If you’re looking for your next hands-off, delicious one pot dinner, this is it: Hainanese chicken rice.
Have you ever had Hainanese chicken rice before? Are you as obsessed with it as I am? I’m guessing the answer is no because I have a lifelong, deep obsession with chicken rice.
It’s my ultimate comfort food, my all-time-favorite go to meal, my version of Anton Ego’s mom’s ratatouille. You know, the scene in in the Pixar movie where Anton is taken back to his mom’s kitchen and she serves him ratatouille and all is right with the world. That’s Hainanese chicken rice for me.
Chicken and Rice
All cultures have some sort of chicken and rice. The Japanese have oyakodon, Latin Americans have arroz con pollo, and Southeast Asians (and Hainanese people) have Hainanese chicken rice. Like most chicken and rice dishes, it’s simple at heart: poached chicken and seasoned rice served with a variety of sauces.
Like lots of immigrant adapted foods, there are actually a bunch of different types of Hainanese chicken rices: Singaporean, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Thai. Growing up, it was a staple in our house. Chicken rice is the food that can bring me back to my childhood and transport me to some of my favorite memories as an adult. I’m not embarrassed to say that chicken rice is my everything.
What is Hainanese chicken rice?
Hainanese chicken is deceptively simple but somehow complex. It originated in Hainan in Southern China, but its spiritual home is Singapore, where you’ll find renditions of the ever popular dish everywhere, from hawker stands to high end hotels.
I would fight to the death to say that Hainanese chicken rice is the best rendition of chicken and rice out there. It’s so humble, so flavorful, and so pure. At its heart, Hainanese chicken rice is just that: chicken and rice.
The chicken is poached in a simple yet flavorful broth scented with ginger, garlic, and scallions and is silky, firm, and tastes like the most perfect chicken you’ll ever have. The rice that comes with it should stand on its own: full of chicken flavor, slicked with fat, savory, and fragrant.
What’s so special about the rice?
You’ve got to taste it to believe it, but I think the secret to why Hainanese chicken rice is so good is the rice. And the secret to the rice is chicken fat. Any good cook knows that when you cook rice in broth, the broth infuses the inside of the grain, giving it extra flavor. A lot of cultures do this, like how Mexican rice is cooked in tomatoes and onions. Chicken rice goes one step further by frying uncooked rice in chicken fat with garlic, shallots, and ginger before cooking in chicken broth, giving the rice another layer of toasty, aromatic deliciousness. The rice should be glossy, luscious and full of flavor.
The best chicken rice is the one you like making
There are a lot of Hainanese chicken rice recipes that call for 24 hour (or more) cures and other very complicated steps. It doesn’t need to be this way, especially if you just want good chicken rice and you’re not competing with a dozen other chicken rice hawkers at a market. It’s the rice that you need to pay careful attention to, and that’s an easy thing that doesn’t take much extra time.
Personally, I love making chicken rice, I find it therapeutic somehow. But sometimes I just want to eat chicken and rice without cooking a whole chicken. This easy recipe is for those times: skin-on boneless chicken thighs and rice are cooked in one pot for ease and fewer dishes to wash. Win-win!
The secret to great Hainanese chicken rice
This is a basic one pot Hainanese chicken rice with all the flavor and none of the fuss. The recipe starts with chicken fat. If you’re like me and love chicken rice and make it on the regular, you’ll want to keep a jar of rendered chicken fat in the fridge. Even if you’re not like me and don’t want to make chicken rice every day of the week, you’ll want to keep a jar of chicken fat in the fridge. Chicken fat is PURE FLAVOR.
Chicken fat is what makes the rice part of chicken rice taste so good. But, if you don’t have any chicken fat, don’t worry, toasting your rice in any fat is going to give it a glossy, delicious flavor coat. The key is cooking the ginger, garlic, and shallots in fat so that the aromatics release their deliciousness into the rice.
How to render chicken fat
Chicken fat is the key to a good Hainanese chicken rice. The chicken fat adds so much flavor to the rice, you won’t believe it.
- Collect. Trim any excess skin off of your thighs. I tend to collected a bunch of chicken skins, freeze them, then make a big batch of chicken fat and crispy chicken skin when I have a good amount. Every time you have a recipe that calls for boneless skinless, just save buy skin on, take the skins off and freeze them. Soon you’ll have a bunch of chicken skin perfect for this.
- Chop. Use a sharp knife and chop the chicken skin into small 1/2 inch pieces. You can use a pair of scissors for this too.
- Slowly render. Put all of the chicken skins in a non-stick (or cast iron) skillet, pot, or pan. I like using a pot to keep everything from splattering but it’ll be faster in a pan or skillet. Cover and cook on medium low for 15 minutes. The fat will start to render out and collect.
- Crisp. After you have a pretty pool of glistening fat, uncover the skillet and turn the heat up to medium. Let the skin and fat cook, stirring and breaking up occasionally, until the chicken skins start to crisp and brown.
- Strain. After all the skins are brown, remove the pan from the heat and use a fine mesh strainer over a heat proof liquid measuring cup to strain out the crispy skin. The rendered chicken fat is pure flavor. If desired, return the skin to the pan and crisp up further. The crispy chicken skins are the BEST. They’ll continue to crisp up as they cool, so don’t cook them too long. Store the strained fat in a jar in the fridge for several weeks and use to make chicken rice!
- Chicken thigh vs chicken breastBut what about the chicken? Do you need a whole chicken? Should you use dark meat or light if you’re just going with individual pieces? Again, this is personal preference, but I think the whole chicken isn’t necessary. The only question is, do you go with thigh or breast?
When you’re in Singapore, you have to pay extra for dark meat (thighs and drumsticks) because the meat is silkier and more tender. I definitely prefer thighs to chicken breasts when making chicken rice but sometimes I like the texture of breasts too.
How do you eat Hainanese chicken rice?
Everyone eats it differently! Some people like to pour all three sauces on top and mix it all up, some people only use certain sauces, really, it’s up to you. Authentically, like with curry rice, it’s usually served on a plate with a spoon and fork – NOT a bowl and chopsticks – to scoop everything up.
What to serve with Hainanese chicken rice
Traditionally it’s served with the poaching broth the chicken was cooked in, as well as chili sauce, scallion-ginger sauce (I kept it simple here with a scallion only sauce), and dark soy sauce. If you’re in Singapore, they’ll probably give you a couple pieces of cucumber, and a sprig of cilantro on top.
Hainanese chili garlic sauce:
In a food processor, chop 2 fresno peppers, 1 Thai chili, 2 cloves garlic, and a 1 inch piece of ginger until it comes together in a paste. Stir in 2-3 tablespoons of chicken stock, 1 tablespoon lime juice, and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Add salt to taste.
When chicken rice is done well, you almost don’t need the chicken! Mike pretty much just eats giant bowls of the rice with no chicken at all, that’s how good it is. I hope you give this recipe a try, it’s the perfect comfort food for chilly fall days.
Chicken rice forever and always,
1 Rub the chicken skin with the salt and set aside.
2 In a pan or pot with a lid, heat up the chicken fat or oil. Add the ginger, garlic, and shallot. Cook, stirring, until fragrant. Stir in the rice and fry gently until glossy.3 Add chicken stock, then place the chicken, skin side up, in the pan. Add the green onions on top. Bring to boil over medium high heat and when it starts to simmer, cover and turn the heat down to low. Cook for 17 minutes, turn off the heat, and let rest for 10 minutes.4 While the rice is cooking, make the green onion oil: place the green onions in a deep heat proof bowl and set aside.5 In a small pot, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium heat until it reaches 275°F. Remove the pot from the stove and very carefully pour over the green onions – they will sizzle and bubble up. Stir in salt to taste.6 When the 10 minute rest is up, remove and discard the green onions. Remove the chicken and slice. Fluff up the rice and serve with thinly sliced cucumbers and green onion oil. Enjoy immediately!
NotesEstimated nutrition facts don’t include the green onion oil.