What Makes Hainanese Chicken Rice Special?

Chicken and rice is such a popular combination we can't think of any international cuisine without it. There is the traditional Spanish paella cooked with chicken. Then there is arroz con pollo, which is popular not only in the Caribbean but also in Latin America. If you want something slightly fancier, there is traditional jambalaya. Further away and in South Asia, there is the famed chicken biryani. There are even different regional versions of chicken rice that exist across Southeast Asia — nasi ayam in Malaysia, khao man gai in Thailand, and com gai Hai Nam in Vietnam, per Foodicles. The combo also works in home cooking and for simple meals that are quick and easy to assemble, like the straightforward one-pot chicken and rice.

While some of its Asian cousins might come close, Hainanese chicken rice is none of these things. The chicken is poached whole and, at first glance, looks even bland and uninspiring. Yet this savory chicken dish is delectable enough not only to be named Singapore's national dish, but make it to CNN Travel's list of the world's 50 best foods.

Hainanese chicken rice, an intangible cultural heritage: Singapore

Despite its name, Hainanese chicken rice wasn't invented on the Chinese island of Hainan — it was actually created in Singapore by immigrants who had moved to the region sometime during the 19th century. The original dish is said to be inspired by Hainan's wenchang chicken. Only young, fresh chickens can be used to make Hainan chicken rice, so the meat is tender and delectable, per Roots.

Now considered by the Singapore government to be an "intangible cultural heritage," chicken rice is made by poaching chicken in boiling water until it is cooked, which takes about 45 to 50 minutes in boiling water. Once it is ready, the whole chicken is fished out of the water and plunged into an ice bath, which is meant to stop it from cooking further, leaving it juicy, per The Woks of Life. The use of ice water to stop the chicken from cooking further is an idea cribbed from Cantonese cooking, per Roots.

But the chicken in chicken rice can be served in other ways too; it can also be roasted or cooked in soya sauce, per Roots.

What makes Hainanese chicken rice special

So what is it about this unassuming chicken rice that has put it on top of the list of so many people's "must-have" dishes? As chefs like Singapore's Liew Tian Heong point out, what really makes chicken rice stand out isn't the chicken part of the equation; it's the rice per BBC, whose raw grains are first fried in chicken fat before it is cooked in the broth used to cook the chicken in, and to which is added aromatics that include ginger, garlic, as well as pandan, or screwpine leaves, per Roots.

Good chicken rice is so memorable that, in the words of Anthony Bourdain: "...it can be eaten on its own," per The Travel Mentor. It can also be served with sides like cucumber slices, soy eggs, bean curd, bean sprouts, or pickled vegetable, per Roots.

But even when it is savored with just its three signature dipping sauces — dark soy, chili, as well as ginger and ginger, per The Woks of Life — the simple Hainanese chicken rice is elevated, so it becomes simply ambrosial.