird-eye chillies (hot), few leaves of kaffir lime leaves. Definitely a base for e.g. Thai Thom Yam soups or with the addition of spices as for making Vietnamese Cahn’s.

Meat or Vegetarian stock base –  with or without bones it often has onion, celery, carrots (and leeks). Enrich to get more taste is making use of bouquet-garni as in French cooking, a bundle of herbs traditionally comprises of bay leaf, thyme, parsley. Or an Italian herb mix of basil, oregano, rosemary and sage.

Blanching bones – Set up a pan with cold water add the whole chicken or other parts. The process of blanching chicken, pork meat and/or bones is to remove all impurities (blood and proteins solidify in froth or scum when heated) by skimming the surface and removing it will result in a clear instead of a cloudy stock. When cooking with pork bones I will change water definitely, with chicken it depends on the final dish. If fast and quick, I constantly skim the surface removing all scum till its clear and use the broth to continue or add ingredients for stock making process.

Click on the links for Hainan Chicken Rice step-by-step photo tutorial, background information foodie chat trivia and recipe. By preparing the poaching liquid and making your own stock, most of the work is done. If you have any remarks or questions, please leave your comment here under or send me an e-mail.