A Brief History of Hainanese Chicken Rice, Singapore's National Dish

Prianka Ghosh

If you were to poll a group of 10 friends and colleagues in Singapore on where to get the best chicken rice on the island, you’re as likely to get 10 different answers as you are to witness a heated debate break out. Chicken rice, considered one of Singapore’s national dishes, excels because of its simplicity; poached chicken on white rice, served with soy sauce and chilli garlic dip.
The recipe and techniques to make chicken rice came to Singapore through a mix of Hainanese and Cantonese cultures. Starting in Hainan, a small island off southern China, the original version was made with Wengchang chickens (smaller and bonier than regular chickens). The meat was served over rice, coated with a thick layer of oil, and accompanied by a tray of chilli sauce, ginger and a garlic-infused oyster sauce. With the Cantonese influence, the recipe evolved to use white cut chickens, which are more tender.

Poached Chicken

Today, the first step in making Hainanese chicken rice is poaching the entire chicken at once, with many chefs swearing by the practice of quickly placing the poached chicken in freezing water to create a thick jelly layer all around it. The real test for the dish is the rice, which is made from the stock skimmed off during the poaching process, mixed with ginger, garlic and pandan leaves. Each chef has their own recipe and secret ingredients for achieving the best rice; the ultimate goal is that the rice is tasty enough to eat on its own.

In recent years, Singapore’s national dish is stepping into the limelight on an international stage. In 2011, CNN listed chicken rice as one of the 50 best foods in the world. The dish received further attention when it was lauded by international chefs and famous television personalities, Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain – who swears by Tian Tian Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Centre following a visit to the stall during his travel and food show, No Reservations.

Chicken Rice

A few years later, the chefs behind the same restaurant beat Gordon Ramsay in a nationwide cooking competition to see who could rustle up the best chicken rice. Regardless of whether you brave the queues at Tian Tian Chicken Rice or head to your local hawker, Singapore’s national dish can be found in every nook and cranny of the island.

Chicken waiting to be prepared at the Tian Tian Chicken Rice hawker stall

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