Friday, September 25, 2009

Hainanese Chicken Rice

My first taste of Hainanese Chicken Rice was at the coffee shop of this hotel at the then South Superhighway in Makati. The hotel is long gone but its building still stands, tired and forlorn, converted into commercial spaces and offices. I can't remember its name but recalling it dates me, I know. It doesn't matter. What does matter is my memory of that first bite - tasty, moist morsels of chicken, bathed in 3 sauces of black sweet soy, yellow pungent ginger and red tangy chili with rice shiny and redolent with chicken flavors. I returned to the restaurant many times thereafter, never tiring of the dish, occasionally pairing it with a Char Siew-Crispy Pork combination.

I mourned the hotel's demise but soon found myself traveling many times to the place of worship of Chicken Rice - Singapore. This was way before the internet and blogs, where research depended on knowing whom to ask and picking up the right newspaper or magazine article. I was told then that the end all and be all of Hainanese Chicken Rice was at the Chatterbox of the Mandarin Hotel on Orchard Road. I tried it and didn't agree. Being a novice at food tripping, I wasn't very adventurous and chose to sulk, lick my wounds and vow to return another day. Thus began my journey of finding the perfect Hainanese Chicken Rice. There was Bun Tong Kee which did assuage my disappointment somehow. But I was chasing after a taste memory and every chance I had, I sampled many versions of Chicken Rice. My Singapore friends were amused and some totally baffled. I once chose Chicken Rice over Angus Prime Rib Roast Beef at the lunch buffet of the Pan Pacific causing our host to exclaim, "I should have brought you to the hawker's center instead and paid less than the cost of your drink at this restaurant!", shaking his head in disbelief. He never got it but he went along and presented me with a bottle of chili sauce for Hainanese Chicken Rice at the awards ceremony of our farewell dinner, eliciting much applause from the audience.

I had a business colleague in the know, Simon was his name, and he indulged me, always ready with a list of restaurants to try. I was pretty extreme, almost fanatical in my search. He told me about a restaurant that was featured in the Straits Times and anointed as the best in Singapore for Chicken Rice. I had a trip to Jakarta coming up and I purposely chose to fly Singapore Airlines so that I could stop in Singapore on the way back, a 4-hour layover just for lunch. Shades of a jet-setter's lifestyle, a moment of insanity or just plain katakawan. Simon picked me up at the airport, drove me to the restaurant, stuffed me with Chicken Rice till I couldn't breathe and drove me back. It was one of the best, if not the best. But silly me. I don't remember the name nor the place, confident that I would always have Simon around to take me. But he quit before I could return and I don't know where to find him and everyone else that I have met have no clue where Simon took me.

I've tried most of those listed in the Makan guide, some better than most and while I still behave like a mad person in search of the perfect bite, I've been generally happy with what I have tried over the years. I have never found one in the Philippines that makes me smile so I have made it a part of my family's food at home, our comfort food to share with friends or just when we have a hankering for it. I have scoured and bought many cookbooks and gotten tips from mothers of Singapore friends and colleagues, as well as chefs and cooks, hoping to finally, finally get it. Through the years, I have come to understand that it is as ordinary as adobo is to us, so simple yet so popular. Everyone has a secret - from the sauce to the chicken. Everyone has a special technique. I have since adopted the many secrets that I have learned in my version. I still don't think it's perfect but it definitely is a good one. Oftentimes, it's the journey of discovery that makes it special.

Here's my personal recipe of Hainanese Chicken Rice. I am sure that you will find a way to make it special and personal.

Hainanese Chicken Rice

1 whole chicken, preferably 1.5kg and above, cleaned, with fat intact
1 whole ginger, palm-size, brushed and washed, unpeeled or peeled, smashed once with a mallet
6 cloves garlic, smashed once with a pestle or a knife
1 bunch green onions, roots and dark green parts discarded
sesame oil
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into sticks
soy sauce
1 bunch coriander, washed, stems removed
sweet soya sauce
chili sauce for Hainanese Chicken

Add ginger, garlic and green onions to a large pot of water. Bring to a boil. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add chicken and a large pinch of salt. Return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium high, cover pot with its lid and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off heat. Do not remove lid. Set aside until pot is cool to the touch, about 2-3 hours.

Prepare ginger sauce. Recipe below.

Cook chicken rice. Recipe below.

Remove chicken from pot and drain. Chicken should still be warm. Rub inside and out with salt and sesame oil. Set aside 5 minutes to allow flavors to develop. Debone and chop.

Arrange cucumber sticks on platter. Top with chicken then drizzle with chicken broth mixed with a dash of soy sauce. Garnish with coriander.

Serve with the 3 sauces - ginger, sweet soya and chili and steaming hot chicken rice.

Serves 4-6.

Ginger Sauce
1 whole ginger, peeled
1/2 tsp green onions (light green parts only), chopped
pinch of salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil

Grate ginger, discarding fibrous parts. Mix with green onions and salt.

Heat vegetable oil in a pan till smoking then add sesame oil quickly. Remove from heat and pour hot oil over ginger mixture. You will hear the ginger sizzle and sear. Mix well and serve.

Chicken Rice
1" pc of ginger, peeled and sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup rice, washed and drained
2 cups chicken broth

In a pot over medium high heat, heat vegetable oil. Saute ginger and garlic until fragrant and begins to turn brown. Discard ginger and garlic. Add rice and stir until grains are covered in oil. Add broth and cover pot with lid. Simmer until rice is cooked.

Notes: I have been told by many Singapore chefs and home cooks that the true secret to Chicken Rice is the chicken. It must be at least 1.5kg so that it is plump. The chickens in Singapore have a lot of fat compared to what we get in the Philippines. It could be the breed or the feed or both. We just don't have the same thing so there is no way we can duplicate their Hainanese Chicken Rice. The most we can do is come close. It is also very difficult, if not impossible to find chicken that is 1.5kg in the regular markets and supermarkets so just get the biggest that you can find. I like using the Premium Bounty Fresh that is vacuum packed since they seem plumper than most. I've also tried using the free-range chickens from Abra and got terrible results. The chicken is too lean and muscular resulting in a dry and tough dish. You will notice that I use vegetable oil for the rice. Singapore hawker cooks use oil rendered from chicken fat so you get that full flavor of chicken. But at home, I'm more careful with my arteries so I substitute vegetable oil. I've also used Jasponica brown rice in place of polished white rice. So for those that have chosen to go brown like myself and my family, it truly works.