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Hot Topics 2022-03-14

Hainan Chicken Rice Ball, the Underrated Malaysian Dish

Hainan chicken rice has long been renowned in Southeast Asia, and thanks to Michilin guide, every year a great number of tourists visit here just for this local dish! The rice is soaked with chicken stock and topped with chicken. It is often served with dark soy sauce, minced ginger, and chili paste. Simple as it might seem, the combination of all the ingredients is surprisingly unforgettable! Yet don’t be mistaken! This is definitely not the only way to enjoy Hainan chicken rice. Today we will cover the origin of Hainan chicken rice, from how it can be enjoyed, to the local’s favorite dish that is seldom known by foreigners, Hainan chicken rice balls!

Is Hainan Chicken Rice from Singapore or Malaysia?

Speaking of Hainan chicken rice, most people naturally come up with Singapore, as it is from Singapore that Hainan chicken rice gained its fame as an internationally well-known cuisine. In 1936, Wang Yiyuan, an immigrant from Hainan province, started selling his hometown food “chicken rice” in Singapore, and this is widely believed to be the origin of Hainan chicken rice in Singapore. Wang later had a new recruit Moh Lee Twee to help his business, and Moh opened his own restaurant “Swee Kee” eventually. As Swee Kee became popular under the influence of media coverage, Moh was even included in Singapore’s Richest List and got mistaken for the founder of Hainan chicken rice. Nowadays, there are still many restaurants having their names as “Swee Kee”, but they have nothing to do with the “Swee Kee” in Singapore.

While Hainan chicken rice is believed to originate from Singapore by many people, food culture expert and writer Lin Jincheng claims that Hainan chicken rice has its root in Malaysia. Dating back to the 1920s, earlier than Wang Yiyuan started, Liang Juqing had already been selling chicken rice in Selangor. Moreover, Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent country in 1965, and both Liang Juqing and Wan Yiyuan are Malaysian. So Hainan chicken rice should be a Malaysian cuisine instead.

But why do most people naturally think of Singapore when speaking of Hainan chicken rice? One of the common arguments is that as Malaysia is dominated by Muslims, the Malaysian government wouldn’t particularly promote ethnic Chinese food culture that mainly dines on pork even for tourism promotion. On the contrary, Singapore’s population is mainly composed of ethnic Chinese people. As an internationally renowned city, Singapore is equipped with the capacity to promote its local cuisines, and it was from Singapore that Hainan chicken rice started to win worldwide fame.

(Image : Flickr)

The Chicken Rice Ball that Was Once on the Verge of Being Lost

In Malaysia, when you visit a Hainan chicken restaurant, you can not only choose which kind or part of chicken you want, but you’re also provided two options of rice: plain rice or chicken rice ball.

Plain rice literally means a plate of rice we normally have, but what is a chicken rice ball?

In the early age, people would make the rice into small round shapes, which are called “Fan Zhen” and are specifically used for ancestor worship. As Hainan people later immigrated to Malaysia, their hometown cuisine “Wenchang Chicken” was promoted in Malaysia. Vendors would carry a shoulder pole, with chicken on one side and rice on the other, and sell their food on streets. To make it easier to enjoy on streets, the chicken and rice were made into little balls smaller than normal Fan Zhen, and the little rice balls were packed in rolled banana leaves. After street vendors earned enough money to open restaurants and provide places for customers to eat, plain rice was offered as another option.(Image : Flickr)

Since chicken rice balls literally mean “chicken rice grain” in Chinese and are rarely known in foreign countries, foreign visitors often get confused when they’re ordering this dish. For example, when being asked “how many ‘grains’ do you want?”, they may start to wonder how to know the amount of grain in one serving is normal. It turns out that waiters don't mean to ask how many grains they want for one serving of chicken rice, but “how many rice balls”! So it will be enough for one person to order about 5-6 chicken rice balls. Sometimes tourists also mistake Hainan chicken rice balls for fish balls, waiting for waiters to serve their dishes while Hainan chicken rice balls are already served on the table. As their local friends ask why they are not eating, the visitors complain that they haven’t seen chicken rice balls yet! Also, chances are people who had never seen Hainan chicken rice balls before may ruin all the effort restaurant chefs have made by breaking the rice balls into plain rice!

(Image : Flickr)

Maybe you don’t consider it a big deal to make the rice and chicken into little rice balls, but in fact, Hainan chicken rice balls were once on the edge of being lost due to the hard work it took!

The rice is cooked with chicken soup beforehand. Unlike other Asian countries that use sticky rice or stalk rice to make rice balls, Hainan chicken rice balls are made from indica rice, which is much drier, fluffier, and harder to hold together. Since indica rice balls are difficult to take shape, chicken oil is often needed to maintain the shape of rice balls. (As chicken oil requires a long time to render and costs more, nowadays people use margarine to substitute chicken oil.) The most difficult part to make the rice balls, however, lies in the time. After the rice cools, it’ll be nearly impossible to take shape, so it is necessary to make the rice into rice balls right after the rice is cooked. As you can imagine, freshly cooked rice is extremely hot, and it can take 3-4 hours to make all the rice into rice balls. To make perfectly made rice balls, workers often get blisters on their hands. This is why Hainan chicken rice restaurants once faced the crisis of labor shortage and almost stopped selling Hainan chicken rice balls. It was not until 2008 that Malacca was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the traditional dish of Hainan chicken rice balls was brought back for tourism. Nowadays, Hainan chicken rice balls are undoubtedly one of the most unique food cultures in Malacca and Muar.

Not Just the Fragrance of Chicken, but Also That of Rice!

If you have any chances to have a taste of Hainan chicken rice balls, it is recommended to cut the balls in half and drizzle them with dark soy sauce or chili paste. Aside from the tender juicy chicken and various sauce options, the rice itself also plays an important role in this dish. Enjoy the springy texture of the rice balls and the aroma of chicken stock releasing in your mouth! Have you ever had any delicious Hainan chicken rice? Welcome to share your food map with us!

(Image : Flickr)

Editor, World Gourmet Platform

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