To say my mother is Hainanese and a gifted cook is like saying Singaporeans love to eat. An overstatement. Growing up in a Hainanese kampong (village) on my great-grandmother’s chicken rice (fowl fattened for the grand sacrifice, rice steamed in its fat, its glistening skin blended into the chili sauce), I found that very few renditions pass my mom’s taste test.
Chicken rice is succulent chicken infused with ginger, then either poached or slung into a furnace and roasted. Expertly sliced with Samurai precision, the beautifully splayed meat is served atop rice. (The rice is first fried in chicken fat before being steamed in the poultry’s juices, pandan, and ginger to fragrant effect.)
When chicken rice arrived from Hainan in the colonial 1850s, the Cantonese introduced kalamansi into the chili sauce. They also used red chilies, effectively giving chicken rice its Singaporean citizenship with the immigration of these local Southeast Asian ingredients. The dish took on a more curvaceous shape with tender young chickens, and grew in popularity from downtown Hainanese enclaves of Middle Road, Purvis Street, and Seah Street in the early 1900s.
Hainanese purists drizzle dark soy sauce over a perfectly round mound of rice, and mix a ginger/garlic dip into the chili. Yeo Keng Nam is one stalwart where you’ll find my mom digging into her favorite thigh-and-gizzard combo.