DISCOVERING new foods. Lingering over local delicacies, served by multiple generations of one family, in the middle of the daily hustle and bustle. Eating mind-blowing meals, served on rustic formica tabletops, for next to nix. The ideal holiday hit list has to feature fabulous food experiences.
And China has one of the world's most interesting food cultures – much more varied than you'll discover in your regular Chinese takeout joint, and based on their many regions.
Hainan is an island province of China with its own unique cuisine that sings to its coconut-tree beach culture and endless summer. It's light and fresh, with loads of garlic and not much spice. Warm, welcoming restaurants and bustling street-food stalls are all over the little island, whether it's beachside, mid-rainforest or city centre.
From Hainan chicken to fried snails to Gordon Ramsay dishes, here's what you'll find on tropical Hainan Island.
1. Hainan chicken
Local chefs say the secret to their world-famous export is all about its main ingredient, not its recipe. The roaming island lifestyle and coconut diet of their local chicks ensure the meat is sweet, succulent and super tasty. Ergo, the original Hainan chicken is also the best. For this simple dish, chickens are cooked in – or dipped in and out of – super-hot broth and come out juicy and glistening, ready to be served with sticky rice chilli, garlic and soy dipping sauces. In what's said to be the island's best Hainan chicken restaurant – the bustling but tricky-to-find 600-seater Qiongcaifang, at the Chung Shen Hotel in Haikou city – the plump, fatty, deceptively simple chicken is served skin-on and whole, almost as performance, on gorgeous crockery and with much fanfare. Other dishes are also delicious – vitality soups, noodles served at room temperature, salt and pepper squid – and we staggered from this huge banquet (with beers) after investing less than $100. If you like your chicken with less garlic and more ginger, the even more popular) Hainanese chicken dish is Wenchang chicken.
2. Street food
If we have one piece of Hainan Island food advice, it's this: seek out the "snack streets" wherever (and whenever) you can. Most towns and beachfronts have them, bursting with the most fantastic food carts. A highlight is the many shaokao (Chinese barbecue) stands, smoky spectacles producing delicious skewered seafoods, meats and vegetables, lightly seasoned with spices. The more adventurous can join the long queues for chicken legs or try the fried spiders, scorpions or snails, meant to have medicinal benefits. Head to Quilou snack street in Haikou – not the huge indoor food court you might get directed to, but the open-air, busy, very long laneway about 100 metres down the road. Here you'll find more dishes than you can ever eat, and so cheap. To the tunes of piped Chinese pop music, you can sample Peking duck, Guokui (moreish Chinese pancakes), dumplings and steamed buns in all shapes and sizes, skewers of everything (broccoli, octupus, chicken heart, pipis) grilled on the spot, pickled vegies, fried chicken (so much fried chicken!), waffles, spring rolls on a stick, fried corn, noodles, hotpot, duck neck soup, nitrogen-smoked ice-cream, steamed tofu, chicken claws and necks, garlic oysters, bean cakes. You'll be wishing you had a second stomach.
We're told Hainan is known as the coconut city and the distinctive palm trees are everywhere. On beaches, friendly hawkers sell fresh coconut juice straight from the trees, and roasted coconut flakes are available all over the island, either fresh or bagged up. Our favourite, frozen coconut milk served in the shell, soon becomes a daily ritual.
Fresh fish dominates this idyllic island locale and sashimi is also widely available. Crabs are done every way, there are oysters soaked in garlic, pipis and blue lobsters, battered prawns, grilled octopus and more. Most beach resorts host seafood barbecues worth seeking out and there are plenty of fish markets. One of the biggest is near central Sanya: choose fresh seafood from one of the many stallholders,then wander outside and into one of the restaurants where the chef will cook it to your specifications. It's a slightly difficult operation for tourists without a guide, but worth it for the immersive, authentic dining experience.
5. Fine food
The island is not known for its fine dining – most offerings are rustic, and all the better for it, with rickety chairs and formica tabletops, often outdoor, but with consistently good service. It becomes routine for kindly wait staff to approach regularly with an English translation typed on their phone: "Did you enjoy your meal? Is there anything else I can do?" White tablecloth and low-light options are found at the many five-star hotels in Sanya and Haikou, with the Ritz-Carltons in both cities rated the best. A celebrity chef injection comes via the $2 billion Atlantis Sanya resort, in Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen. Expect European offerings – fish and chips, toffee pudding – served with cocktails.
6. Fresh fruit
Mango that melts in your mouth, fresh melons and guava, delicious bananas, papaya, dragon fruit like we've never tasted: fresh fruit is everywhere, cheap and abundant. Stallholders will slice it into cubes and bag it up for a juicy and memorable all-day snack, perfect for this island life. Look for less familiar fruit, including egg yolk fruit, green oranges, jackfruit, rambutan, soury star fruit, sugar and wax apples, and longan.
7. Other Hainanese specialties
With its hot, still, endless summer, Hainan Island was always going to have a unique food culture, and there are three signature dishes to try before you leave: the striking and completely delicious Jiaji duck (also boiled, then served with ginger, vinegar and sesame oil), Hele crab (juicy local crab served in its shell) and Dongshan lamb (which – work this out – is actually goat, and also delicious). Soups are also a big drawcard – Hainanese mutton soup, Hainanese salted fish soup, wonton soups and many, many more pages on countless menus. So you may not know what you're eating if you don't speak Mandarin (or Hainanese)? It's bound to be delicious.