Realm of Hainan Noodles
Upon stepping on the island, you quickly realize that you have entered the realm of Hainan Rice Noodles, Hǎinán fěn 海南粉.
Throw a handful of rice noodles into a bowl, add an assortment of toppings – such as fried peanuts, pieces of meat, chopped scallion, maybe also seafood – and ladle some soup over it. Different kinds of stock, different toppings, different seasonings: “Hainan noodles” can be understood not as a single dish but as a whole family of varieties. Several towns and cities have their own “fěn” and the recipes may differ considerably between restaurants.
Legend has it that in the late Ming Dynasty, a Minnan (Fujianese) man surnamed Chen moved to Chengmai in northern Hainan. His mother fell ill and was not able to eat. The filial son fermented and pounded rice into a starchy slurry which he then turned into white and soft strands of noodles. Day by day, he prepared them with different ingredients and seasonings. The profusion of flavors brought back the mother’s appetite, encouraging her to eat. She eventually recovered.
This story not only attests the historical ties of Hainan and Fujian (which provided many immigrants to the island) as well as mythologizes the so-many-versions state of facts, but also points out at Chengmai as the place of origin of the snack.
Chéngmài 澄迈县 is a county situated immediately to the west from the provincial capital of Haikou. As elsewhere, rice noodles are prepared here with secret ingredients that vary from shop to shop. One topping of a particular fame is Ruìxī Beef Jerky 瑞溪牛肉干. Ruixi is a name of one of the townships located in the county. You will find “Ruixi Beef Jerky Noodles” all around the island, but there are rarely “Chengmai noodles” on the menu. Perhaps as a proud birthplace of the tradition it is taken as synonymous with “Hainan Rice Noodles” – and other versions are mere deviations.
Indeed: in a narrow sense, “Hǎinán fěn” refers to the incarnation of the snack developed in the northern part of the island. Locals sometimes call them “腌粉”or “pickle noodles” in regard to the miscellany of goodies poached in the broth. Among the classic ingredients are bean sprouts, peanuts, sesame seeds, deep-fried crackers (脆炸面片), green onion, coriander, beef jerky, shredded squid, shredded pork, pickled cabbage and bamboo shoots. The noodles are thin.
During my islandwide travels I have seen and tried many types of fěn. Some more ubiquitous than others.
If, in Italian terms, Hainan Rice Noodles are capellini-thin, then Bàoluō Rice Noodles 抱罗粉 are spaghetti-thick. They are also more starchy (owing to lesser water content). As for the broth, it is made from pork and/or beef bones. In it alight: pork meat and offals, beef jerky, peanuts, bamboo shoots, pickled cabbage, etc etc. The name derives from a town in Wénchāng.
If the two aforementioned types might be hard to distinguish (save the capellini vs spaghetti diameter difference), the next one stands out with its dominance of the pale gray hue of pork offals that float in the broth. Hòu’ān, a small town in Wànníng, gives name to this fěn, 后安粉. The bowl is brimful with chitterlings, stomach and other pig innards. The offal flavor is balanced with shrimps and sea snails or clams, resulting in an irresistible, rich taste. An egg is often poached in as well.
Língshuǐ Sour Noodles 陵水酸粉 from the county of the same name are a completely different affair, rich in bright colors and hot and sour and sweet. The used noodles are threadlike thin and paired with loads of seafood: fish cakes, small salted fish, squid shreds and so on, with the most characteristic being dried sand worms (沙虫). Recipes often incorporate meat, leeks and water spinach as well. As with the cousin varieties, the ubiquitous peanuts, coriander and beef jerky find their way to the bowl too. The sourness originates from vinegar, but I have also read on the internet about the use of tomato sauce, sour plum sauce and kumquat juice. The piquancy comes from the local yellow lantern chilies (黄灯笼辣椒) which are either already mixed in or served separately, to add to taste.
Less famous but also worth mentioning are Gǎngmén noodles 港门粉, named after a tiny neighbourhood (former village) in the tourist capital of the island, Sānyà 三亚. If most cousin varieties rely on pork bone broths, this one uses shellfish soup base instead. The array of products that end up in it encompass, among others, fish cakes, slices of fried pork, bean sprouts, pickled cabbage and the obvious garnish of green onion, peanuts etc. Oh, and let us not forget about the rice noodles – thin in diameter.
The list doesn’t end here. There are Beef Brisket Noodles from Jiājī 加积牛腩粉 and Língshān town in Haikou has its Thick Noodles, 灵山粗粉. Mǐ Làn 米烂 is a special name given to rice noodles from Chángpō 长坡 and other settlements of Dānzhōu City. The pasta-making method is unique there: the rice batter is funneled directly into the boiling water. Many other towns and villages have their own, less advertised, variations…
While in Haikou, I went to Haikou Qilou Snack Street (海口骑楼小吃街), a shopping mall-like restaurant complex. It was apparently closed down somewhere in 2020. I remember seeing there at least one place that served ten different types – and each with alternative choices of sizes and servings (from a 6 yuan basic small bowl to the 25 yuan option topped with the original Ruixi Beef Jerky). I can’t vouch for their authenticity, but if you don’t plan to traverse the whole island in order to try each variety right on the spot – you might want to compare them under one roof in a place like this.
When you first think of Hainan noodles, it seems freestyle and unsophisticated. You may also think that it is not distinct enough from other “fěn” of China, like the much more famous Guilin Rice Noodles, to deserve your attention. It is true: the recipe is “freestyle” and the whole concept is rather unsophisticated, if juxtaposed with Yunnan’s “Crossing the Bridge” noodles for example. But if you look closely, if you explode-view the different varieties and see how spaced out on the map of Hainan they are, you will see that Hainanese rice noodles form a rich tradition. Not unlike the family of Vietnamese phở local incarnations, this tradition appears as a separate macrocosm in the multiverse of rice noodles.