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What is Hainan Chicken?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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Hainan chicken, which may also be called Hainanese chicken or chicken rice, is a popular dish in several Asian countries, though it is thought to have originated in China. In the cuisine of Singapore it’s so popular it may be referred to as the national dish of the country, but it’s also is enjoyed in Malaysia and Thailand. Each area may have slight variations on the original.

Standard recipes for Hainan chicken involve cooking a whole chicken in boiling water. The chicken may be stuffed with things like garlic or salt. When the chicken is cooked and has cooled it may be cut or broken into small “bite-size pieces.” At the same time, flavorful rice is prepared, which may be first sautéed with garlic, shallots and ginger. After both chicken and rice are cooked they are combined on the same plate and served with chili sauce, or other dipping sauces.

Some changes to the dish may occur when it is made in Thailand or Malaysia. Rice is sometimes made with coconut milk, providing a nice contrast to hot dipping sauces. In parts of Malaysia, especially in the Malaccan state, rice may be served in balls instead of left loose.

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Thai versions of Hainan chicken, called khao mun gai, vary their dipping sauces and additional ingredients. The dipping saucing does contain chilis, it also includes a paste made from yellow beans that is called tanchu. Like the Chinese version, though, Thai chicken rice is often served with cucumbers.

In Singapore, it’s hard not to find the dish, especially due to the many Hainanese cooks that have influenced Singaporean cuisine. It’s served in high-class eateries and popular as food court food too. Both tourists and natives of Singapore love the dish, explaining its wide availability.

When people think of Chinese food they may think of Cantonese, and Hunan styles, which are fairly popular in the US. Hainan chicken comes from different traditions though variations of it might be available in the different styles in Chinese food. Interestingly, the Hainanese principally come from a small island just off the Southern coast of China, and though originally fishers, a good-sized number of the people immigrated in the early 20th century or late 19th century.

This subgroup of the Han Chinese became known for their culinary gifts outside of China, and have spread their cuisine to many other Asian countries. Hainan chicken is just one example of the influence the Hainanese have had on Southeast Asian Cuisine. Fans of the dish would agree it’s certainly a delicious example, and those who know of the dish may go out of their way to get it when visiting places like China, Singapore or Malaysia.

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