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It’s a rare dish whose popularity spans continents, but one known simply as “chicken rice” is accomplishing just that.
Hainanese chicken originally hails from Hainan island off the southern shores of China, and has been hugely popular across Malaysia, Indonesia, and in Singapore for ages, but now it’s ubiquitous.
And it’s so simple it hurts: poached chicken with rice.
It is also a rare dish that's strong enough to launch a single-dish restaurant, but such are the charms of this one. We first encountered the one-hit wonder several years ago in Portland, Oregon, at Nong’s Khao Man Gai, where the owner sold only khao man gai (the Thai version of Hainanese chicken) from a cart, and now has three locations around the city. More recently, as the New York Times noted, chicken rice has spawned two New York restaurants—and that’s all they serve.
It’s a testament to the enduring comfort factor of chicken, and this one is our new standard bearer: When poached correctly, in a flavorful broth, the chicken is gently gingery. It’s sliced and served alongside more broth, chile sauce, and rice. It’s ugly as sin, but man is it good.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
For chicken and broth
1 (3- to 3 1/2-lb) chicken
3 teaspoons salt
4 qt water
4 (1/8-inch-thick) slices fresh ginger, smashed
For chile sauce
6 (3- to 3 1/2-inch-long) fresh hot red Thai chiles or serrano chiles, chopped
1 shallot, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped peeled fresh ginger
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 cups jasmine rice
4 shallots, thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 English cucumber
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1 bunch or 1 (4-oz) bag watercress, coarse stems discarded
Special equipment: a mini food processor and a U-shaped vegetable peeler
Garnish: fresh cilantro leaves or sprigs
Prepare chicken and broth:Remove fat from cavity of chicken and reserve for rice. Rub chicken inside and out with 1 teaspoon salt.
Bring water with remaining 2 teaspoons salt and ginger to a boil in a 6- to 8-quart pot wide enough to hold chicken. Put chicken, breast down, in water and return to a boil, covered. Simmer chicken, partially covered, 20 minutes and remove from heat. Let chicken stand in hot broth, covered and undisturbed, until just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
Letting broth drain from chicken cavity into pot, transfer chicken to a large bowl of ice and cold water and reserve broth for rice and soup. Cool chicken completely, turning once. Drain chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Cut into serving pieces.
Make chile sauce while chicken is cooking: Pulse chile-sauce ingredients to a coarse paste in mini food processor.
Make rice: Cook reserved chicken fat in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring, until rendered, then discard solids. Add vegetable oil if necessary to make 2 tablespoons fat.
Wash rice under cold running water until water runs clear and drain well.
Cook shallots in fat over moderate heat, stirring, until browned. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add rice and cook, stirring gently, 1 minute.
Add 3 cups reserved broth and bring to a boil. Boil until liquid on surface is evaporated and small bubbles appear from holes in rice, 3 to 4 minutes.
Cover and cook over very low heat until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes more. Remove from heat and let stand, covered and undisturbed, 5 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork and cover.
Assemble dishes: Shave as many long ribbons as possible from cucumber with a U-shaped vegetable peeler and chill ribbons in another bowl of ice and cold water 15 minutes. Drain well.
Stir together soy sauce and sesame oil.
Bring 6 cups reserved broth and watercress to a boil in a 3-quart saucepan and simmer 1 minute. Remove pan from heat and let stand until watercress is a shade darker, about 3 minutes.
Drizzle soy-sesame mixture over chicken. Serve chicken with cucumber ribbons and individual bowls of rice, soup, and chile sauce.
Cooks’ note: Chicken and broth may be prepared 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring chicken to room temperature before proceeding.