Most nights (possibly all) the same middle-aged man works in the kitchen, poaching and slicing chicken behind an aluminum structure with a roof and a glass display case full of artificial chickens. This structure has a sign in Thai lettering, and looks like a street vendor’s stall, but it is indoors, separating a dining area with two tables from a tiny kitchen. The restaurant, Eim Khao Mun Kai, makes only one dish—Hainan chicken rice—and they make it well.
Hainan chicken rice, in spite of the name, is mainly known as a Singaporean dish, although it is popular throughout Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Hong Kong. The story is that immigrants from Hainan introduced it to Singapore. Supposedly in Hainan they use old chickens and in Singapore they use young chickens, but more importantly, the preparation is different.
The Hainanese innovation was to cook rice in water that had already been used to prepare chicken. You start by boiling chicken in water until it is cooked. Then you begin cooking rice in chicken fat, and add the stock you cooked the chicken in. My recipe for classical Hainan chicken rice leaves it at that; if more flavor is desired, you add a dipping sauce. However, I believe that in Singapore and much of Southeast Asia, ginger and other aromatic substances are added to the rice during cooking.
This, in any case, is what they do at Eim Khao Mun Kai, where the rice has a wonderful aroma and flavor, succulent from the chicken stock but light and refreshing from the ginger.
Here the centerpiece of the dish is a giant globe of the rice, over which are laid long strips of tender chicken. Offal (heart, liver, and a few other organs) sits in a pile at the side. The chicken meat itself is not good, if not by itself very flavorful. The rice is wonderful, and I can imagine eating a plate of it without any additional ingredients.
You are also given a couple of sauces meant to be stirred in, however. These sauces—containing more ginger, chilies, and I believe soy sauce—transform both the chicken and the rice. The dish becomes recognizably Thai, with complex and deep flavors that will stay with you well after eating the meal. Because they are powerful, I recommend sampling the rice before adding the sauces.
Eim Khoa Mun Kai
Elmhurst, NY 11373
10 am – 9 pm every day