Chicken rice comes in different varieties – poached, roasted, or soya sauce. The variation lies in how the poultry is cooked.
For the Hainanese version, the chicken is poached in boiling water until fully cooked, before being soaked in room-temperature water for about half an hour. It is then dripped dry, placed on a tray, and covered with a towel to retain the moisture and flavour of the meat. However, many cooks also use the Cantonese technique of plunging the chicken into iced water after cooking. This results in smoother chicken skin and enables the formation of a gelatinous layer underneath. Another Cantonese influence is the usage of tender, young chicken instead of the wenchang chicken – a breed of free-range chicken known to be bony and “muscular” – that was used in the original recipe from Hainan.
The roasted version of chicken rice is prepared differently. The whole chicken is first seasoned with black pepper and salt, then hung to dry before it is deep-fried.
Soya sauce chicken rice is said to be the Cantonese version of the dish. The chicken is cooked in a rich, dark sauce made up of spices like cinnamon and clove and sweetened with rock sugar.
Another important element in the dish is the rice, which is fried in chicken fat before being cooked in the chicken broth skimmed off during the poaching process, along with ginger, garlic, and pandan leaves.
Chicken rice is usually served with soya sauce or a specially prepared chilli sauce, cucumber slices, a bowl of soup made using the chicken stock, as well as side dishes such as braised dark soya hard-boiled eggs, beancurd, beansprouts, kailan (a leafy vegetable) or achar (pickled cucumber, carrots, and cabbage mixed with crushed peanuts and sesame seeds).