Hainanese chicken rice, first cousin to Wenchang chicken, appears in variations throughout China, Thailand, and Malaysia. The boiled chicken and rice dish is usually offered with minced or pureed ginger as well as a hot sauce made with chili peppers on the side. Some home cooks prefer a side condiment composed of rich, dark oyster sauce accented with garlic and perhaps some herbs, while Malaysian dinner tables more commonly find their Hainanese chicken rice sprinkled with soy sauce.
This rice dish amuses itself by appearing incognito on the plate. At first glance, Hainanese chicken rice looks as though it is something best offered to someone who has been in a sickbed and can’t handle much besides milk toast. The boiled white chicken perched on a bed of white rice visually belies the saturation of ginger and garlic that permeates every morsel. While the flavor is indeed subtle, it is richly so and stands up with calm fortitude to an array of zingy side dressings.
The secret of good Hainanese chicken rice is the liquid; a whole chicken, cut into pieces, is boiled in a very rich, condensed chicken stock. Home cooks pride themselves on their stockpots, to which more chicken or pork broth is added from time to time. As the oil in the stock is essential to creating a true Hainanese chicken dish, many cooks favor older chickens that yield more fat.
Among the variations, however, is a Cantonese-style dish that begins with young chickens that are prized for their flavorful, delicate flesh. Singapore variations often substitute the long-cooking chicken and pork broth for a simpler foundation of water, garlic, and ginger. Yet another variation is sometimes called chicken rice balls; this is more a visual adaptation than anything with the rice formed into small, palm-sized balls that are presented together with the steamed, chopped chicken.
Some cooks pull the cooked chicken pieces and jelly the skin with ice for a different texture. Yet another variant adds coconut milk to the rich chicken and pork broth. This is most common in Thailand, where it is often offered with tauchu, a sauce made of yellow soybean miso, chili, garlic, and other ingredients.
In Singapore and Malaysia, Hainanese chicken rice is ubiquitous and can be found in dining establishments from fast food restaurants to street vendors selling their wares in food stalls. Many vendors offer rice that has been mixed with bean sprouts or organ meats, such as liver and gizzards, as an accompaniment. Singaporeans are so fond of this chicken rice dish that even international fast food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken offer Hainanese chicken on their menus.