Hainan: foodie reconnaissance
A large island on the South China Sea, just slightly off China’s southern coast ––– Hainan. Not only is this the geographically southernmost part of the Middle Kingdom, it is also culturally tied to other southerly southern areas of South China: historical links to Fujian connect it with the Southeast, the ethnic composition echoes the complexity of the Southwest, the proximity to the centrally south province of Guangdong makes it a satellite of Cantoneseness. Last but not least, strong ties go beyond the strict Sinosphere – binding Hainan’s fate with Southeast Asia. Too much geography? Don’t go coconuts, no worries, all this eventually translates into food…
Let’s look closer at what Hainan has to offer, gastronomically speaking!
SOUTH OF THE SOUTH
How to relate Hainanese culinary traditions to those of other parts of China? Its position on the map says a lot. Hainan now forms a separate province but was until recently a part of Guangdong. It lies next to the Yue (Cantonese) culture/cuisine area (which encompasses western Guangdong and eastern Guangxi), and this may seem as the strongest culinary linkage, but linguistics and demographics give us other clues. Hainan is ethnically diverse with a significant Hlai (Lí, 黎族) population. This people’s mother tongue belongs to Kra–Dai language family which also includes Thai. Hlai are considered native inhabitants of the island, having moved here several thousand years ago. At first, China treated the island mostly as a place for banishment. The first major waves of Han settlers came as late as the Song dynasty (960−1279). Later, the ancestors of another of local minorities, the Miáo (苗族), were brought here from today’s Guizhou as soldiers, to squash Hlai rebellions.
Today, the island’s most spoken language is Hainanese (海南话), which is one of the varieties of Mǐn languages (闽语), mostly associated with Fujian and Taiwan. Many families can still trace their genealogy to Fujian and numerous food-related legends point to it as the place or origin of cooking techniques or dishes. All this owes to the fact that several centuries ago Hainan’s coastal territories were colonized by newcomers from what is today central shoreline of Fujian. The natives were pushed inland, where their descendants live to this day.
There is still more to the amalgam of Qiong Cuisine (琼菜; Qiong is another name for Hainan). Recent decades brought waves of Returned Overseas Chinese (归侨) from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. With them came rubber, sisal and tropical edibles. As well as the tropical culinary know-how.
THE BIG FOUR
No matter if you read in English or in Chinese, from abroad or on the spot, a serious article or a simple informational poster, the first Hainanese foods you will learn about are invariably the Four Famous Dishes of Hainan (海南四大名菜).
- Wénchāng Chicken 文昌鸡
- Jiājī Duck 嘉积鸭
- Dōngshān Goat 东山羊
- Hélè Crab 和乐蟹
None of the four is actually a dish. They are provenances, breeds, stocks. Their uniqueness relies on the ingredient rather than the recipe.
By far, the most famous is Wenchang chicken. You can eat it all over the island. Even if you don’t ask for menus or won’t pay attention to signboards, you will see them, as they are – hanging on meat hooks in front of restaurants, catching the eyes of the bypassers with their skin: buttery in both hue and texture.
The Wenchang-reared chickens are traditionally free-range: left to eat wild fruits and worms, but also fed with some cereals, tubers and coconut flesh. There is no one ultimate way to cook them. Wenchang Chicken can be boiled or roasted, stir fried or salt-baked. It is most commonly “white cut” (白切; alternatively 白斩). In short: boiled whole and then sliced on the bone.
White cut chicken (白切鸡) is a method of preparing chicken popular all around China but especially in the provinces on the southern shore. Most of my Cantonese friends seem to be really fond of chicken in general, and „white cut” poultry is a must in most restaurants. This is also how Zhànjiāng Chicken 湛江鸡 is usually prepared. The city of Zhanjiang can be actually described as neighboring to Wenchang as it is located just beyond the Qiongzhou Strait that separates Hainan from the continent. I was there a few days earlier so I tried Zhanjiang chicken and Wenchang chicken in a close succession.
Jiājī Ducks are named after Jiājī Town (加积 or 嘉积), which serves as the seat of Qiónghǎi City. Some sources state that they were introduced here from Malaysia 300 years ago. They have characteristic black and white plumage and are raised following a strict diet. As for the preferred cooking methods, there are several. As with the Wenchangese chicken, the most popular is white cut. Same reason: this style, in its simplicity, is considered to represent the original flavor of the meat best. But while Wenchang chicken is ubiquitous and available in both upscale restaurants and in cheap eateries, I had to track down a more posh-ish place to try Jiaji duck. The choices were: 白切 (white cut), 碳烤 (charcoal roasted), 干煸 (dry fried), 香焖 (stewed). Listed in this order – with the white-cut coming first.
My stay in Jiaji was rather brief. After arriving at the long distance coach station, I took city buses to reach that duck restaurant and headed to take a train immediately after the meal. Qionghai City offers some excitements including rafting (deeper inland) and beaches (oceanside), but Jiaji town itself seemed dreary. In contrast to Wanning with its holy mountains.
The Dongshan Ridge 东山岭, where the eponymous goats live, is a group of rocky hills in Wanning. Rich in flora and offering views over the countryside and the ocean, the place is of both foodie and nature-lover, but also of spiritual interest with its Buddhist temple complex.
The line-up of Dongshan Goat preparation choices is wide. Deep-fried, roasted, braised in coconut milk: all sound good. Soup, skewers, chops… what to choose? I went for the soup. The meat was indeed delicious and devoid of that strong mutton taste which so many people find off-putting.
The goats are black and roam freely. Some say that the deliciousness of their meat is due to the unique vegetation of the area. They graze on wild plants, including the leaves of Mallotus peltatus, a tree native to (and found almost exclusively on) the Hainan Island. Humans make a tisane from it known as zhègū chá 鹧鸪茶, or „partridge tea”. Naturally, seeing the zhegu garden was one of my goals. I am writing more about this goat+tea+mountains trip here (link).
Hélè Town 和乐镇 lies not far from the Dongshan Ridge and falls under the same county-level city. Wanning can therefore boast two of the „Four Famous Foods”.
Hainan abounds in seafood, but Hélè Crabs 和乐蟹 have won a particular fame. The same species can be found in other places along China’s southern coast including Guangdong and Fujian, but the meat of the crabs that live in the vicinities of Hélè is considered superior and healthier. They are usually steamed and served with a ginger-garlic-vinegar dip.
I have to admit I failed to try the crabs, ticking off three out of the Big Four. I was on the island in summer while the best time to eat them (or photograph the harvest) is autumn. I shall revisit Hainan one day and re-edit this article. Wish me luck!
THE SINGAPOREAN CONNECTION
Now that we know about the “Four Greats”, it will be easier to understand this. “Hainanese Chicken Rice” is the official national dish of Singapore and eaten throughout Southeast Asia. What is it and will you find it on Hainan? It evolved from one of the many possible ways to prepare Wenchang chicken (remember: a breed rather than a recipe). It was systematized, codified and popularized as a fixed dish (regardless of the feathered friend’s breed). But today it is not just “white cut-style chicken served with rice and garnish” – it is something more, a whole new family of recipes. Inspired by the Chinese (Hainanese (Wenchangese)) diaspora, but native to the Malay Peninsula.
Yes, you will find “Hainanese Chicken Rice” on Hainan – but you will also find it in Hong Kong and in New York.
THE REALM OF RICE NOODLES
The Four Greats may be more advertised and touristified, but while on the island you quickly realize that you have stepped into the realm of Hainan Rice Noodles 海南粉.
“Hainan noodles” can be understood not as one single dish but as a whole family of different varieties. Several towns and cities have their own “fěn” and recipes can differ between each restaurant. I have dedicated a separate artilce on my blog to this phenomenon, where I list out many local varieties: Bàoluō Noodles 抱罗粉, Hòu’ān Noodles 后安粉, Língshuǐ Sour Noodles 陵水酸粉, Sanya’s Gǎngmén noodles 港门粉 and others. Read it here.
THE SOIL AND THE SEAS
The tropical monsoon climate translates into: things that don’t grow elsewhere in China can grow here. In effect, Hainan exports tropical fruits and spices to other parts of the country. Bananas, carambola, cashew, coconut, guava, jackfruit, mango, pineapple – Hainan is China’s main producer of most of them. It might be hard to find a commercial fruit that is not produced here.
Beautifully wrinkled bright yellow-orange peppers with a shiny skin caught my attention at local fresh produce markets. It’s Hainan yellow lantern chili (海南黄灯笼椒), a variety unique to the island. We could call it a cousin to habanero and scotch bonnet. It is usually turned into hot sauce. While traversing the island back and forth, numerous times have I came across jars of this radiant orange concoction: sold at markets and in souvenir shops, placed on tables in restaurants, big and small.
The gently psychoactive betel (areca) nut is known to Chinese civilization since at least 1,500 years and valued for medicinal properties. Today an everyday stimulant for many Hainanese, it is also exported to other provinces. The number of areca palm farmers is estimated at a whopping 2 million people. Wanning, the largest producing area, is hailed as “the hometown of China betel nut”.
Hainan is surrounded by generous waters that teem with life. Groupers, tuna, tilapia, shrimp, scallops: you name it. The island’s coastline is 1,500 km long. The local fishermen also venture deep into the ocean. Some sail days away, as far as to the shores of Indonesia. They do it since ages, as attested by the August ceremonies carried in Tanmen town 潭门镇 of Qionghai City. For over 600 years, locals pray for safety at sea and rich harvest by offering sacrifice to the Dragon King and Goddness of the Sea. In recent years the celebrations have been incorporated into a modern-era mass event which includes concerts and games. The tide makes it possible to walk quite far into the sea and collect seafood, hence the name: Beach Combing Festival 赶海节.
Another blessing of the shores is sea salt. The largest salt works on the island are located in Ledong County’s Yīnggēhǎi 莺歌海盐场. It’s not far from Sanya and some tourists go there to take photographs of blue sky reflected in the evaporation ponds and of mountains of sparkling white heaps of harvested salt. Much smaller but with thousand-year-old history is Yángpǔ Ancient Salt Field 洋浦千年古盐田 on a peninsula off Danzhou city’s coast. Hundreds of strange containers dot the area, waiting for the high tide to fill them with seawater. They are stones, cut in half and hollowed out to form a flat bowl with thin rim. After the tide retreats and the water evaporates, salt is collected. It works exactly as “usual” salterns do, but on a much smaller, stone-sized, scale. Yangpu Field has no commercial significance in the 21st century, but the fact that this captivating tradition is continued since the Tang dynasty is the stuff of goosebumps.
A MOUNTAINFUL OF UNIQUENESS
While the coast provides seafood and the lowlands abound in rice paddies and orchards, the mountainous interior of the island buckles down with game and herbs and amazes with the otherness of the ethnic Li and Miao cuisines.
The number of unheard edible plants with bizarre names is truly befuddling. 树仔菜、雷公根 、革命菜、鹿舌菜、白花菜、马齿苋、黄鹌菜、车前草 and more: I have came across some of them before but I don’t know much about them and can’t tell them apart – even if I tried hard while preparing for the trip, while on the spot and finally now, while writing this text. It’s a separate lifetime of study.
TEA VS COFFEE
You normally associate the Middle Kingdom with tea rather than with coffee, but on Hainan both Camellia leaves and Coffea beans play a culture-forming role. I devoted a separate, lenghty entry on my blog about it, “Hainan: tea vs coffee” (click and check it out).
If Hainan is associated with laid-backness, then the “Old Dad’s Tea” embodies this fact. What is lǎo bà chá 老爸茶: a teahouse or a restaurant, a time of the day or a kind of a meal? It’s all these things and more: a lifestyle. Both tea and coffee can be served, as well as Ovaltine, Milo and so on. Some visit for a breakfast of noodles or dumplings, others drop just for a piece of cake or a single baozi. What most seek is a lazy afternoon. People come here to socialize and relax: smoking cigarettes, reading newspapers, chatting or just staring at the ceiling fan.
RESPITE FROM THE SUN
As if the cornucopia of deliciously sweet fruits was not enough – the streets are full of dessert restaurants (or ‘bars’) and dessert-selling vendors. Hainan is a sweet tooth’s paradise.
Qīng bǔ liáng (Ching bo leung, 清补凉) is a cold sweet soup. The name is a triple contraction – each of the three characters stands for a medicinal property:
清火 (relieving heat) + 补充 (tonifying) + 凉爽 (cooling down) = 清补凉.
The qingbuliang stands and shops offer either fixed compositions or let you choose your own. The bases include: sweetened water (tong sui, 糖水), coconut milk (椰奶), coconut water (椰子水) and herbal tea (凉茶). The list of available toppings is always long and may contain various fruits, nuts, raisins etc, and sometimes tangyuan, quail eggs, sorghum noodles (高粱粉), „chicken droppings” (鸡屎; tiny starchy herbal dumplings) and other dainties. Ice cream can be also scooped in – why not stir-fried ice cream?
Chao bing 炒冰, or ”fried ice”, is another street refreshment popular on Hainan. Its preparation is so eye-catching that you may buy it just to see how it’s made. Fresh tropical fruits are cut, blended and poured onto a special frying pan-like plate. It is actually a powerful refrigerator that turns any liquid into ice immediately. The mixture is constantly scraped and tossed – like in stir-frying indeed. The result is a silky smooth sorbet. Yummy! In contrast to the now world-famous Thai rolled ice cream, milk is not used and it is not shaped into rolls – it’s a soft “sorbet” and not a firm “gelato”.
Look at Hainan’s size and shape. Just slightly smaller than Taiwan and larger than Belgium, it’s big enough to deserve to be treated seriously but compact enough to be easily grasped in entirety. While one option is just to lounge on Sanya’s beaches, there’s so much more to be explored. The pumpkin seed shape of the island makes it perfect for a loop. Either by public means or by renting a vehicle, go and make the full circle.
Obviously, you don’t have to be as unhealthily meticulous as me. I visited more than 20 cities, towns and villages administered under 16 (out of 25) different county-level units. I took trains and buses, hitchhiked cars and motorcycles, tackled the coconut plantations by cycling and even walked a fare share of kilometers between some locations. Most importantly, I ate a number of delicious things. Let this modest article be a testament to my dedication for the subject. I hope you appreciate my efforts.