Working in Lower Manhattan for the better part of thirty years, I used to walk to China town for lunch two or three times a week. One afternoon, questing for a new eatery, my friend Ramesh and I found ourselves on the outskirts of Chinatown near the Manhattan Bridge. We were passing a basement dive, a dingy looking place, when the owner beckoned us in. The inside was not any better. There were just three mismatched tables with stools and we were the only non-Chinese in the place. A very good sign.The other patrons were Chinese laborers slurping their food from large bowls. The smells were very appetizing , it was freezing outside and we didn’t feel like searching for another place to eat at.The propreitor said ” Good food. You try ? I give you Hainan Chicken Rice.Okay ?”
And so, a few minutes later, we found ourselves seated at a table; me with a steaming plate of Hainan Chicken Rice, and Ramesh,a vegetarian,with a plate of Mixed Vegetables and Rice. My dish was a revelation. I had expected some variation of Chinese Fried Rice. Not so. Hainan Chicken Rice proved to be a mound of rice cooked in an aromatic chicken broth and topped with a tender, perfectly cooked chicken breast half, cut in large chunks. Accompanying the platter were two sauces, one a fiery hot chili-garlic sauce and the other a sweetish, tangy, light green condiment. Generally, I like spicy food but even though this dish was mild , almost bland, the two sauces complemented it perfectly. The chicken was tender, almost velvety in texture, and the piping hot morsels of chicken and rice were just the thing on a cold, cold day.
We went to this eatery ( it had no signboard) once a month on an average and I don’t think we ate anything else. As soon as he saw us, our Chinese friend would break out in a smile and say ” Hainan Chicken! Mix Vegetable !” And that’s what we ate and enjoyed.
One day, we went there and found the place closed . Subsequent visits proved that it had closed forever. It was a mom and pop run place and maybe they decided to call it quits . Or , maybe one of them fell sick. Who knows ? Whatever the reason, I was cut off from my Hainan Chicken Rice because I was never able to find any other Chinese restaurant that served it.
Subsequently, I researched this dish; this is what I found. Hainan is a large island off the South China Coast, almost near Vietnam. It is a poor place and many of the Hainanese have migrated, taking their love of their native foods elsewhere. So therefore even though most Chinese cookbooks don’t contain the recipe for this peasant dish, it is found in some Vietnamese and Singaporean cookbooks. In fact, Hainan Chicken Rice is very, very popular in Singapore.
It is made by flavoring chicken broth with sliced ginger,bringing it to a boil and then gently poaching the chicken in it. Garlic and Rice are sauteed in a little oil and then cooked in the chicken broth. The chicken rice is then served as I have described earlier and any remaining broth is served on the side. The green sauce, I have found by experimentation, is made by blending together scallions,ginger, sugar, salt and water with a dash of lemon juice.
A simple dish and one I’ve never been able to master! At first, before I found the recipe, I boiled the chicken in the broth, which made it tough and unappetizing. Then, recipe in hand , I followed instructions and poached it . This was better but still didn’t have the velvety texture I wanted. I am going to try again but this time I’m going to slice the chicken thinner and reduce the cooking time. If this doesn’t work I guess I’ll have to go to Singapore…