Growing up, I would love going to eat at Chinese restaurants and my typical food order would include fried rice, Hakka noodles, chilly paneer, vegetable Manchurian and chicken in sweet and sour sauce. Well, that’s what all Indians call Chinese food. But in reality, the real Chinese people’s eating habits and palate is very different than what we think of as Chinese cuisine. All the dishes I’ve mentioned above are actually a deviation from what the Chinese eat. These are actually invented in India. A few months ago I visited Sanya, which is on the southern coast of China and is a part of the Hainan islands. It’s also called the “Florida of the East”…white sands, clear blue skies, sultry sunny weather, teal waters, lazing in hammocks, fresh caught seafood and the lovely locals.
In a country like China where language is quite a major barrier, I managed to navigate well, and got myself to taste some delicious local cuisine. It’s always more authentic and experiential to get your hands on food made by street vendors, rather than in five star hotels. That’s where the native touch and taste is available.
A local flavour dessert is the coconut jelly which is sold at every nook and corner. It comes in two layers where the top is the coconut meat (malai) in which gelatin is added to make jelly, and the lower layer is the coconut water with gelatin that is added to make the transparent part and is the majority part of the dessert.
In Sanya, this is served in a coconut shell, which is in itself a unique way of serving it. In every other part of the world, it’s made and frozen in a bowl. Eating it out of a shell has its own charm. It feels like I’m eating the coconut water, and not drinking it.
Another speciality dessert here, is a mix of fruits with chilled coconut milk: very light and easy on the stomach and tasty like anything. There are a variety of fruits to choose from, right from pittaya, mango, strawberry, pineapple, kiwi, banana, apple, peach and plum.
I had some explaining to do to Yu Zhenjie, the owner of Tin Tin cold drink house, what exactly I wanted, because of the language issue.
Most Chinese people have an English translation application called Youdao translation downloaded on their devices. It’s a step by step process. I started off by saying the fruits I wanted were mango, strawberry and pittaya along with the coconut milk. The application then translates what I said in English to him in Chinese. In turn, he replies in Chinese into the phone, and this translates back to me in English. Voila! It was perfect. Sounds a little complicated here, but when it’s put into action it’s easy. Both of us understood each other perfectly. And to make me understand the price, which was 50 Chinese Yuan, approximately Rs 500, he punched the digits on the calculator and showed me. I gave a thumbs up, literally. Only then did he get the dessert ready. Well, Sanya is on the coast, so everything involves coconut. Another speciality is coconut milk, which is served chilled in every nook and corner. It is perfect for the warm, sunny weather.
When in Hainan, eat Hainan Chicken. The dish is a namesake of the island. It’s poached chicken breast, served with a garlic seasoned rice and garnished with cucumbers. The water in which the meat is boiled is served as a soup. It’s a complete meal by itself. We Indians need a bit of chilli oil to make it masaledar (hot and spicy). It’s not a street food but widely available at mom and pop restaurants. These small, hole-in-the-wall kind of places serve seafood, particularly lobster and crab. When you are on the coast, fresh caught seafood is a must. The lobster preparation involves butter, garlic and some chinese chilli oil but I gorged on the crab, which was cooked in typical Chinese style with some capsicum and a whole lot of garlic and chilli oil.
Most of these places have menus with photos. So language is not a major issue. I obviously wanted some carbohydrates with my dishes. So I googled fried rice, to show them the picture of what I wanted. Along with me there was a vegetarian, and luckily on the next table, I saw someone eating Chinese greens. So, I went to that table and pointed at it, explaining I wanted a plate of that as well. Thanks to technology, sign language and some pictures, I had a delicious local meal.
Seafood is found in abundance in Sanya. Fish cakes are sold in all tourist spots, even at a Buddha temple . Another tourist spot speciality is the marbled eggs that are boiled in the tea. Chinese people are like Bengalis or South Indians. Rice is a staple food in their diet and they love it in all forms. I saw it being served in pineapples and pandang leaves. The one which was steamed in pandang leaf had been cooked in a vegetarian broth and had some duck meat in the centre. What a healthy meal I must say: rice, veggies and duck. Today’s mantra is stay clean, eat clean which implies gluten-free food. This is a perfect example.
Another thing which is available all over the streets of Sanya is Chinese Barbecue, usually of chicken, pork or beef with a twist of local spices. I was keen on having pork. So to explain to me that’s it’s pig, the local pointed to her nose and wriggled it up and down. People in Sanya have really found funny ways to beat all language barriers.
Amongst the many varieties of breakfasts I’ve eaten, Chinese breakfast is an all time favourite: a basket of taro pie, pumpkin pie, dim sums comprising of pork bao, prawn sumai and vegetable savoury dumplings. The noodle soup in Pork broth is just to die for.