How a bird put an island on the map
Despite taking its name from the southwestern Chinese island, this dish is only really lionised as Hainan chicken outside the country. In Singapore, it has become something of a national dish. On the mainland, however, it is known as Wenchang chicken - a label that refers to the town of its origin. As that town is on Hainan, the link to the subtropical island has not been forgotten.
While the modern interpretation of the origin of the name merely points to the location and method of breeding, the term 'Wenchang chicken' is said to have been coined in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
The story goes that an imperial official from the small town was leaving after his holidays to go back to Beijing. Knowing that he would miss the taste of home, he brought some local chickens with him. On his arrival in the capital, he offered one to the emperor.
The chickens, having been fed on coconuts and peanuts, both major crops in Hainan, were plump, fatty and juicy. The official ordered the chefs to simply poach the fowl so they would retain their flavours. After he tasted it, the emperor gave the dish unending praise, commending Wenchang for its culture (as it had produced a wise scholar who became his loyal subject), as well as its chickens, exclaiming that Wenchang chickens epitomise the greatness of the city. Hence from then on, this previously nameless but tasty bird was given the title of 'Wenchang chicken'.
The chicken became known across China and, later, Hainanese emigrants to Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore brought the dish with them, adding local flavours. In Singapore, lime juice is usually added to the chilli sauce, and thick, sweet soy sauce is used rather than oyster sauce.
In Hong Kong, a Singaporean rendition can be had at Hainan Shaoye at shop P311, World Trade Centre, 280 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay.