Just like French fries didn't come from France, Hainan chicken isn't from Hainan island in China.
There is, however, a consensus that the deliciously silky chicken dish did get its inspiration from what is commonly known just as “chicken rice” in the southern Chinese province, or “wen chang” chicken, as it's come to be known.
The wen chang chicken is a free-range chicken breed used to make chicken rice in Hainan. The chicken roams around islanders' homes pecking at fallen coconuts as its main diet.
According to food critic and Hainan native Isaac Lau, the wen chang chicken is hard to come by nowadays. “There’s been a lot of development in Hainan and there just aren’t enough farmers to keep up with the demand.” he says.
Lau describes wen chang chicken as having an incredibly smooth, almost translucent skin with firm flesh that is sweet on the palate.
Bones and other odds and ends are cooked to make a broth that is used to make the accompanying rice, but that is where the similarities with the "Hainan chicken" dish end.
It's from Singapore or Malaysia, but who was first?
It's largely accepted that the dish's origins come from Southeast Asian countries Singapore and Malaysia, where Hainanese immigrants in the early 1900s recreated a taste of home with a twist, with the ingredients available to them there. Many Hainanese immigrants worked in industries including F&B and hospitality.
Hong Kong food critic Chua Lam has gone deeper, tracing the beginnings of Hainan chicken to Moh Lee Twee, the owner of Swee Kee Chicken Rice Restaurant in Singapore, who launched the dish around 1949.
Like many entrepreneurs of the 1930s, Moh came from humble beginnings as a street stall vendor, who was known for the way he packaged his chicken and rice separately using bamboo tubes, and famed for his fragrant rice, packed into tight balls.
Malaysians, however, lay claim to an even earlier originator than Moh Lee Twee. Anecdotes point to one of the founders of the Kuala Lumpur restaurant Nam Heong, who started selling chicken rice as a street vendor in the town of Klang in the 1920s.
It's all in the rice
Away from the debate on its origins, many chicken rice experts agree that the emphasis on the dish has today become the rice—not the chicken.
Charles Choi, CEO of Tian Tian Catering Group in Hong Kong, says: “There are three components to an authentic dish, the most important being the rice, then the sauces and, finally, the chicken.
“The rice should be made with the broth of the chicken with the shallots, ginger and pandan leaves used to marinate the chicken and the aroma of these ingredients should be discernible.
“While there should be plenty of chicken fat in the process, the rice should not be greasy.”
And of the three sauces—chili, ginger, and thick dark soy—that are typically served alongside, Choi says fresh chilli should be used for the sauce and never kept for more than a day.
“The chicken should be so smooth that it almost ‘slurpable’, and a layer of jelly, instead of fat, should be under the thin chicken skin,” he adds.
Adapted from an original piece posted on Style Magazine.