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What is Wenchang Chicken? The Original Hainanese Chicken Rice

Wenchang chicken is the mother of Singapore's Hainanese chicken rice, considered its unofficial national dish.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Wenchang is a county level city on Hainan island, off the southern coast of China.

In Wenchang, they say 无鸡不成宴 which means "It is not a party without chicken".

Wenchang chicken 文昌鸡 is one of Hainan's Big Four signature dishes which include 加积鸭 (Jia Ji duck), 东山羊 (lamb) and 和乐蟹 (crab).

During the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), an official from Hainan brought some Wenchang chicken to the Forbidden City in Peking for the emperor to taste. The emperor was so impressed, he proclaimed "This chicken from a civilised place, home of outstanding people and rich culture; they smell and taste so sweet, they truly deserve to be called Wenchang chicken!” 鸡出文化之乡, 人杰地灵, 文化昌盛, 鸡亦香甜, 真乃文昌鸡也!

This is probably the world's first recorded chicken review 😄

With such a raving review from none other than the emperor himself, Wenchang chicken became famous throughout China 😄

Wenchang chicken is made with a local breed of chicken - based on the Ming emperor story, this breed has been around for at least 400 years. This breed was first raised in 潭牛镇 Tan Niu town of Wenchang county.

The reddish brown feathered, pale feet bird has a small head, short neck, small wings, small and short feet but round body. It is a relatively small breed known for its chewy tender meat. A full grown Wenchang chicken weighs about 1.5 kilos, 1.8 kilos maximum.

For 120 days, the birds roam free, feeding on fig fruits dropped from 榕树 banyan trees, insects, worms, whatever they find on the grassy ground in tropical sunny Wenchang. For the next 60 days, they are kept in coops and fatten with rice husk, peanut, sweet potato, dried grated coconut flesh, etc.

Wenchang chicken is cooked in many different ways e.g. stir fry or boil with coconut milk, stewed in fermented bean paste sauce etc. But, the most famous method is by poaching or dunking to make "white cut" chicken 白切鸡. Wenchang chicken is synonymous with the "white cut" chicken dish.

The whole gutted and cleaned bird is cooked by dunking in boiling stock made with water, ginger, garlic and spring onion. The bird is dunked in the stock for 5 minutes, removed and air cooled briefly, then dunked again, repeating the process 3 or 4 times till the bird is cooked.

Another technique calls for the bird to be first boiled for 5 to 10 minutes in plain water. Then, it is transferred to a pot to be poached in stock for another 25 minutes at 60°C to 70°C, well below boiling temperature of 100°C.

Alternatively, it is dunked in boiling stock a couple of times, then boiled for 10 minutes, followed by poaching for 10 minutes with the heat completely turned off.

The techniques (timings etc) vary from household to household, chef to chef but the idea is the same - to make sure the bird is cooked to just the right doneness without overcooking, in order to lock in its natural flavours. The skin must not break as otherwise all the flavours would leak into the soup, leaving the bird less flavoursome.

(Wenchang chicken is sometimes referred to as steamed chicken but steaming is another, separate technique for cooking this dish. Wenchang chicken is also never cooked by just boiling alone - it involves poaching as well. There is also no need for marination. The dish rely wholly on the bird's natural flavours for taste.)

I spent ten day in Wenchang to find out more about Wenchang chicken 👈 click

The resulting chicken is chopped and served in large chunks with bones intact (garnished with chopped coriander). Wenchang chicken is a small boned bird. It is never served deboned or boneless.

Wenchang chicken is also never dunked in ice and water, a practice common in Guangdong province on the mainland. (Hainan Island was a part of Guangdong province until 1988.)

The pale yellowish skin is thick, smooth and have a slight spring to the bite. The thick meat is chewy tender (more chewy than tender and definitely not soft) and moist. Rich with naturally sweet chicken taste and aroma. Aroma and flavours burst with every delightful bite, making eating Wenchang chicken a real pleasure.

Wenchang chicken is eaten with a dip. It is made by blending diced garlic, parsley (cilantro), and sugar held together with chicken stock, rendered chicken fat and optional light soy sauce. Calamansi juice is squeezed into the dip.

There are variations to the dip such as adding ginger, salt, peanut oil etc but it always has chicken stock, garlic and calamansi juice.

Personally, I prefer to eat the chicken without any dip. I rather have the dip flavour the rice than let anything throw the balance of delicate natural chicken flavours off. (I know a few food gurus have stated that the rice and dip are more important than the bird itself in this dish.)

Wenchang chicken is eaten with flavoured rice prepared by first frying the grains in chicken oil and garlic (sometimes also peanut oil, ginger and parsley). Frying releases the flavours and aromas from the garlic, ginger, etc. The rice is then boiled in chicken stock, so each aromatic grain is enveloped with a thin oil film and infused with chicken flavour. 

It is sometimes said that in Hainan, Wenchang chicken is eaten with plain boiled rice. This is not true. The Hainanese like their rice flavoured. For duck, they cook it with duck stock. For goose, they cook it with goose stock. For chicken, they like their rice with chicken stock.

The story of Wenchang chicken continues in Singapore and Malaysia.

Singapore River in the 1920s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
From the 1840s to 1920s, many Hainanese left Hainan island for British Malaya (which includes today's Malaysia and Singapore). The Wenchang chicken dish followed the immigrants to Nanyang (as Southeast Asia was known then to mainland Chinese).

During the decades that followed, from a comforting hometown dish cooked and eaten at home, Wenchang chicken became the unofficial national dish of Singapore which is famous around the world. 

I spent ten day in Wenchang to find out more about Wenchang chicken 👈 click

Written by Tony Boey on 14 May 2020 | Reviewed on 22 May 2023

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