Have you ever had Hainanese chicken rice before? Are you as obsessed with it as I am? I’m guessing the answer is no because I have a lifelong, deep obsession with chicken rice.
It’s my ultimate comfort food, my all-time-favorite go to meal, my version of Anton Ego’s mom’s ratatouille. You know, the scene in in the Pixar movie where Anton is taken back to his mom’s kitchen and she serves him ratatouille and all is right with the world. That’s Hainanese chicken rice for me.
Chicken and Rice
All cultures have some sort of chicken and rice. The Japanese have oyakodon, Latin Americans have arroz con pollo, and Southeast Asians (and Hainanese people) have Hainanese chicken rice. Like most chicken and rice dishes, it’s simple at heart: poached chicken and seasoned rice served with a variety of sauces.
Like lots of immigrant adapted foods, there are actually a bunch of different types of Hainanese chicken rices: Singaporean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Thai. Growing up, it was a staple in our house. Chicken rice is the food that can bring me back to my childhood and transport me to some of my favorite memories as an adult. I’m not embarrassed to say that chicken rice is my everything.
What is Hainanese chicken rice?
Hainanese chicken is deceptively simple but somehow complex. It originated in Hainan in Southern China, but its spiritual home is Singapore, where you’ll find renditions of the ever popular dish everywhere, from hawker stands to high end hotels.
I would fight to the death to say that Hainanese chicken rice is the best rendition of chicken and rice out there. It’s so humble, so flavorful, and so pure. At its heart, Hainanese chicken rice is just that: chicken and rice.
The chicken is poached in a simple yet flavorful broth scented with ginger, garlic, and scallions and is silky, firm, and tastes like the most perfect chicken you’ll ever have. The rice that comes with it should stand on its own: full of chicken flavor, slicked with fat, savory, and fragrant.
What’s so special about the rice?
You’ve got to taste it to believe it, but I think the secret to why Hainanese chicken rice is so good is the rice. And the secret to the rice is chicken fat. Any good cook knows that when you cook rice in broth, the broth infuses the inside of the grain, giving it extra flavor. A lot of cultures do this, like how Mexican rice is cooked in tomatoes and onions. Chicken rice goes one step further by frying uncooked rice in chicken fat with garlic, shallots, and ginger before cooking in chicken broth, giving the rice another layer of toasty, aromatic deliciousness. The rice should be glossy, luscious and full of flavor.
The best chicken rice is the one you like making
There are a lot of Hainanese chicken rice recipes that call for 24 hour (or more) cures and other very complicated steps. It doesn’t need to be this way, especially if you just want good chicken rice and you’re not competing with a dozen other chicken rice hawkers at a market. It’s the rice that you need to pay careful attention to, and that’s an easy thing that doesn’t take much extra time.
Personally, I love making chicken rice, I find it therapeutic somehow. But sometimes I just want to eat chicken and rice without cooking a whole chicken. This easy recipe is for those times: skin-on boneless chicken thighs and rice are cooked in one pot for ease and fewer dishes to wash. Win-win!
The secret to great Hainanese chicken rice
This is a basic one pot Hainanese chicken rice with all the flavor and none of the fuss. The recipe starts with chicken fat. If you’re like me and love chicken rice and make it on the regular, you’ll want to keep a jar of rendered chicken fat in the fridge. Even if you’re not like me and don’t want to make chicken rice every day of the week, you’ll want to keep a jar of chicken fat in the fridge. Chicken fat is PURE FLAVOR.
Chicken fat is what makes the rice part of chicken rice taste so good. But, if you don’t have any chicken fat, don’t worry, toasting your rice in any fat is going to give it a glossy, delicious flavor coat. The key is cooking the ginger, garlic, and shallots in fat so that the aromatics release their deliciousness into the rice.