Behind the Bite : Chicken Rice

This post is part of our Behind the Bite series, a deep dive to the origins and stories to dishes we love.

Apple pie is to America what the Hainanese chicken rice is to Singapore : a national culinary icon

Singapore Chilli Crab may have more international recognition but ask any Singaporean what is the quintessential dish of Singapore and they will, without a doubt, say Hainanese Chicken Rice.

Singaporean’s love of chicken rice knows no bounds. A recent poll has Hainanese chicken rice topping the list of 50 local favourites with 89% giving their thumbs up to this dish. While chicken rice is the unanimous top dish, everyone has a different idea of what good chicken rice should be. Ask 10 locals in Singapore where to get the best chicken rice, and everyone has their favourite version, be it popular chicken rice chain Boon Tiong Kee (multiple locations) or Tian Tian Chicken Rice (1 Kadayanallur St) which is just on every Singapore guidebook. It’s comfort food, and it excels because of it’s simplicity; poached chicken on white rice, served with soy sauce and chilli garlic dip. Growing up in Singapore, whenever you visited a friend’s place, you would invariably be served chicken rice for lunch because no one says no to chicken rice, and this is the emotional food memories association that many of us Singaporeans grow up with.

And it’s not just Singaporeans who have taken on a love affair with chicken rice. Chicken rice is one of CNN’s reader’s choice 50 best foods in the world, Anthony Bourdain is well known for his love of this dish and in true Singapore style, a competition was held between Gordon Ramsay and Singapore’s hawker masters (guess who won?).

A delicious history

Why is one of the unofficial national dish of Singapore named after an island in Southern China? If you were to go to Hainan island (an island off southern China) today, you would not find any dish called the Hainanese chicken rice.

Hainan map
Location of Hainan Island in China

Well, the name of this dish gives away some clues to its origins. This dish is adapted from early Chinese immigrants originally from Hainan island. It is based off on one of the four most famous Hainan dishes, one of which is the Wenchang chicken. Wen chang chicken refers specifically to a breed of free-range chicken from Hainan island. These chicken are much smaller and bonier than most regular chicken. In 2004, Wenchang chicken was granted origin protection status by the AQSIQ (General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine) to “Wenchang chicken”. The same way as champagne is from Champagne and everything else is not.

The traditional way of preparing Wenchang chicken involves immersing the chicken in almost boiling water till cooked. The dish often described as being incredibly smooth, almost translucent skin with sweet, firm flesh. The meat is then served with a dip made from chopped ginger, garlic, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and fresh citrus.

Wenchang chicken
One of the four hallmarks of Hainan cuisine – Wenchang chicken

It seems that Hainanese immigrants sought a taste of home seeked to recreate their comfort food and used the recipe for Wen chang chicken as a base, further adapted it with native ingredients (lemongrass, pandan leaves) that were available in the new lands and voila, a new dish was born.

What is little known about the the Hainanese immigrants is that they were among the last communities to arrive to Singapore. They were unable to break into the lucrative jobs like banking, trading and retail businesses that were already dominated by the earlier Chinese immigrants. Struggling to establish themselves in the new lands, this relegated them to servants and chef to the British colonial masters. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the British were forced out and the Hainanese lost their source of income.The Hainanese had to look for new ways to make money and that was also the period where they set up the first chicken rice restaurant. With their accumulated savings, they took over vacant buildings at a low rental, and capitalised on what they learnt from the kitchens. Over time, they managed to hone their skills and found a niche as purveyors of good taste and cooking.

The perfect Hainanese chicken rice…deconstructed.

There are three essential components to an authentic Hainanese chicken rice – the meat, rice and chilli sauce Let’s break it down one by one :


The first step is in poaching the entire chicken at once for about an hour. Once done, quickly place the poached chicken in freezing water to coagulate the juices under the skin and create a gelatin-like texture layer to the chicken. Many grandmothers swear by this step of locking in the flavours of the chicken. There is proof that that grandma was onto something right. Cooked just nice, the meat should be moist, flavourful and have firm bite, which is drizzled with a soya sauce-sesame oil gravy.


The real test of this dish is in the rice, which should be made with the stock of the chicken from the poaching process (remember this was a dish born out of frugality), mixed with shallots, garlic, ginger and pandan leaves. The rice rice must delicious with the fragrance of chicken fat, aromatic with hints of ginger. It must also be tasty enough to be eaten on its own, yet not overly greasy or cloying.

Chilli sauce

The chicken rice experience is only complete with the dipping sauces – a trio of sweet dark soy sauce, garlic chilli sauce and ginger sauce. The most important of the three sauces should be the chilli sauce, where it is said that only fresh chilli should be used and never kept for more than a day. The chilli sauce should be fiery enough to provide a nice kick to the dish.

101 ways to have Chicken and Rice
Soya chicken
Famous One Michelin star street food : Hawker Chan

In recent years, another famous chicken rice dish is sharing the limelight with the Hainanese chicken rice, The arrival of the Michelin Guide in Singapore saw the world’s first (and cheapest) Michelin-starred hawker meal by Liao Fan Hawker Chan. Not to be confused with the Hainanese chicken rice, soya sauce chicken is more of a Cantonese dish (region in Southeastern China). Also known as Si Yau Kai in Cantonese, this Hong Kong styled chicken dish is slow braised over low heat in dark soya sauce (which gives the chicken it’s dark colour) and spices and served over plain rice/noodles. The result : moist, tender chicken with incredibly smooth skin.

Chicken rice balls
Chicken rice balls
Chicken rice balls © : J2Kfm/Flickr

In Malacca, the rice of the chicken rice is served as a tennis-sized rice ball. There are different versions to the origins. Labourers and workers were working hard to survive  didn’t have time for lunch ate only for the energy that was needed for the rest of the day. The simple portability of this dish into meant the rice balls not only kept warm for longer periods, but that workers could also carry it around and eat it easily. Another theory goes that is was invented by the street hawkers who didn’t want to carry crockery when they were selling chicken rice, and thus used banana leaves and wrapped it into balls. It was also claimed that this also helped seal in the flavours of the rice. Whatever the reason, one thing for sure is that it came about from time-saving and efficiency reasons.

A classic reinvented
Modern hainan chicken rice
Reinterpreting chicken rice as a dumpling © Weekender

The classic dish has been given a modern contemporary techniques by modern chefs who have maintained all of its flavours but given it a new interpretation. Commonly known as Mod-Sin (modern-Singaporean), one of the most creative variations on the Hainanese Chicken Rice is at Labyrinth where chicken rice comes in the form of a dumpling. It looks nothing like a chicken rice but taste exactly like one! The perfect marriage of the old and the new. Chicken rice for the modern age!

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