Food for Thought: Hainanese Chicken Rice

This Southeast Asian wonder is a story of migrant frugality and success

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Sliced chicken rests on top of lettuce, beside a dome-shaped scoop of yellow rice
A globally loved dish and its complicated cultural history. Photo courtesy of Alpha / Flickr

By: Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

If you told seven year old me that she was getting a treat, she would picture Hainanese chicken rice. At six dollars a pop in Singapore, the aromatic rice paired with succulent chicken and dipping sauces blew my mind. The dish may look innocuous, but together, the flavours were a symphony of comfort I would dream about constantly. Though it’s been over a decade since I’ve moved to Canada, I’m still in search of a restaurant that can stand up to the hawker stalls back home.

Like the name suggests, Hainanese chicken rice stemmed from Wenchang chicken rice: a dish made on an island in Southern China called Hainan. Hainanese citizens migrated to what was then “British Malaya,” known as Malaysia and Singapore today. These were the countries I grew up in, and food has always been a major storyteller of migrant resilience. Before the 1960s, British occupation and influence had an effect on the economy and education system— my dad was born in the 1950s and would talk about the British boarding schools in Singapore. His father was one of the millions of Chinese migrants in the Malaya peninsulas who had come to Malaya for economic opportunities. Likewise, from the 1880s to 1940s, many Hainan immigrants made their way to Malaya to work in tin mines. Wenchang chicken rice became a part of their story and would grow to be an infamous dish worldwide.

To my understanding, other Chinese groups like Cantonese and Hokkien people had emigrated earlier and established footholds in sectors like trade and agriculture. Because of this, Hainanese people struggled to find employment within these sectors and communicate in their dialect. Many migrants could only work in the service industry as cooks or domestic servants. Hainanese chicken rice was made at home, using the different local fowls and spices to adapt the original recipe from Wenchang chicken, a thinner fowl. A chef on Singapore’s Orchard Street, Liew Tian Heong, explained that chicken rice was a way to keep food on the table with the financial strife the Hainanese migrants endured. “They would make sure they got the most out of it by stretching out the flavour of the chicken — via the broth and the rice and so on — as much as possible.”

Singapore heritage enthusiast Brian Wong writes that after World War II and the Japanese occupation, there was an economic slump in Malaya because the British had left the region. This was when Hainanese chicken rice made its way from home kitchens to the many chicken rice stalls that started popping up in the region, because migrants were forced to find work as street hawkers — selling food as outdoor vendors. Their work would help establish hawker culture in Malaysia and Singapore. Although hawker culture generally prospered in the region of Malaya, Singapore is the nation awarded with the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Any Singaporean would be proud to talk about the mountains of delicious foods in the hawker centres. Here, you’ll find freshly made sugar cane juice, carrot cake, and of course, Hainanese chicken rice. 

From there, the homely dish of poached chicken and oily rice became infamous. What made chicken rice so special was the rice itself: fried in chicken fat, then boiled in chicken broth, ginger, lemongrass, and other fragrant spices. The yellow, flavorful rice is the most delectable part of this simple dish. Most notably, it became associated with Singapore.

When Singapore and Malaysia split in 1965, both countries laid claim to the regional food, and still continue to. When I’ve encountered versions of this dish in Canada, I’ve almost exclusively heard it called “Singaporean chicken rice,” so it’s clear how much Singapore purports this as a national dish. But in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a Hainanese chicken rice restaurant has proudly been open since the 1930s, longer than when Singapore opened its first chicken rice stall in 1940 by Wong Yiguan. So who does this belong to? 

To this day, because I am both Malaysian and Singaporean, I admittedly feel conflicted about the debate. What I do know is that this dish, so iconic of the cuisine I grew up with, is about overcoming both British and Japanese occupations. It’s the dish of immigrants. Every bite of the succulent poached chicken tells the stories of the Hainanese migrants who made hawker culture prosper.  

For a 23 year old me, this dish is still a treat that has me grinning mouth-to-mouth. Some of my favourite places to sit and have Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine is a restaurant in Coquitlam called Singapore Hawker — order up a plate of chicken rice, and taste it for yourself!