This morning we were up early to make our way to Hainan. Laikwan’s family is originally from Hainan, a tropical island in the south. Pronounced HIGH-Nan in Mandarin, HOY-lam in Cantonese and HIGH-nahm in Hainanese (Hainan has it’s own dialect that sounds nothing like Mandarin or Cantonese). Hainan is part of mainland China, so we needed visas to enter the country (you don’t need a visa to visit Macau or Hong Kong) and we needed to look at our best options on how to get ourselves to Hainan. The best one we came up with was to drive to the border of Macau and Zhuhai, enter China and then hitch a ride to the Zhuhai Airport.
First we stood in a decently long line to exit Macau. Then we walked a bit and stood in another line to get our passports scrutinized and be allowed to enter the People’s Republic of China. For some reason, Bill’s passport was scrutinized the most, but we all made it through customs easily and into the (that location). I found it interesting that signs told us that taking photos or video was not allowed, loitering was also not allowed.
Our driver (who is able to drive back and forth between China and Macau) met us on the other side of the border crossing and drove us to Zhuhai Sanzao Airport, about 30 minutes from where we crossed into China.
Mainland China, at least in the part we visited, had a completely different vibe than Macau. I’m not quite sure how to describe it, maybe a little more chaotic? I’m not sure. It could have simply been how I felt being an American in a country that isn’t known for his hospitality to Americans.
Haikou is in the northern part of Hainan, and is where Laikwan is from. Her brother and his family live there still, right down the street from the house where Laikwan grew up.
Haikou has an amazing vibe to it, busy and chaotic, but still organized and friendly in some random way. Cars and trucks share the roads with scooters, motorcycles, mopeds and pedestrians and there’s very little regard for traffic laws. Lane lines and stoplights are merely a suggestion… scooters and mopeds ride wherever they will fit, even on sidewalks, and in any direction. It wasn’t uncommon to see a scooter zip past us going the opposite direction, on our right. As we made our way to Laikwan’s brother’s house, Bill shot a little video of the street they live on; a street lined with small shops selling pretty much anything you could need or want… fruit, dishes, fabrics, lighting, clothes, plastic chairs, umbrellas, bedding, tools, plants, you name it! I wished we could spend another day in Haikou just so we could explore that part of town.
We arrived right around lunchtime and shared a home-cooked lunch that was one of the best meals we had on this entire trip (well, that’s my opinion, I don’t know if Bill agrees). Laikwan’s brother’s house is a four-storey building with an open-air courtyard on the ground floor where family meals are held. Each of Laikwan’s nephews live on their own floor with their wives and children. On the roof is a garden where they grow a lot of their own food and raise chickens. I was told they used to raise pigs on the roof too, but it got too hot for them up there. The ground floor has a large open-air kitchen and a courtyard. The ground level also houses two small shops that they rent out to retailers to sell their wares facing the street.
While Tommy played upstairs with his second cousins (two of them were about the same age as Tommy) we enjoyed a wonderful lunch of some Hainanese dishes.
This very traditional Hainanese noodle dish was the centerpiece on the table and my favorite dish, by far.
At the end of lunch Bill’s cousin disappeared and brought back four fresh coconuts with him. He hacked holes in the top and we sipped fresh coconut water for dessert.
After lunch, we headed to our hotel in Haikou and took a short nap. Around dinnertime, Bill’s cousin came and picked us up so we could head to dinner. Since Bill has a lot of cousins, I’m going to refer to this cousin as Uncle because that’s what Tommy was calling him. Dinner was at a place on the coast about 30 to 40 minutes from where they live. It was a restaurant-style I have never seen before. We spent the beginning looking at buckets and tanks of live fish and shellfish picking out our dinner. Then we all huddled around 2 large tables and plate after plate of fresh seafood was brought to our tables, done in a variety of cooking styles.
We had barbecued oysters, stir fried clams with onions and green peppers, a very spicy seaweed soup, coconut sticky rice, little fish that kind of looked like eels and were deep fried, braised mini-catfish, another type of clam, stir-fried crab, a shredded papaya & vermicelli dish, stir fried greens and an amazing fish soup. My favorites were the stir-fried crab, the stir fried clams with peppers and the fish soup.
As we were nibbling on the last bits from our plates and watching the kids play outside, Bill and I both joked that today felt like an episode of No Reservations. We were both hearing Tony Bourdain’s voice-over in our heads summarizing the wonderful day we’d just had along with the sounds of the kids playing and the wind in the trees as background noise.
After dinner we headed back to what Tommy had started calling “the family house” to let the kids play for a bit and to try and get a group photo. As we were leaving, we walked down the street a little bit and picked up some Asian pears at a little fruit stand. A little ways down was a stand selling a very traditional dish called Hainanese Chicken Rice (HOY-lahm GIE fawn). I have had this dish once or twice in the US and was really looking forward to having it in Hainan. We were on our way back to the hotel for bedtime, but we had to pick some up anyway.
The chickens used in this dish are unlike any chickens I have ever eaten in the US. The meat is much firmer and chewier, almost tough in comparison. But the chicken flavor is so much more apparent.
The process starts with a pot of boiling water that has a little ginger in it and/or a little white wine (varies on the family recipe). The water is brought to a boil and a whole chicken is added. The water is brought to a boil again and then the heat is turned off completely. Then they let the pot of chicken sit for 45 minutes to an hour. The chicken is removed and immersed into an ice bath. The ice causes the skin to tighten up and congeal the fat underneath. It’s all part of the flavor and texture.
Going back to the chicken broth that was created from boiling the chicken, some fat is skimmed off of the broth and thrown into a hot wok where it’s cooked along with some raw, uncooked rice until the rice becomes translucent. At that point the rice is put into a rice cooker with the chicken broth instead of plain water. Some garlic is usually added too.
The end result is an amazingly flavorful and fragrant rice that is served with the chicken. The chicken is usually served at room temperature too. Traditionally, a mixture of chopped garlic, ginger and oil is mixed together and you dip the chicken pieces into the mixture. Depending on the family or region of Hainan other condiments can also be included.
I have had this dish at a Thai restaurant in southern California and I have heard it’s pretty popular in Singapore, but there’s something to be said about eating it where it originated. After Tommy had gone to sleep, Bill snacked on the chicken before going to bed and I had a few bites of the rice. G’night!