Food choices in Haikou make every meal a special occasion
The cuisine bears similarities to Cantonese-style cooking, but with distinctly local twists
Haikou’s culinary scene offers many savoury foods that run the gamut from Hainan classics, including chicken, duck and lamb, to seafood, all of which are on hand at a wide range of local restaurants and markets.
One of the most famous regional dishes is Wenchang chicken, with legend dating it back to the city of Wenchang in northeastern Hainan in the 14th century. Even today, this fleshy chicken is raised in Wenchang on a diet of coconut flesh and peanut cake.
The whole chicken is typically boiled, cut into pieces and dipped in a mix of ginger, salt and other spices. Plump without being greasy, it is often served alongside rice with the oil conserved from cooking the chicken. Although the poach-and-sauce method prevails, Wenchang chicken can also be fried, stewed in a coconut flesh broth, or even baked in salt.
Dongshan lamb also takes its name from its provenance and is made from the meat of free-range goats raised on Dongshan Peak in the city of Wanning. While the meat can be braised or fried, a delicious version of this delicacy stews the meat in coconut milk, with the soup and organs mixed into congee.
A local Haikou variation is to cook the goat meat with watermelon. Regardless of the preparation method, this dish is reliably tender and soft and evokes the true flavours of Hainan.
Jiaji duck, which is also called fan duck or foreign duck, likewise takes its name from the town of Jiaji in Qionghai along the Wanquan River, where ducks are kept in coops and fed on grain and bean curd. These ducks stand out on the chef’s table for their plump flesh and the fragrant layer of fat between the flesh and its thin skin.
This delicacy is sometimes roasted but is usually boiled or steamed to preserve flavour and then diced or sliced and eaten with a mix of sesame oil, vinegar and ginger.
As with the other dishes, Hele crab takes its name from its provenance, the town of Hele in the city of Wanning where these delectable crabs originate. Raised in the area where fresh water meets the ocean’s seawater, this crab is distinguished by its tender meat and the golden yellow colour of its crab extract.
Hele crab is at its most popular when steamed to preserve its original taste and then served with a garlic, ginger and vinegar sauce. Tasty variants include boiled or stir-fried Hele crab. While this dish is available all year, it is said to be at its culinary best in autumn.
Other classic dishes include Li-style rice in bamboo, with Shanlan rice cooked in bamboo tubes sealed with banana leaves; qing bu liang, a medicinal herbal soup that is said to act as a cooling antidote to Haikou’s summer heat; and Hainan rice noodle, a daily staple and traditional snack.
Seafood is ubiquitous in Haikou. One way to sample the fare is at the city’s high-end restaurants, but – for a feast of all the senses – try one of the city’s seafood markets such as Banqiao Seafood Square on Banqiao Road, about three kilometres south of the city centre.
An intrepid diner can purchase live seafood and then bring the selections to the nearby stalls where the staff will prepare the dish for a per-kilogram price and serve the meal for a small table fee.
The Wanren Haixian Guangchang market, known in English as the Million Seafood Square, features many retail booths and dozens of snack bars.