Hainan is an island located at the most southerly point of China. Known as the Hawaii of China, it’s where one of the world’s most popular dishes originates—Hainan chicken. In certain circles, the dish is a hardcore food obsessions, and as with BBQ, burgers, and pizza aficionados, Hainan chicken fans have very particular thoughts on what qualifies it as good.
Essentially, the dish is chicken simmered in seasoned water or chicken broth until thoroughly cooked. The dipping sauces are important: two traditional types are a vibrant, relish-like sauce of ginger and scallion (my favorite) and a chili sauce. My mother adds lime and fresh chili to her ginger-scallion sauce for extra vigor.
A heap of fragrant jasmine rice cooked with the chicken’s broth is also a requisite side and typically known as chicken rice.
It’s agreed by many that this succulent dish has been improved by countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and even Thailand, with Singapore leading the popularity contest. Ironically, Hainan chicken from Hainan Island, itself, is widely considered inferior. I’ve been there and tried several examples. The rumors are true—it’s not as good.
In Los Angeles, places for good Hainan chicken are, for the most part, centered in and around San Gabriel Valley, as you might’ve guessed. Restaurants like Savoy Kitchen and Green Zone serve exceptional versions. But, traditionally, those yearning to enjoy decent or any Hainan chicken, for that matter, west of the SGV (like all the way in West L.A., for instance), were probably out of luck. Until now. Thanks to the new dim sum snack spot New School Kitchen, Westsiders now have easy access to their own delicious version of the dish.
Alex Chu, the head honcho at New School Kitchen, who researched Hainan chicken by tasting as much of it as he could while in Singapore a couple of years ago, decided to put it on the menu after months of tinkering. His take on Singapore’s national dish is breast meat only served with ginger-scallion sauce, which he doesn’t skimp on. Chu believes breast meat can be just as good or better than dark meat if cooked properly.
After brining, New School Kitchen’s Hainan chicken breast is cooked via a highly controlled poaching technique to prevent the meat from overcooking, sort of like sous-vide but without the plastic bag. As soon as the chicken is done, it’s cooled down to halt any further cooking. Upon service, the breast meat is warmed up to about room temperature. The payoff is a pleasingly moist breast with honest chicken flavor.
The rice that the chicken pieces rest on permeates with chicken broth and is very good. It’s not oily as some traditional chicken rice tends to be, but that’s probably a good thing, especially on the Westside. A slaw-like side salad with miso vinaigrette also complements the chicken nicely.
My experience with Hainan chicken spans from Hainan Island itself to the Island of Manhattan, and I can attest that New School Kitchen’s contribution to this culinary compilation is among the best. Go west, Hainan chicken lovers.
New School Kitchen, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., Ste. 106, West L.A., 424-832-3445