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From salt baked Wenchang chicken at Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken (pictured) to Dongshan lamb, here are the local dishes you need to try the next time you find yourself in China’s Hainan province.

Where and what to eat in Hainan, China, from coconut chicken in Sanya to a seafood market that’s not to be missed

  • Free-range chicken reared for 100 days, lamb stewed in coconut milk, noodles made with a broth simmered for hours – there’s a lot for foodies in Hainan province
  • Hainan Island with its beach resorts attracts a lot of tourists, and farming is big too – its year-round tropical climate allows a wide range of produce to grow

One of the more popular domestic holiday destinations for Chinese citizens is Hainan province, a series of islands (the largest of which is Hainan Island) at the very south of China, for the beach resorts and the area’s food.

Hainan’s year-round tropical climate means it yields a bumper harvest of produce, ranging from coffee beans to zhegu (partridge tea leaves) to fruit.

As a result, the province is known for its wide range of dishes.

The area’s culinary diversity even made the news in a roundabout way earlier this year, when the head of Hong Kong’s government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, suggested that the city’s young people should relocate to Hainan for jobs, opportunities – and Hainanese chicken rice.
Her statement caused a huge social media storm, as it was obvious she thought the dish originated in Hainan. While the province does, in fact, have local chicken dishes – Wenchang chicken and coconut chicken hotpot – Hainanese chicken rice, to which Singapore and Malaysia both lay claim, is definitely not one of them.

At Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken in Haitang Bay in Sanya, the southernmost city of Hainan Island, the free-range birds come from Wenchang and are fed on coconut and peanut bran.

The outside of Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken in Haitang Bay in Sanya.
Wenchang chicken ready for use in coconut chicken hotpot at Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken.

“They are reared free-range for 100 days,” says manager Fu Xinglong. “After that, they are moved to coops for 58 days before being slaughtered.

“The meat is tender and smooth. Customers like to order it baked in salt.

“Wenchang chicken is also used in coconut chicken hotpot. The soup is made with three coconuts, spring water, water chestnuts, [ goji berry], papaya and red dates. Our coconuts, harvested every day, also come from Wenchang.”
Salt baked chicken at Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken.

Dongshan lamb, another Hainan dish, uses meat sourced from sheep raised on the slopes of Dongshan, a mountain in Wanning in southeastern Hainan. The sheep eat zhegu leaves that grow on the mountain, and the meat they produce is tender and without lamb’s typical gaminess.

While it can be fried or braised, Hainan locals prefer to stew it in coconut milk; they add some of the sauce, together with lamb offal, to congee – rice porridge.

Hainan is also known for Jiaji duck, named for a town in Qionghai on the Wanquan River in eastern Hainan. Ducklings are fed a mix of shrimps, earthworms and cockroaches. After two months, they are switched to a diet of grain, bean curd and rice.

The meat – sweet, plump and slightly fatty – can be roasted, but Hainan chefs usually steam or boil it to preserve its flavour. Once cooked, it is diced and eaten with ginger, vinegar and sesame oil.

Hele crab congee at Chunyuan Seafood Market.

Seafood is another staple in the province. At Chunyuan Seafood Market in the Tianya district in Sanya, customers can sample locally caught seafood. The market was quiet at dinner time when we visited in the summer, with the coronavirus pandemic keeping many tourists away.

The lack of customers meant many dishes were sold at bargain prices, such as a 500g (1.1 pound) Hele crab that cost 158 yuan (US$24). Chen Shan, a shopkeeper at one of the stalls, says most customers order Hele crab for congee.

“The meat of the crab has an oily texture and a strong umami taste, so we don’t need much seasoning when using it in congee,” she says. “It also tastes very good when steamed, with ginger and vinegar.”

The outside of Chunyuan Seafood Market in Tianya district in Sanya.
Steamed sea urchin egg custard served at Chunyuan Seafood Market.

Other seafood, including shrimp, sea urchin and clams, are popular with patrons, Chen says.

“One popular seafood dish is steamed sea urchin egg custard, based on Chinese steamed egg dessert. The dish is made by straining the sea urchin through a fine-meshed sieve and incorporating it into a steamed egg.”

At Yiheng Night Market, also in the Tianya district, we tried Baoluo noodles – named for a town in Wenchang. The soup uses a broth made from boiling beef bones for hours, and has many ingredients including preserved vegetables, peanuts, bamboo shoots, sesame seeds, beef jerky and vegetables.

At Yiheng Night Market in Tianya, Sanya, we tried Baoluo noodles.
Coconut is used in many dishes, including coconut rice.

Another local noodle dish is Houan noodle, named after a town in Wanning. The broth is made by simmering pig bones and offal for hours with ingredients such as shrimp and conch. Locals eat the delicacy with an egg sunny side up to make the soup even tastier.

Coconut is used in many restaurants, too, given how plentiful they are in the province. There’s coconut chicken hotpot; glutinous rice mixed with coconut water and meat; baked coconut buns filled with shredded dried coconut meat, sesame and fried sugar; coconut oil; and many types of coconut confectionery.

“We have various desserts made from coconut,” says Fu of Grandpa’s Coconut Chicken, “including jelly, milk pudding and liquor.”

Coconut jelly at Yiheng Night Market.
A whole coconut without the shell at Yiheng Night Market.

Several stalls at Yiheng Night Market sell coconut jelly, which comes in a whole coconut shell. The coconut jelly – made with milk, whipped cream and gelatin – is fresh and uses no artificial sugar. Other vendors sell whole coconuts without the shell.

A stall owner says its coconut desserts sell like hot cakes, even though they’re relatively costly at 35 yuan each. “Locals see coconut water as a medicinal herbal tea. They drink it to expel the heat and get antioxidants and other nutrients,” the stallholder says.

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