Friday, May 18, 2012

Hainan Chicken Rice

Hainan Chicken Rice

We ate lots of Hainan Ji Fan when I was growing up.  This poached chicken dish originates from Hainan, an island in China just south of the mainland where my grandparents are from.  It's also a popular dish in Singapore and Malaysia, where my parents were born.  And my mom continues to make it in her New York kitchen, where she taught it to me on a Mother's Day weekend visit.  The best part is the rice.  After the chicken is poached, the water essentially becomes chicken stock, and that liquid is used to infuse the rice, making it flavorful and rich.  If you have homemade chicken stock on hand, substitute it for some of the water for more potent chicken flavor.  The rice is also imbued with garlic and a hint of ginger.

Raw Chicken
This is how Mom rolls.  I don't have a problem with the head, but I have no use for it either.
So I bought the usual supermarket variety.
The poached chicken may be too simple for those used to loud flavors, but soy sauce and hot sauce are served on the side and my dad always partook.  He's always been proud of his Singapore-grown tolerance for heat, but by contrast I've only graduated to mild.  Yes, I said graduated.  Hainan Chicken Rice is also Singapore's national dish.

Whole Family
My parents, brother, paternal grandparents, and my twin sister and me.  Once again, not sure which runt I am.
One of my earliest memories includes this dish.  I had peeled off some chicken skin -- which I love when roasted and crispy but not when poached and soft -- just as my mother often instructed me to because it's healthier that way.  And my paternal grandmother, who was born a peasant in Hainan and was not into waste one bit, objected, pushing me to eat the skin.  "Eat it!  Go ahead, eat it!" she said, as my mother told me, "Don't do it!  It's not good for you!"  Whom to obey, mother or grandmother?  I think it must have been my mother.  Their reactions summed up their food philosophies, and the memory still makes me chuckle.

Audrey collage
My twin sister with her daughter, Audrey, on Mother's Day weekend.
And this time a new generation of the family was introduced to Hainan Ji Fan.  My 16-month-old niece, Audrey, was a big fan.  I also decided she's now officially a Chinese lady.  When she would act up, my mother would chide her, saying, "Aiya!"  And Audrey, in a world-weary yet babyish voice, would sigh in echo, "Aiiyaaa!"

What are some of your quintessential family recipes?

Hainan Chicken Rice
Barely adapted from Mom

5 lb. whole chicken
10 cloves garlic, 8 whole and 2 minced
3-inch piece of ginger
1 tsp plus 1 tbs coarse salt
2 cups rice
1 tbs canola oil
1 cucumber, sliced
Hot sauce and soy sauce, for serving
Cilantro, optional, for garnish

Make the chicken:
Place the chicken in a large pot.  Fill the pot with water to about 1 inch from the top of the chicken, nearly submerging it.  If you have homemade chicken stock, you can substitute some of the water here with stock for more potent chicken flavor.  Cut 1 inch off the ginger and add to the water with 1 tsp salt.  Bring the water to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover.  Simmer the chicken for 30 minutes.

While the chicken is simmering, fill a tea kettle with cold water and some ice cubes, and set aside a large bowl with a strainer set over it, lined with an industrial-sized coffee filter if you have one.  When the chicken is done, carefully pour the broth from the pot into the bowl lined with the strainer.  Then pour the ice water over the chicken into the pot, letting it sit for about 30 seconds.  Pour off and discard the ice water -- you don't want to lose too much of the chicken flavor, but shocking it briefly with cold water will give the chicken a silkier texture.

Make the rice:
Slice the remaining ginger.  Rinse the rice a few times with cold water, then drain.  Heat a large pot over medium heat, drizzle in the oil, then add the minced garlic.  Saute for a minute until fragrant, being careful not to let it brown, then add the rice and stir for a minute more.

Add 4 cups of the chicken stock and the remaining tablespoon of salt.  Bring to a boil, then scatter the ginger and the garlic cloves over the top.  Cover the pot and reduce heat to a simmer.  Simmer for about 20 minutes -- no lifting the lid to peek or you'll release precious steam -- or until rice is done.  Discard garlic cloves and ginger.

To serve:
Cut the chicken into pieces and serve with the rice.  Serve cucumber, hot sauce, and soy sauce on the side.

This recipe may not be reprinted without permission.


  1. Oh, it looks yummy :) simple and lovely family dish

  2. Great recipe. Would you be happy to put up a link to it in my Food on Friday – Asian Food Series.

    1. I would love to link up! Heading there now.

    2. great to see your link. Will take the duplicate out for you. Have a nice week

  3. I've read about how obsessed people in Singapore are about the perfect chicken and rice dish. Must try this recipe sometime. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What an adorable niece you have! Audrey is such a cutie, and when I started to saying and writing "Aiya" I officially became a Chinese. To make it even funny, I thought it's an English expression. Sigh! You can tell the level of my knowledge of both Chinese and English. Japanese don't have such expression so I quickly pick it up as "English" expression...(here you can tell I'm surrounded by Chinese Americans haha).

    Hainan Chicken Rice is my husband's favorite rice. I really REALLY hope to make it for my husband... but I hate bird's neck. Eeekk!!! I get goosebumps. I have only experienced in cooking a whole chicken 2 times? I know... I'm just not confident with the whole chicken thing. Thanks for sharing the family story. It was fun to read about your family and twins sister!

    1. You're kidding!! haha It is totally a Chinese expression. You must have heard it from your husband especially, I'm guessing.

      I never eat the neck, but why don't you try making it with some generic Perdue bird? The kind without neck, head, or feet? Maybe your husband will even help you, since it's his favorite!

  5. I love the family photos! It's so interesting learning about other families' traditional dishes. I grew up in the Midwest, so most of my family's recipes are casseroles. The kind made with condensed soup, sour cream, and lots of cheese. Definitely not as fun to write about. :)

    1. Thanks, Kiersten! I think casseroles are the ultimate comfort food for lots of people. I got introduced to them later in life, and they hit the spot in the dead of winter.


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