What is Hainan chicken rice? Where to find the best of the Singapore staple

THE DISH

Hainanese Chicken Rice, Singapore

PLATE UP

Consider sushi, the Japanese staple. Newbies will tell you the most important part of sushi is obviously the seafood. True aficionados, however, will assure you that the signature of a great sushi chef is actually the rice. And the same goes with Singapore's iconic Hainanese chicken rice. You might think the star of the show is the chicken, delicately poached, with firm flesh, soft skin, and a layer of jellied fat between them, served with pots of minced red chilli, dark soy, and ginger. The real star, however, is the rice, which is cooked in a rich broth of chicken stock, chicken fat, ginger, garlic and pandan, and is incredibly textural and flavourful.

FIRST SERVE

We're getting into dangerous territory here. I'm switching off my email accounts as we speak. Because, though the inspiration for Hainanese chicken rice is easy to divine – poached chicken with rice from China's Hainan province, called "Wenchang chicken" – the exact origin of the dish we now know as Hainanese chicken rice is fiercely disputed. Many say it was developed in Singapore by street vendor Moh Lee Twee, who went on to found the restaurant Swee Kee Chicken Rice in 1949. And this dish is certainly a continuing obsession in the city-state. There are also, however, claims that Hainanese chicken rice was being served at the Kuala Lumpur restaurant Nam Heong as early as 1938. I'm just going to say that the debate remains unsettled and then back slowly out of the room.

ORDER THERE

In Kuala Lumpur, Nam Heong (56 Jalan Sultan, City Centre) still exists, though not under the original ownership. In Singapore, you could spend months sampling chicken rice, though begin at Tian Tian Chicken Rice at the Maxwell hawker centre, or Ming Kee in the Kim San Leng Food Centre.

ORDER HERE

In Sydney, try Temasek in Parramatta (temasekrestaurant.com), or Malacca Straits in Ultimo (malaccastraitsonbroadway.com.au). In Melbourne, hit The Old Raffles Place in Collingwood (www.oldrafflesplace.com).

ONE MORE THING

For a variation on Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, try "soya sauce chicken", another hugely popular dish, this time Cantonese in inspiration. The chicken here is braised in an aromatic broth of spices and dark soy, and served with rice or noodles.

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