Recipe: Hainanese Chicken Rice

Hainanese chicken rice, the national dish of Singapore, made internationally famous by Anthony Bourdain. To make it at home seems like a lot of effort, and it is. Get ready for an education in chicken.

You will spend well over an hour barely poaching a whole chicken. And once you’re done, it looks like nothing but boiled chicken and some white rice. But just close your eyes and spend some quality time really experiencing the textures and flavors of this dish. You will not be disappointed.

There are 4 criteria for a successful chicken rice: 1. succulent, velvety chicken, 2. silky smooth skin with a glistening layer of gelatin, 3. fragrant, toothsome rice, and 4. a darn good chili sauce.

The most important factor in achieving both #1 and #2 is to make sure the skin does not tear. During poaching, the skin acts as sort of a protective balloon, keeping juices and gelatin inside the bird. If the skin does tear, you will still have a solid chicken dinner, but it won’t really be chicken rice.

The dish is often served with a final glaze of soy sauce and sesame oil. The good news for those of us who are soy-free and sesame-free is that, according to the venerable Dr. Leslie Tay, this step is a recent development because industrial chickens don’t have as much flavor as traditionally-raised birds. So do yourself a favor and get the most honest-to-goodness, free-range, grub-eating chicken you can find.

Since a good chicken rice is as much about the why as the how, start by reading through the detailed recipe below. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can use the commentary-free version here. And don’t forget the rice and chili sauce.

Recipe

Serves 4-6
Total time: 2-1/2 hours
Equipment required: stock pot large enough to submerge a whole chicken in broth, container large enough to submerge a whole chicken in an ice bath.

Ingredients

3 lb (1.5 kg) whole chicken, preferably free range/ organic
3 tsp (15 ml) salt
3 tsp (15 ml) rice wine
4 cups (1 L) chicken stock, or water
8 cups (2 L) water
2 spring onions or scallions
2 oz (65 g) Chinese celery or celery heart
2 in (5 cm) ginger, sliced and lightly pounded
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp (5 ml) white peppercorn
4 cups (1 L) ice
1 cucumber, thinly sliced on a bias
3 cups (750 ml) fragrant rice
3-4 tbsp (45-60 ml) chili sauce
1⁄4 cup (65 g) coriander sprigs or cilantro, minced

Instructions

  1. Prep chicken: Remove innards (if any). Rinse the chicken and gently pat dry, being careful not to tear the skin. Remove any fat from the cavity and reserve for the rice. [Note: Traditionally this dish uses an actual whole chicken. If your pot is not large enough, I recommend removing the head and feet. Discard the head. Reserve the feet for the broth, but remove the talons and spurs. Why? Because you must not tear the skin. And If there are claws and beaks floating around, you’re just asking for trouble.]
  2. (optional) Gently loosen the joints without breaking the skin. [Note: Since the chicken will be poached, I have found that a bit of loosening helps ensure even cooking. If you’re squeamish about it, think of it as poultry yoga. Set chicken breast side up. Flatten the chicken by pressing down on the breast. Pull the leg straight towards you and then bend the drumstick backwards until you feel/hear the joint pop. Repeat with other leg. Turn bird breast-side down. Grasp thighs and lift up and out. Repeat with wings. Finally, hold the chicken at the neck with one hand and grip the cavity with the other. Give it a gentle backbend, using your thumb along the spine if needed.]
  3. Gently rub the outside of the chicken with salt and rice wine. Set aside for 15 minutes to allow to come to room temperature. [Note: do not skip this step. It reduces the temperature differential between the raw chicken and the boiling water (step 6), which reduces the overall cooking time. Plus, it helps the skin tighten.]
  4. Bring the stock and water to a boil. [Note: the first time you make this, or if you are out of stock, start with all water. The beauty of the recipe is that it creates its own stock which you can freeze and reuse for next time.]
  5. Lightly crush the spring onions and celery into a small bundle. Stuff into the cavity with the ginger, garlic and peppercorns.
  6. Lower the chicken breast-side down into the boiling stock, and add feet if separate. The chicken should be completely covered. If not, add more boiling water to cover.
  7. Poach the chicken, as follows:
    Gently stir until the stock comes back to a simmer, about 5-10 minutes. [Note: what you’re looking for is a few big bubbles to break the surface but not a full, rolling boil.] Cover, remove from heat and let stand for 20 minutes. Skim any impurities from the surface. Gently turn the chicken breast-side up. Drain the cavity of stock and refill by gently rocking up-and down. [Note: this step ensures that hot liquid is getting inside the bird.] Return to heat and gently stir until the stock comes back to a simmer. Cover, remove from heat and let stand for another 20 minutes. Again, skim any impurities from the surface, then drain and refill the cavity. Gently turn the chicken breast-side down. Return to heat and gently stir until the stock comes back to a simmer. Cover, remove from heat and let stand for a final 20 minutes. [Note: During this step, you can make the chili sauce and begin preparing the fragrant rice.]
  8. While chicken is poaching, prepare the ice bath. [Note: Use a lot of ice and keep the bath in the fridge while the chicken its final round of poaching. You want a really chilly ice bath.]
  9. Gently lift the chicken out of the stock and submerge in the ice bath. [Note: I plunge a fork into the cavity and then use a wooden spatula to lift from underneath. Remember, do not break the skin.] Do not discard the stock.
  10. Remove aromatics from the cavity and discard. [Note: Tongs work well and you don’t have to get everything out]. Gently rock the chicken to get cold water into the cavity. Let rest in the ice bath for at least 15 minutes.
  11. Remove the chicken from the ice bath and pat dry. Chill in the refrigerator while you make the fragrant rice using 3 cups of broth.
  12. Carve the chicken. Slice breasts across the grain. Admire the juicy meat, glistening gelatin, and silky skin. Let rest for 5-10 minutes to come to room temperature. [Note: traditionally, you would hack a cleaver through the chicken, bones and all. My family prefers the thighs, drumstick and wings whole, and the breasts removed from the bone.]
  13. Serve with cucumber, rice, and chili sauce. Garnish with fresh coriander (cilantro).
  14. To serve the stock, allow 1/2-1 cup per person. Season with salt and pepper before serving. Freeze any remaining stock for next time.

Adapted from the original version taught to me by Ruqxana at Cookery Magic. If you are in Singapore, sign up for one of her classes. You’ll learn a ton and enjoy a spectacular meal after.

Final note: it has occurred to me that chicken rice is just begging for an immersion circulator. The basic poaching-and-stirring method seems like a pre-gadget technique for long cooking at low temperatures. Actual sous vide seems a bit beside the point though, since the stock is as much a part of the dish as the chicken. Maybe I’ll give it a whirl once I get around to hacking a circulator of my own. In the meantime, if anyone else wants to try, I’d love to hear about it.

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