Food for Thought: Hainanese Chicken Rice

A globally popular dish and its complicated cultural history. Photo courtesy of Alpha/Flickr

By: Kelly Chia, humor editor

If you told my seven year old daughter that she was getting a treat, she would imagine Hainanese chicken rice. At six dollars a pop in Singapore, the aromatic rice with succulent chicken and sauces blew me away. The dish may seem innocuous, but together the flavors were a symphony of comfort that I constantly craved. Even though it’s been over a decade since I moved to Canada, I’m still looking for a restaurant that can stand up to the street vendor stalls back home.

As the name suggests, Hainanese Chicken Rice stemmedical Wenchang chicken rice: a dish prepared on an island in southern China called Hainan. Hainanese citizens migrated to what was then “British Malaya”, known as Malaysia and Singapore today. These are the countries I grew up in, and food has always been a big deal storyteller migrant resilience. Prior to the 1960s, British occupation and influence had an effect on the economy and educational system— my father was born in the 1950s and talked about British boarding schools in Singapore. His father was one of millions of Chinese migrants in the Malay Peninsulas which had come to Malaysia for economic opportunities. Similarly, from the 1880s to the 1940s, many immigrants from Hainan traveled to Malaysia to work in the tin mines. Wenchang Chicken Rice became part of their history and would become an infamous dish around the world.

To my knowledge, other Chinese groups such as the Cantonese and the Hokkien had emigrated earlier and gained a foothold in sectors such as commerce and agriculture. For this reason, the Hainanese have found it difficult to find employment in these sectors and to communicate in their dialect. Many migrants could only work in the service sector as cooks or servants. The Hainanese chicken rice was homemade, using the various local poultry and spices to adapt the original Wenchang chicken recipe, finer poultry. A chef at Singapore’s Orchard Street, Liew Tian Heong, Explain that chicken rice was a way to keep food on the table with the financial conflicts endured by Hainanese migrants. “They would make sure to get the most out of it by stretching the flavor of the chicken – via broth and rice, etc. – as much as possible.”

Brian Wong, Singaporean heritage enthusiast writing that after the Second World War and the Japanese occupation, there was an economic crisis in Malaysia because the British had left the area. This is when Hainanese chicken rice moved from home kitchens to the many chicken rice stalls that began to appear in the area, as migrants were forced to find work as street vendors – selling food as outdoor vendors. Their work would help establish the hawker culture in Malaysia and Singapore. Although the hawker culture has generally flourished in the Malaysian region, Singapore is the nation reward with UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Any Singaporean would be proud to talk about the mountains of delicious food at hawker centres. Here you will find freshly made cane juice, carrot cake and, of course, Hainanese chicken rice.

From there, the family dish of poached chicken and fatty rice became infamous. What made chicken rice so special was the rice himself: fried in chicken fat, then boiled in chicken broth, ginger, lemongrass and other fragrant spices. The yellow, savory rice is the most delicious part of this simple dish. most remarkabley, it’s became associated with Singapore.

When Singapore and Malaysia divide in 1965, the two countries claimed the food, and keep doing it. When I’ve come across versions of this dish in Canada, I’ve almost exclusively heard it referred to as “Singaporean chicken rice”, so it’s clear how much Singapore claims this to be 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 thisis beautifulng to?

To this day, because I am both Malaysian and Singaporean, I am admittedly conflicted with the debate. What I do know is that this dish, so emblematic of the cuisine I grew up with, is on overcome both British and Japanese occupationpations. It is the dish of immigrants. Every bite of the succulent poached chicken tells the stories of the Hainanese migrants who made the hawker culture flourish.

For me at 23, this dish remains a treat that makes me smile from mouth to mouth. Some of my favorite places to sit and enjoy Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine is a restaurant in Coquitlam called Singapore hawker — order a plate of chicken rice and taste it for yourself!

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