Years ago, on my first trip to Singapore, I knew just what to look for—Hainanese chicken rice. I was directed to the Maxwell market. Just look for the stall with a lot of chicken spine hanging from hooks, I was told by an early-bird Singapore foodie, not yet through a blog but through email.
After that, my quest was to find Hainanese chicken rice cooked here as good as it is in Singapore. The old Heritage Hotel almost got it until ownership changed hands, I think.
The other quest was to learn how to cook the dish.
It was Add Lim, the late owner of Flavors and Spices, who first gave me a taste of her version and then her recipe. It was daunting, to say the least. There were just too many steps to get it right (boil then turn off heat, three times) and after a so-so result, the recipe was kept among my forgotten files.
When I was part of the book “Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchens” (ArtPostAsia Pte Ltd, 2007), the Singaporean author, Christopher Tan, introduced me to the history of the dish. He wrote that it was a culinary specialty of China’s Hainan Island, using a variety of chicken known as Wenchang that had a yellowish skin.
Hainanese immigrants to Singapore turned out to be superb chefs and introduced the dish to the island state. He wrote how “amusingly enough, (the dish) has since been reexported to Hainan island as ‘Singapore Chicken Rice.’”
The recipe in the book was much simpler. The chicken this time was only simmered for 12 minutes with the pot partly covered, then covered, taken off the heat, and left to stand for another 20 minutes. The chicken is set aside, rubbed with sesame oil then covered.
What took a lot of time were the sauces and rice served with the chicken. If you’ve had Hainanese chicken rice, you’d know the chicken is presented with its own tasty rice and three kinds of sauces, plus the broth.
Wish come true
Like a Christmas wish come true, Enderun Extension Program offered an online lesson on cooking Hainanese chicken rice. And teaching was chef See Cheong Yan, culinary head of Enderun Colleges. Chef See is Malaysian, and he said his recipe is from his mother.
Enderun had all the ingredients sent to my house, each properly tagged and measured.
Preparing the chicken required searching for the wishbone and extracting it. For a nonculinary student like myself, it required further Googling. Now you may ask why. Chef See explained that it will make cutting the chicken later easier. So I searched for it, found it, tried to extract it whole but only found the two ends.
Because we could not have the Wenchang chicken, chef See made a turmeric bath so that the chicken skin would turn yellow. Easy enough.
The chicken is alternately immersed in hot and cold baths three times “to ensure the skin becomes firm, yellow and taut.”
This chicken still needed to be poached in the broth that was prepared for us, the students. After poaching, it was placed in an ice water bath again and hung to dry. It’s the transferring from broth to bath that needs muscle power and an implement to transfer the chicken. Chef See used a chopstick placed underneath both wings. That was too difficult for me, so I used a Chinese metal strainer.
But for me, the most work was doing the sauces. First, a “fragrant oil” had to be made, then the ginger sauce, chili sauce and supreme soy sauce.
Oh, and not to forget the rice with all the herbs and spices to flavor and make the grain aromatic.
The cutting of the chicken involved taking out the spine. And that made cutting the breast into beautiful slices really a breeze.
Work on the Hainanese chicken rice started at 10 a.m. but was finished at 1:30 p.m. My assistant was my son, and we were both so hungry that we ate right away without taking a photo of our dish.
Strangely, when I told my friends and siblings about my experience, they all wanted the recipe. I wondered whether Holy Week came early and everyone wanted to do penance.
But I must say, my Hainanese chicken rice was so good.