Photo by Anne Fishbein
Hainan is by all accounts China’s answer to Hawaii, a warm, lush island with beaches of fine, white sand, a tropical wonderland famous for the succulence of its mangoes, abundant pineapples, and the delicate flavor of its native red coconuts. The southern coast of Hainan is home to what are probably China’s closest equivalents to Hawaii’s luxurious beach resorts. The local waters teem with seafood, and the firm-fleshed rock lobster is especially renowned.
The island’s location, off the southernmost coast of Guangdong province and dominating its stretch of ocean, puts it in the middle of pretty much every trade route to Southeast Asia. This is why, of course, Hainan is so valuable as a naval center. Sixty years ago, Japan ruled Indochina from Hainan; today most of China’s southern fleet is based on the island.
Because of the strategic location, the island’s cooks have always had at least theoretical access to the sort of chiles and exotic spices that rarely make it onto the conservative Cantonese table, although there is not much evidence that they have taken advantage of them. There is apparently little in the way of indigenous cuisine, and Hainanese-style restaurants outside Hainan are pretty rare. The British, perhaps not coincidentally, had a thing for Hainanese cooks a century ago; a Hainanese barman invented the famous Singapore Sling, and the word “Hainan” on Chinese menus often signifies gloppy, Anglified concoctions of fried pork and mushy peas, gray lamb and potatoes.
But before the island came to international notice as a place where spy planes spy on spy planes, downed airmen reluctantly lunch with diplomats, and Landslide George transformed a simple plane crash into something like the Cuban Missile Crisis as scripted by Feydeau, most of the world knew Hainan for a single dish. It is as easy to find Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong as it is to find a Starbucks in Santa Monica. I once spent a pleasant week in Singapore darting back and forth between specialists before alarming the locals by concluding that the very best Hainanese chicken rice was to be found at a twee coffee shop attached to a grand hotel.
Hainanese chicken rice is a simple thing in concept, but difficult in execution, a sort of loose Chinese risotto sizzled in a pan and simmered in chicken stock, glistening with chicken fat and fragrant with ginger, every grain plump and separate yet chewy and bursting with juice. The chicken rice is always garnished with a portion of the chicken itself, either boiled or fried; there is always a scattering of fried garlic; and there is always a bowl of soup to eat with the bird. There should be three sauces served in tiny bowls alongside — sweet, dark soy sauce; a sauce of pulverized ginger in oil; and a homemade sauce of puréed chiles lightened with a few drops of lime.
It doesn’t take much to set off a craving for Hainanese chicken rice, and somehow a simple statement from a U.S. diplomat last week, saying that the hostages were being well-fed, sent me off on a spree. (What would the hostages be well-fed on in Hainan, if not chicken rice?) But locally, great chicken rice is hard to find. The pallid example at the Monterey Park Singaporean restaurant called Litz had no discernible flavor to speak of, and the chicken itself was boiled into rags. The rice at Kuala Lumpur, a Pasadena Malaysian restaurant I usually adore, had good texture, but was unaccountably mild.
Hainan Chicken, a Malaysian restaurant in the distant reaches of Rowland Heights, had a respectable chicken rice, overcooked certainly, but strongly flavored, tasting almost like rice scooped up from the bottom of a soup pot. The chicken itself was quite good, and the salty ginger purée was the sort of thing you might be tempted to consume by the quart. And at Yazmin, the Alhambra Malaysian stalwart, the Hainanese chicken rice was close to superb, tinged with just the right amount of liquid chicken fat and wonderfully scented with ginger, crowned with powerfully marinated “roasted” chicken whose garlicky skin crackled like spun sugar.
Hainanese chicken rice may have as little to do with the actual cooking of the province as Kentucky Fried Chicken does with the cuisine of the Bluegrass State, but the preparation is one of those things that trigger the sort of obsessiveness you may have noticed in partisans of Philly cheesesteaks, Texas barbecue and Chicago hot dogs.
Hainan Chicken, 18406 E. Colima Road, Rowland Heights; (626) 854-0385.
Kuala Lumpur, 69 W. Green St., Pasadena; (626) 577-5175.
Litz Restaurant, 201 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-8882.
Yazmin, 27 E. Main St., Alhambra; (626) 308-2036.