Travel

The Humble Chicken Rice Dish That's Changing What It Means to Get a Michelin Star

Inside my hawker stall favorite.

October 26, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Ever since the Michelin Guide took on Singapore in 2016, it’s never quite been the same. For the first time ever, humble, inexpensive hawker center dishes were welcomed into the folds of the culinary elite, given coveted Michelin stars previously reserved only for the swankiest restaurants serving courses and courses of the most pristine plates of food with impeccable service and a side of pomp.

Hawker centers, on the other hand, are large complexes that house collections of smaller stalls, which serve two or three specialized dishes each. Think: the Newton Food Centre in Crazy Rich Asians, where Nick and Rachel had a whole Southeast Asian feast of satays, cendols, wonton noodles, and probably durians too.

So you can imagine how groundbreaking it was when Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, a stall (not even a restaurant!) that serves Cantonese roasts at $2 SGD ($1.50 USD) a plate, received a Michelin star. Singaporean (and Malaysian) food was finally having its crowning moment. Since then, more hawker stalls like Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle and Bangkok’s Raan Jay Fai have joined the one-Michelin-star ranks.

Out of all the recent praise and awards lavished onto hawker food, however, the one that truly blew my mind was the Bib Gourmand (a title one tier below a star but no less coveted) awarded to Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice in 2017. Like its name suggests, Tian Tian is a stall that subsists on serving just one dish: Hainanese chicken rice.

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This chicken rice is one of the simplest Chinese dishes that, like so many iconic cultural recipes, comes from humble beginnings. Though its roots are in Hainan, China, it only gained reverence after Chinese emigrants brought it to Malaysia and Singapore nearly a century ago. By managing to extract an insane amount of flavor from the modest bird, Hainanese chicken rice is a testament to the true ingenuity of home cooks during times of poverty and war.

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Top Comment:
“I lived in Singapore for 8 years and became a huge Chicken Rice fan. Tian tian in Maxwell Hawker Centre makes an excellent version, but the winner version is Boon Tong Kee on Balestier Road. Both the chicken and the rice had a flavor that was beyond compare. We have been back in the US for 7 years now, but, any future trip to Singapore will include a stop at Boon Tong Kee. ”
— Ellen W.
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As a child, I ate Hainanese chicken rice nearly once a week at the bustling little Hock Hin hawker center two blocks away from my primary school in suburban Kuala Lumpur. In fact, it’s a dish many Malaysians and Singaporeans eat as children.

It helps, I suppose, that it's cheap. At just 5 ringgit ($1.20 USD) a plate, it's no surprise that people from all walks of life can enjoy it regularly.

You might be wondering: That's just chicken and rice; how good can it be?

The gleaming, succulent chicken, that steamy mound of oiled rice, plus the extra large bowl of soup the hawker auntie would generously offer to me for free, was the sort of spirit-lifting dish I found comfort in as a kid, especially after a draining day of classes.

Despite Hainanese chicken rice's history as an affordable dish most commonly served in crowded, humid hawker centers, on pastel plastic plates with non-matching stainless steel cutlery, it’s managed to make even the hoitiest of food critics swoon with delight and induct it into their culinary halls of fame. Little did we know, growing up, that our after-school snack would end up becoming a Michelin-worthy dish!

Still, for me, Hainanese chicken rice will always be humble hawker stall fare and, honest to its origins, proper home cooking.

The gleaming, succulent chicken, that steamy mound of oiled rice, plus the extra large bowl of soup the hawker auntie would generously offer to me for free, was the sort of spirit-lifting dish I found comfort in as a kid, especially after a draining day of classes.

How to Make Hainanese Chicken Rice at Home

To cook it at home, all you have to do is simmer the chicken in water—claws, livers, gizzards and all—along with a few simple aromatics (most commonly ginger and spring onions).

Then, after the flavor and fat of the chicken seeps into the clear broth, remove the bird and use the broth to cook the rice, flavor it all the way through like in a risotto. Any leftover broth is served as soup. What results is a modest meal of succulent, subtly-spiced chicken, and glistening pearls of rice made savory and rich by the fatty umami extracted from the chicken.

So if you didn’t grow up with Hainanese chicken rice like I did, then it's worth recreating this cultural icon in your own kitchen. While it might not be quite on par with Tian Tian’s, it might still pack that bit of Michelin magic.

Have you ever had Hainanese chicken rice? Let us know in the comments below.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Shandh35
    Shandh35
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    Ellen White
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    Claudia T
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    ROY ONG EU JIN
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    Ange
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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.

11 Comments

Shandh35 August 2, 2019
I made this a few days ago. The rice is absolutely killer. The chicken was good. I found the star anise to be a little overpowering, however.
 
Ellen W. December 3, 2018
I lived in Singapore for 8 years and became a huge Chicken Rice fan. Tian tian in Maxwell Hawker Centre makes an excellent version, but the winner version is Boon Tong Kee on Balestier Road. Both the chicken and the rice had a flavor that was beyond compare. We have been back in the US for 7 years now, but, any future trip to Singapore will include a stop at Boon Tong Kee.
 
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Yi J. December 4, 2018
Ooh thank for the recommendation, imma try Boon Tong Kee the next time I'm there! And that's so true, there are so many great chicken rice stalls around beyond Tian Tian! I've had so many recommendations from friends - Ming Kee in Bishan is one, Redhill hawker centre is another, and there's apparently a really famous one at the Katong shopping centre food court too!
 
Claudia T. November 2, 2018
Oh I love this. I had this dish a lot as a kid in Thailand, but when we'd go back to America I could rarely get it (unless my mom made it for me). In Thai it's called khao mun gai, which I think is literally "rice in chicken oil"!
 
ROY O. October 28, 2018
Michelin listing restaurants are credible, most of the local stalls' accolades are at times incredulous.
 
Ange October 26, 2018
What kind of chicken did you use? I tried the ang mo chicken (Foster farms) and the taste is not quite the same.
 
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Yi J. October 29, 2018
Oh hmm I'm not too sure about chickens in the US actually. In Malaysia, I get my chickens from the wet market, and they're usually medium-sized, 3-4 pound ones that are quite meaty (not too fatty), and aren't pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. Maybe try using organic chickens in the US!
 
Brian December 9, 2018
Hormones are not allowed in poultry or pork in the USA, antibiotics are used though. They just raise them in small spaces and not allowed to move around much.
 
Catalicious June 18, 2019
Look for pasture-raised, not free range. Pasture raised is the best because the chickens get a varied diet. Free range only means they are not in cages but may be in very crowded Quonset huts.
 
HalfPint October 26, 2018
Hainanese Chicken, Yes!
 
Eric K. October 26, 2018
:)