Originating in Hainan, China, it has spread throughout southeast Asia and is also popular in Singapore and Malaysia where it’s known better as Hainanese chicken rice.
The dish is simplicity itself, just boiled chicken served on rice infused with chicken fat and herbs, and topped with a flavourful sauce.
Because of its simplicity, the quality of ingredients and cooking techniques used can make a huge difference to the final dish.
To make a truly delicious khao man gai you need to use a plump fatty chicken, which is then boiled slowly in water with ginger, pandan leaves and garlic until perfectly tender.
After several chickens have been boiled in the same pot the resulting stock, full of rendered chicken fat and flavour, is used to cook the rice – hence, chicken oil rice.
The stock is also used to make the clear chicken broth that is an essential part of the dish and often includes chopped pieces of winter melon and spring onions.
Finally, and for many people, most importantly, is the sauce. Made from fermented yellow soybean, thick soy sauce, chilli, vinegar, sugar syrup and plenty of finely chopped fresh ginger and garlic.
A good sauce can make the difference between a serviceable khao man gai and a truly great one and many restaurants pride themselves on their sauce recipe.
Other common additions to the essential trinity of chicken, rice and soup include chicken blood tofu, fried chicken skin and a garnish of cucumber and coriander.
Thick sweet soy sauce is often used in addition to the traditional khao man gai sauce.
Many restaurants also offer roasted or deep fried chicken instead of boiled, and some, like Papa Khao Man Gai Taad, will also give you the option of adding crispy pork, duck, stewed pork, Chinese sausage or egg to a serving of their chicken-infused rice – but at that point can no be really condered as the classic khao man gai.
Here are three of my favourite places in Phuket where you can try a plate of tasty khao man gai for yourself:
Papa Khao Man Gai Taad
Offers huge share plates filled with boiled chicken, fried chicken, crispy pork, baked pork and chicken rice. Head west from Central Festival until about 200 metres past Makro and keep an eye out for it on your left near Soi Thida.
Ko Ta Khao Man Gai
Ko Ta has been serving Phuket locals for over 50 years. Located on Soi Surin in Phuket Town just south of the traffic circle with the big clock tower in the middle.
Khao Man Gai Ko Dum
Another long-standing restaurant well known to locals. From Phuket Old Town head north on Yaowarat Rd past Vachira Hospital and it’s about 900m further on your left.