Food & Drink

A Mother-Son Journey to Find Their Roots in the Perfect Plate of Hainanese Chicken Rice

The island of Hainan birthed one of Chinese cuisine’s most iconic dishes: Hainanese chicken. Jeff Chu and his mother search out the roots of this family favorite, learning how to raise the birds, cook the dish, and connect over a not-so-simple plate of rice.

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Hainanese Chicken Rice. Photo by nazar_ab/Getty Images Signature/Canva

By Jeff Chu

Apr 4, 2014

ANY CHEF CAN TELL YOU that the simplest recipes often prove the most difficult to perfect. In the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora, few dishes seem more elementary than Hainanese chicken rice. How hard could it be to poach chicken, then steam rice in the poaching liquid? At its best, the slightly fatty chicken skin pairs harmoniously with the juicy meat. Each fluff of rice, infused with chickeny flavor, sings of a happy marriage of basic ingredients.

I grew up eating Hainanese chicken rice every chance I got. It’s a mainstay of Chinese-Malaysian cooking and a litmus test; I’ve used it to pass judgment on restaurants in London, New York and Hong Kong. Before my first visit to Singapore, which offers some of the world’s best chicken rice, I scoured page after page of vigorous online debate about which hawker stall sells the finest version. Then I happily ate my way across town.

Hainanese Chicken
Photo by zkruger/Getty Images/Canva

Yet there’s a reason it’s Hainanese chicken rice, not Singaporean. It was born on the Chinese island of Hainan. When waves of emigrants in the 19th century left for colonial Malaya to labor on plantations and in service, they took this recipe with them. It tasted like home.

I wanted to find the roots of this beloved dish, and meals are always best enjoyed in good company—so I decided to bring my mother. The best cook in our big, food-loving family, I thought she’d enjoy both the eating and the expedition. She also loves to travel, but she spends all her vacation time on her family, never on herself. This was a chance to help sate her unfulfilled wanderlust.

Along the way, we hoped to grasp how Hainan is changing and juxtapose a taste of history with a glimpse of the future. This fast-blossoming subtropical island has become a popular destination, especially among Chinese snowbirds. It’s now often called “the Hawaii of China,” though one acquaintance was quick to note that, “This is said by people who have never been to Hawaii.”

IF CHINA’S PROVINCES WERE SISTERS in a sprawling family, prosperous Guangdong would be the ambitious one who never found a ladder she didn’t want to climb, while Hunan, an agricultural heartland boasting fiery cuisine, would be the earthy hothead.

Hainan, China’s smallest province, would be the pretty little one that everyone forgot. En route to nowhere, it has little coal or oil. But lovely mountains rise in its heart. Its fertile coastal plains abound with maize, beans and greens. Even in the rapidly developing city of Sanya, where the chief cash crop seems to be condos, you’ll notice rice paddies alongside still-sprouting high-rises clad in old-school bamboo scaffolding.

Hainanese Chicken Rice : Ends of Hainan, Sanya
Hainan, 60’s-postcard-style. Photo by iPandastudio/Getty Images Signature/Canva

Being a backwater has its benefits. Traffic’s not terrible. Its clean waters produce abundant seafood. Hainan enjoys China’s bluest skies. When locals say that the forecast calls for fog, it’s the real thing, not the yellow-gray smog that smothers much of the mainland.

Other than the emerald necklace of golf courses along Hainan’s coast, the tourist infrastructure is still immature. One morning, we visited the Yetian Cultural Village, which highlights two indigenous Hainanese minorities, the Li and the Miao. Most displays are only in Chinese, in which I’m nearly illiterate, so my mother read the factoids aloud: The tribes worship a god with 33 incarnations, each of which removes a different kind of suffering. They have a curious custom of honoring the dead by burying cut fingernails in small wooden boxes. They eat mostly seafood and game hunted with bow and arrow—raccoon, snake, bear. No mention of chicken.

Afterward, we bumped down a country lane, past locals untangling fishing nets by the roadside, until we arrived at a restaurant called Shi Hai Ren (“people who harvest things from the sea”). “Everything here is wild-caught,” affirmed the proprietor, Miss Chan, who said she was “born on the sea” and told us, “What comes from the wild tastes different from what is farmed—much better.”

Hainanese Chicken Rice : Haitang Bay
Haitang Bay coastline in Sanya. Photo by Yunpeng Li/Getty Images/Canva

Beneath a canopy overlooking Haitang Bay, we feasted alfresco on a superbly fresh green wrasse, steamed and crowned with ginger and scallions; shell-on, wok-fried prawns; orange-and-white cockles with meat that looked like miniature, melting creamsicles and tasted of the ocean. As my mother picked at the wrasse’s bony remnants, she wondered how we might be able to take a live fish or two back to Hong Kong. “Your grandmother would like this,” she said. Forgive the pun, but we were happy as clams.

Yet I also couldn’t help but feel that the siren call of the sea—or really, the seafood—was diverting us from our mission: to eat chicken.

ON HAINAN, Hainanese chicken isn’t called Hainanese chicken. It’s Wenchang chicken, after the city that supplies the island’s finest poultry. Wenchang was also the port of departure for the emigrants to Southeast Asia, who took live chickens with them.

Our first taste came in Sanya. Carl Chen, a chef at the Raffles Hainan, where we were staying, had recommended an unpretentious eatery specializing in the dish. The chicken—RMB42 for half a plump bird—landed on our plastic table with bowls of dipping sauce—soy spiked with vinegar, garlic, ginger and cilantro. The meat had a pleasant chew; these weren’t unnaturally tender corn-fed, factory-farmed birds. The rice shone with chicken fat, and the kitchen dished up wok-fried winged beans as an accompaniment.

Most Hainanese agree that Wenchang chicken must be made from chickens born and raised in Wenchang. The waiter bragged that the chefs here slaughtered their own birds. Where were they? He gestured at a closet door; squawks emerged from within—a hidden avian death row.

Raffles Hainan
Courtesy of Raffles Hainan

A couple of days later, we drove to the outskirts of Wenchang, past rubber and mango plantations, to a chicken farm. Another point of agreement: Wenchang chickens must spend part of their lives ranging and foraging freely. Chef Chen had told us he prefers three-month-old birds, but the farm manager, Mr. Zhang, said that chickens were best slaughtered after six. For four months, they roam. For their last two, they plump up in open-air, palm-shaded longhouses, on a diet that includes oats and coconut.

From the farm, we went into central Wenchang. If Hainan can be the Hawaii of China, then some opportunistic bureaucrat will soon try to rebrand Wenchang as the Paris of Hainan. Bridges arc across the laconic Wenchang River. A bustling street market fills the banks. At cafés around the main square, old men sip tea, mostly an herbaceous local variety colloquially called lo ba cha (“father’s tea”). Under a gazebo, others play Chinese chess.

Historically, Wenchang has been Hainan’s cultural capital, but little ancient architecture remains. A surviving landmark, the Confucius Temple, built during the 11th century, has been extensively rebuilt. Most intriguing: a gallery used as a local military hall of fame; strikingly, most of the honored heroes were Kuomintang and had to flee to Taiwan after the Communist victory in 1949—facts noted without prejudice.

Raffles Hainan
Courtesy of Raffles Hainan

We strolled Old Street, a curvaceous thoroughfare lined by 19th-century, European-style buildings with Victorian Gothic arches. Renovated within the past five years, the elegant colonnaded buildings are almost all done in shades of gray. It appeared as if the restorers had only black-and-white postcards for inspiration.

Of course we wanted to try Wenchang chicken in Wenchang itself. We passed a couple of restaurants with sad-looking cooked chickens languishing under heat lamps. Finally, on our way to the train station, we found the grandly named Yanhe Chicken Rice Palace.

Too grandly, we learned. A waitress in heels tottered into the glassed-in kitchen to prepare our order. I watched her giggle as she flailed at a chicken with the cleaver, barely making a dent. Finally, a cook, pitying her, took over.

It wasn’t worth the effort. “Not good,” my mom said, after tasting the chicken. The skin, thick with fat, hadn’t been properly rendered. The meat was bland, the rice greasy. I mourned for this bird. It had given its life in vain.

WHAT CAUSED THIS TRAGEDY? To find out, we needed to learn to cook. One afternoon, we met Chef Chen in the Raffles kitchen. We’d been told to reserve three hours for the lesson—it seemed like a lot of time to poach chicken and steam rice. “When you’re cooking Hainanese chicken rice, you can’t be impatient,” he explained. “You have to cook slowly.”

He took us to the walk-in refrigerators. First, two (already dead) young chickens, no more than 1.5 kilograms each. Then he piled our trays high with lemongrass, shallots, ginger, cilantro, scallions, leeks. Into the stock went large pieces of ginger, 20 crushed garlic cloves, stalks of lemongrass, areca flowers, two green onions, one chopped-up leek, and some cilantro—all for two chickens! We began to realize just how complex the creation of culinary simplicity can be.

The next couple of hours were a whirl of mincing, smashing, crushing, pureeing, sautéing, poaching and steaming. Chef Chen guided us through the prep of the chickens; a clay pot of rice steamed not only with stock but also chicken fat, shallots, pandan leaves, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and scallions; and a trio of dipping sauces.

Chef Carl Chen stresses the need for patience when cooking Hainanese chicken rice. Courtesy of Raffles Hainan (2)

The sauces provided the best metaphor for this dish’s chameleonic character. The first, a bold local favorite balancing tart and savory, blends calamansi juice with hot oil, ginger and garlic, cilantro and Maggi sauce. The second, popular among the Cantonese, is subtler—no citrus, just ginger, garlic, scallion, oil and salt. The third, we tasted only at the Raffles. Bright in color and flavor, it suggested room to play. It built on that calamansi-and-garlic base, adding minced red pepper, a splash of fish sauce and a sprinkle of sugar.

This was all so much work that I questioned how it could possibly be worthwhile. Even when I thought the chicken was ready, it wasn’t; “you have to let the chicken rest at least half an hour before carving it,” Chef Chen said. By the time we sat to eat, my legs ached, my head throbbed with hunger, and my stomach grumbled too.

But oh, this chicken. It was a revelation, exploding with flavor. So too the rice. Each sauce stood out—the Hainanese one sharp and citrusy, the Cantonese one mellower, the pepper-based one vegetal. This chicken rice, paired with these sauces, was not one dish but three, each with different depth and dimension. Could I cook it myself? I don’t know if I’d dare. Being in the kitchen with Chef Chen taught me new respect not only for a dish I’ve long loved but also for the craft.

The other revelation of the cooking lesson? My mother. I’m a decent home cook—nothing near as good as she is—but I realized that I’m a terrible cooking reporter. As we spoke with Chef Chen, who conducted the lesson in Cantonese, I had no idea what to ask or how. But it didn’t matter, because my mom, an accountant by training, blossomed into a journalist in the heat of the kitchen. Where I stood back, she moved forward, peering into steaming pots and hovering over cutting boards. When I was silent, she had question after perfect question, clipboard and pen in hand: How much ginger? That much garlic? How much calamansi juice?

Hainanese Chicken Rice : Sauces
Hainan chicken rice with Sauce. Photo by ben-bryant/Getty Images/Canva

I brought her to Hainan because I thought it would be good for her. Really, it ended up being good for me. I remembered a moment years ago, when I complained about how she treated me like a child; she gazed at me evenly and said, “You will always be my child.” In the Raffles kitchen, that was true in the best of ways—she knew what I needed without me saying a thing.

Throughout the trip, from our hotel balcony and on walks along the splendid beach, I’d been contemplating the sea. Wenchang-born emigrants, with their Wenchang-born chickens, had sailed these waters two centuries ago. If you’d told them to use lemongrass or pandan leaf, they might have laughed. Three sauces? What would have been absurd to them was awesome to me.

Places change. Tastes too. Some versions of chicken rice that we ate on Hainan were like the worst of the development that we saw—slapdash, forgettable, meh. Chef Chen’s reimagined, refined chicken rice was a welcome reminder that good things can evolve, but in the right hands, retain and even elevate their essence. One hopes that Hainan, still largely raw in its remarkable beauty, can do the same.

As my mother and I ate the fowl of our labor in the Raffles kitchen, I looked at her and my heart felt as full as my stomach. She is usually a woman of simple words, but her mouth now held none at all—only more chicken and more rice. She looked back at me, nodded her head slowly, and grinned.

T+L GUIDE

STAY

Raffles Hainan Clearwater Bay Avenue, Yingzhou, Lingshui; +86 898 8338 9888; raffles.com/hainan; doubles from RMB1,800 per night.

EAT

Xinsheng Wenchang Chicken Rice Restaurant 15 Xiangrui Lu, Sanya; +86 138 7686 1812; dinner for two RMB70.

Shi Hai Ren Seafood Restaurant Wanghai Lu, Chiling Scenic Area, Yingzhou, Lingshui; +86 898 8347 5122; dinner for two RMB350.

Longquan Township Park Leisure Resort Restaurant 300m from the Dazhipo exit, Haiwen Highway, Wenchang; +86 898 3161 8999; dinner for two RMB300.

Bai Wei at the Raffles Hainan Clearwater Bay Avenue, Yingzhou, Lingshui; +86 898 8338 9888; raffles.com/hainan/dining/bai-wei/; dinner for two RMB700.

SEE+DO

Yetian Cultural Village Yingzhou Village, Yingzhou, Lingshui; +86 898 8347 0995; yetianguzhai.com; RMB50.

Confucius Temple 77 Wendong Lu, Wenchang; +86 898 6322 7482; RMB30.

Clearwater Bay Golf Club Clearwater Bay Avenue, Yingzhou, Lingshui; +86 898 8335 8888; hncwb.com; RMB2,560 for round of golf for two.

RECIPE by chef Carl Chen

Hainanese Chicken Rice : Ingredients
Photo by sontung57/pixabay/Canva

Hainanese Chicken Rice (serves four)

Adapted from chef Carl Chen’s recipes
1 young chicken, preferably about 1.5 kg
2 tsp salt

Chicken broth (enough just to cover the chicken)
1 stalk of lemongrass, trimmed and crushed
1 leek
1 large piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
10 cloves of garlic, crushed 
Cilantro (optional)

Rub salt all over the chicken, inside and out.

In a large pot, bring the broth to a rolling boil and add all additional ingredients. Skim any froth off the top. Dip the chicken in and out of the broth eight times, then set the chicken aside and bring the broth back to the boil.

Reduce heat to low—enough to maintain a simmer. Put the chicken into the pot, cover, and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until the juices run clear. Remove the chicken from the broth and let it sit for at least 30 minutes before carving.

1 1/2 cup jasmine rice
2 1/4 cup chicken broth
3 tsp of chicken fat (or vegetable oil)
8 shallots, crushed
8 cloves of garlic, crushed
4 thick slices of fresh ginger
1 stalk of lemongrass, trimmed, quartered and crushed
1 pandan leaf, roughly chopped
2 scallions
2 tbsp salt

In a Dutch oven or clay pot, sauté the garlic and shallots in the fat over low heat, stirring constantly—10-15 minutes. When the shallots are golden and beginning to fall apart, add the lemongrass, the pandan leaf, and the rice. Stir well. Add chicken broth, salt and scallions. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low, cover tightly, and cook until all liquid is absorbed and rice is fluffy—about 18-20 minutes. Pick out ginger, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, pandan leaf and scallions before serving.

Hainanese sauce

1/4 cup garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup ginger, finely minced
1 cup hot vegetable oil
1/3 cup calamansi (or lime) juice
2 tsp cilantro
1/2 tbsp Maggi seasoning sauce

Mix garlic, ginger and hot oil well. Then add calamansi juice, cilantro and Maggi sauce. Stir well.

Cantonese sauce

1 cup ginger, cut into chunks
5 cloves garlic
1 cup plus 2 T hot vegetable oil
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 tbsp chicken bouillon powder (optional)
1 tsp finely chopped scallion

Puree ginger and garlic in a food processor until creamy. Add 2 tsp of oil, mixing well. Then press the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any large pieces of ginger and garlic. Add remaining oil, salt, chicken bouillon powder (if using) and scallion.

Chef Chen’s special sauce

2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup red pepper, finely minced
1/2 cup calamansi (or lime) juice
2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 white sugar

Mix all ingredients together well.

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