Did y’all know that Hainan Province formed several million years ago in the South China Sea after breaking off from what is now the northeastern coast of Vietnam? Fast forward to the mid-1800s, many people from the Chinese island province started to migrate to nearby Southeast Asia in search of more prosperous economic opportunities. When they left the island, they also brought with them one of the province’s most notable culinary exports, Hainanese chicken rice. The Hainanese immigrants forged roots throughout Southeast Asia, and their eponymous dish made a mark on essentially all of the cuisines in this region. Each of these countries has a variation of this delectable chicken and rice dish.
In Vietnamese cuisine, the dish is known as cơm gà hải nam. It’s such a simple dish composed of few ingredients, yet tastes exquisitely delicious. We start by gently poaching a whole chicken with ginger and onion. Once the chicken is cooked, we remove it from the broth and allow it to cool. I’ve read that some chefs dunk the chicken in ice cold water after cooking it. In doing so, a gelatinous layer forms on the surface of the chicken and the skin becomes more elastic. We then take the rich poaching broth to steam the rice. I skim off and discard all of the chicken fat that comes to the surface of the broth. But, many folks will use that fat to make the rice, which gives it a nice glossy sheen. To give the rice an even bolder flavor, I sauté the rice after steaming it with minced garlic and ginger.
You’re probably wondering how such an ordinary sounding dish made its way into so many cuisines known for their colorful flavors and even becoming one of the national dishes of Singapore. As in French cuisine, it’s the accompanying sauce that elevates this dish from banal to finger-licking scrumptiousness. When I ate this dish at Chinese restaurants in Alhambra and Monterey Park in Southern California, they served it with several dipping sauces–chili, soy and ginger-scallion sauces. Of the three sauces, my favorite was always the ginger-scallion one, which is made of minced ginger, green scallions, oil and salt.
To be honest, I don’t know if the Vietnamese version differs much from the original Hainanese chicken rice. What my mom made at home mirrored the ones that we had at the Chinese restaurants in Southern California. Instead of three sauces though, my mom would only make the ginger-scallion dipping sauce. When I moved to France, this was one of the few dishes that I knew how to make and I, too, would only served it with the ginger-scallion sauce.
I’ve since changed up the sauce that I serve with the chicken. Instead of the oily sauce, I now prefer to dip it in a traditional Vietnamese nước mắm gừng, which is a dipping sauce composed of minced ginger, garlic, chili peppers, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. In Vietnamese cuisine, we often serve this dipping sauce with chicken or duck congee and salads. I find our ginger sauce to be much more flavorful and adds a Vietnamese touch to the dish with the fish sauce.
In addition to the savory sauce, the key to perfecting this dish is to prepare it with a quality chicken. You want to choose one that actually tastes chickeny. I find that the best tasting chickens with higher quality meat are organic, free-range or pasture-raised, antibiotic-free and fed a purely vegetarian diet.
The great thing about making cơm gà hải nam is that nothing goes to waste. Not only is the chicken and rice a complete meal, but I can also squeeze a second dish out of it. Instead of serving the chicken and rice with a side of the poaching broth, I reserve it to make miến gà. I’ll share with y’all the recipe for that bean thread noodle soup with shredded chicken in a different post. In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy my take on Hainanese chicken rice!
Hainanese Chicken Rice | Cơm Gà Hải Nam
1.3 kg whole chicken
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
3 L water (+/- depending on size of pot)
4 tsp salt
8-10 black peppercorns
2 pieces of ginger 6 cm long, peeled
1 onion, peeled
Nước mắm gừng dipping sauce
¼ cup lime juice
3 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce (+/- according to taste)
2 to 3 tbsp ginger, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 bird’s eye chili, finely minced
2 cups uncooked rice
2 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp finely minced garlic
¼ tsp ground black pepper
Stock from poaching chicken
1 cucumber, sliced
Cilantro to garnish
Clean the chicken inside and out and thoroughly pat it dry with paper towels before seasoning it with salt and pepper. I usually clean my chickens by rinsing them with water, but I recently read that chickens should be cleaned by rubbing them with lemon juice or vinegar. Since the FDA advises against the method I use, I’ll have to test the citric method the next time I cook chicken. Once the chicken has been cleaned and seasoned, you can cook it immediately or allow it to marinate in the fridge overnight.
Cut each of the pieces of ginger in half, and place 2 of them in the chicken’s cavity. Then, place the chicken, salt, black peppercorns, onion, remaining 2 pieces of ginger and water in a sauce pan. I usually pour hot water boiled beforehand over the chicken. Allow the water to come a gentle boil. Cover and continue cooking the chicken for about 40 minutes. Occasionally check on the chicken to make sure that the water never heats up to more than a gentle boil, otherwise the broth will become cloudy. To check if the chicken is done, insert a chopstick into the drumstick and if the liquid coming out of the chicken is clear, then it’s done. Or, you can insert a cooking thermometer to verifyy that the internal temperature of the chicken has reached 165°F. Remove the chicken from the stock and allow to cool.
Nước mắm gừng
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the dipping sauce. Mix lime juice with sugar until it becomes a syrup like mixutre. Add the fish sauce and taste to make sure that the mix is well balanced. If it’s too salty, add some sugar, or if it’s not salty enough, add a little more fish sauce. Mix in the minced garlic, ginger and chili pepper, which will give the sauce a thick, dense consistency. The dipping sauce should not be runny like regular nước mắm sauce, so add more minced ginger if it’s not thick enough.
Rinse the rice clean with water. Steam the rice with the poaching stock and a dash of black pepper in a rice cooker*. I have never measured out the amount of water I add when cooking rice. My mom taught me to insert my index finger until it touches the surface of the rice and add enough water until reaches the first line on my finger. That has always worked for me, but I’m well aware that everyone’s finger length differs. So, a good ratio to use is 1:2 rice to water, or in this case, broth.
After steaming the rice, fluff it up in the pot with chopsticks. Heat up about a tablespoon or so of cooking oil in a sauté pan. Add the minced garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant. Add the fluffed rice to the pan and sauté until the garlic and ginger have flavored the rice (about 4-5 minutes). Add a dash of freshly ground black pepper and give it a final stir.
Once cooled, chop the chicken into serving size pieces. Pack a rice bowl with the sautéed rice and invert it over a plate. Assemble the chicken around the rice with sliced cucumbers. Serve with the nước mắm gừng dipping sauce and a small bowl of the chicken broth garnished with chopped cilantro.
*If you don’t have a rice cooker, the rice can also be steamed over the stove. Add the rice and stock to a pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Once bubbles start forming at the surface, turn the heat down to low, give the rice a stir and continue cooking for another 15 minutes covered. Once the rice has absorbed all of the poaching broth, remove from heat and allow to sit covered for about 3-5 minutes. Then, fluff the rice with chopsticks as you would after steaming it in a rice cooker.
Bonne dégustation & thanks for reading!