Why Hainanese Chicken Rice is a must-try dish in Singapore

This delectable Singapore street hawker favourite looks simple but packs a flavour punch.

Top shot of a Hainanese chicken rice serving with condiments and chopsticks.
  • Kaitlyn Palmer-Allen
  • April 2020

It is deceptively simple but Hainanese chicken rice does not want for flavour, packing chicken goodness into the silky poached meat, fragrant rice and tangy chilli sauce (and often cucumber garnishes). Served at hawker centres across the city-state, it also pops up on menus in restaurants and hotels. While the price (and the recipe) may vary, one thing remains the same: Hainanese chicken rice is Singaporean comfort food at its best.

How is Hainanese chicken rice made?

Hainanese chicken should be smooth – some even say “slurpable” – with a layer of jelly-like fat beneath the skin. The process to perfection starts with steeping a whole chicken in boiling water until it is fully cooked. The bird is then plunged into an icy bath, locking in flavour while keeping the meat tender and preserving the skin. Before the chicken is cut into bite-sized slices, it is hung to dry. You will spot these succulent beauties hanging in a row at local food stalls in Singapore.

People queuing up at a street food stall at Maxwell Food Centre selling Hainanese Chicken Rice
Hainanese chicken rice is a beloved Singaporean street food classic.

Packed with flavour

Arguably, the most important part of the dish isn’t the chicken, it is the rice – it has to be fragrant and good enough to eat on its own. To stretch out the flavour from the chook as much as possible, the broth from cooking the chicken is used to boil the rice. But first, rendered excess fat from inside the bird’s cavity is used to stir-fry the grains with garlic. Hot stock, pandan leaves and ginger slices are then added to build aroma and depth.

The accompaniments sneak even more chicken into the dish. A small bowl of red chilli dipping sauce infused with ginger, lime and chicken fat adds the right amount of spicy and tangy flavours to every bite.

Close up of a plate of Hainanese chicken rice.
The secret to its tastiness is in infusing the rice with all the chicken flavour.

History of the dish

Hainanese people began immigrating to Singapore in the 1800s and brought with them a meal called Wenchang chicken, believed to be what this dish is based on. Hainanese immigrants worked for British colonists until the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, when they had to find new ways to earn a living. This was when the first Hainanese chicken rice restaurant is said to have opened in Singapore.