Hainanese chicken rice

Singapore Infopedia


The Hainanese chicken rice is a dish that consists of succulent poached white chicken cut into bite-size pieces and served on fragrant rice with some light soy sauce. The dish is topped with sprigs of coriander leaf and sesame oil, and accompanied by a garlic-chilli dip.1

The only type of chicken rice found in Hainan, an island off the southern coast of China, is made with the wenchang chicken – a bony fowl with very little flesh and served with rice that is thick with oil.2 The dish usually comes with three dips – chilli sauce, ground ginger and an oyster sauce-and-garlic mix. This is probably the dish that evolved into the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore – through Hainanese immigrants in the region and infused with local influences. One difference between the Hainanese chicken rice dish and its original version is the stock used. Chefs in Hainan use pork-bone and chicken-bone stock, while their Singapore counterparts avoid the pork base in their chicken rice.3

The Cantonese had played a role in the evolution of the Hainanese chicken rice. They are known for their pak cham kai (white cut chicken), which uses young and tender-fleshed birds – a delicacy which is served on its own. This style of preparing chicken had influenced Hainanese chefs and today, Hainanese chicken rice feature younger birds cooked Cantonese-style.4

The Hainanese chicken rice dish is said to have taken root in areas like Middle Road, Purvis Street and Koek Road more than 60 years ago.5

The rich flavour of the rice comes from the grains that have been pre-fried in chicken fat and then cooked in chicken broth.6 The chicken is poached until it is just cooked, with a little pink remaining on the flesh near the bones.7 While the cut chicken is presented on a large dish, the rice is served on individual plates.8 The dish is accompanied with a chilli sauce made of chillies, chicken broth, garlic and ginger. A thick broth of chicken stock, garnished with a sprinkle of spring onions and coriander leaves, is also a must.9

An early version of the dish featured rice compacted into balls. The rice balls were made of shorter-grained rice, and cooked with pandan leaves and ginger slices over a controlled fire.10 The rice is then shaped into balls with bare hands before it goes cold.11 This version of the dish is seldom seen in Singapore now.12

Chicken rice in Singapore
Chicken rice is now a specialty dish at some hotels, and is listed on the Singapore Tourism Board website as one of the local dishes that a tourist should not miss.13 So peculiar is chicken rice to Singapore that in western countries, it is sometimes known as the “Singapore chicken rice”.14

Suchitthra Vasu

1. Wendy Hutton, Singapore Food (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2007), 128–129. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 HUT)
2. Grace Ng, “Wenchang Chicken Rule the Roost,” Straits Times, 18 February 2012, 3; Margaret Chan, “Pecking Order,” Straits Times, 17 January 1993, 6 (From NewspaperSG); M. Kwang, “Hainan’s Chicken Rice is Not Hainanese Chicken Rice,” Straits Times, 12 October 1997. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
3. Margaret Chan, “The Origins of Chicken Rice,” Straits Times, 6 November 1994, 17 (From NewspaperSG); “Chicken Rice,” Singapore Tourism Board, accessed 26 June 2016.
4. Chan, “Origins of Chicken Rice”; Singapore Tourism Board “Chicken Rice.”
5. Jaime Ee, “Hainanese Heritage,” Business Times, 28 November 1992, 22; Heather Lim, “Chicken Rice, Anyone?Straits Times, 18 August 2009, 59. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Rosalind Mowe, ed., Southeast Asian Specialties: A Culinary Journey (Konemann: Culinaria, 1999), 69 (Call no. RSING 641.5959 SOU); David Wong and Djoko Wibisono, The Food of Singapore: Simple Street Food Recipes from the Lion City (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2005), 32. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 WON)
7. Chan, “Origins of Chicken Rice”; Mowe, ed., Southeast Asian Specialties, 69.
8. Mowe, ed., Southeast Asian Specialties, 69.
9. Hutton, Singapore Food, 128; Wong and Wibisono, Food of Singapore, 32.
10. Lee San Chouy, “Bird of a Nation,” Straits Times, 9 August 1993, 17; Cheap Chow, “Yummy Old-Fashioned Chicken Balls,” New Paper, 27 January 2002, 43. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Ee, “Hainanese Heritage”; Lim, “Chicken Rice, Anyone?
12. Lim, “Chicken Rice, Anyone?
13. Krist Boo, “Here’s Chicken Rice to Chat About,” Straits Times, 29 December 2000, H1; Violet Oon, “The Original Chicken Rice,” Straits Times, 6 January 1980, 17 (From NewspaperSG); “Local Dishes,” Singapore Tourism Board, accessed 26 June 2016.
14. Hutton, Singapore Food, 128.

Further resource
Riana Zakir, “Our Chicken Rice More S’porean Than Hainanese,” New Paper, 22 November 1995, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.