Among the Chinese minority groups in Thailand, the Hainanese are second in number only to the Taechew. They credit themselves with many contributions to the country's economy. For example, almost all of the leading, five-star hotels belong to Hainanese owners, as do the country's largest department stores, and all of its sawmills.
Woenchang chickens in the city of Sanya, Hainan province
The Hainanese have also had a strong influence on Thai culture and cuisine. They excel at carpentry and furniture-making. In Soi Pracharat Sai 1, Thailand's biggest source of teakwood furniture, almost every shop is Hainanese-owned.
There are many kinds of Hainanese food, and all of them are favourites in Bangkok. More than 70 years ago, affluent Thais who had a yen for Western-style food had to eat it at Hainanese-run restaurants because the only places that served it were in hotels owned by Hainanese, and these were very few in number.
Today, every street where food is sold must have at least one shop that sells khao man kai, a ubiquitous chicken-with-rice dish in the Hainanese repertoire. The nood- les known as kui tio Hailam can be properly prepared only by ethnic Hainanese cooks. Attempts by outsiders to offer the dishes have not worked out.
During the era when the Hainanese came to Thailand as refugees, it is thought that they came from two places. The largest group came from Hainan, an island off the southernmost part of China. Most of them were fishermen or farmers. The second group arrived from Shanghai, and they brought several primary professions with them - chefs versed in the preparation of Western food, laundry operators and furniture makers. The furniture makers of Shanghai were considered the best and most skilled in China.
Khao man kai and Hainanese noodles are believed to have come to Thailand with the group from Hainan. These days, a chicken-with-rice meal is still a popular favourite in Hainan. In big Hainanese cities like Sanya, restaurants serve boiled chicken chopped into pieces with a nam jim, or dipping sauce. The most famous and tastiest chickens are the Woenchang birds raised in the city of Woenchang. They are small; their meat is firm, but tender, and has a thick skin. The dipping sauce is made from chillies fried in sesame oil.
'Khanom jeen Hailam' at Mui Ah food shop in Si Yan market and fried
The khanom jeen Hailam in Hainan is different from that served in Thailand. In Hainan, it is fried with seafood, while in Thailand it is served as kui tio, or noodles, and is usually in broth. In both places, though, it comes with the same type of sauce: nam kapi (made by fermenting small shrimps with salt). The menu name of this sauce is kiemkoy.
Comparing the Thai version of khao man kai with the original Hainan recipe, people in Hainan say the Thai variant is better because it is made with castrated birds, which are plumper, tenderer and have more fat. But Hainanese in Thailand who have tasted Woenchang chicken claim that the Chinese bird tastes better.
As for the rice and the sauce, the rice in the Thai version wins on all fronts because of the way in which it is steamed.
First, uncooked jasmine rice is fried with garlic and salt, and then slowly cooked in the broth obtained from boiling the chicken. It has a delicate scent of garlic, and is slightly salty. Best of all, it is flavoured by the chicken broth and the fat that it contains.
The Thai sauce that accompanies the dish is made from tao jio (a salty sauce made from fermented soybeans) mixed with chopped ginger and chillies. A small amount of sweet, molasses-like black soy sauce is added to that.
Khanom jeen Hailam is served in two ways: "wet" (in broth) and "dry". The dry version combines the noodles with beef, which has been boiled to extreme tenderness and simmered in thick rice-flour water, and the result is topped with tripe, peanuts and sesame seeds. It is served with the kiemkoy sauce. Those who order it wet will get the noodles in broth together with fresh beef cooked briefly in a wire dipper and pickled cabbage. This version, too, is eaten with kiemkoy.
breaded pork loin in sauce at Silom restaurant.
As for Western food cooked in the Hainanese style in Thailand, there are far fewer restaurants serving it than there were in the past. Indeed, in Bangkok, they have disappeared almost completely. One of the most famous of these dishes is beef salad. Beef is fried over a strong fire until it is golden brown on the outside but still tender inside, and then placed on top of a bed of salad vegetables. Salad dressing is then poured over it. There are two types: a sweet, thick, creamy one and a clear one usually made from the oil used to fry the beef, with some soy sauce and sugar added.
Besides this salad, there are also satoo lin wua, or beef tongue stew - made by stewing beef tongue in catsup - and pork loin that is breaded with flour and fried. The latter is served garnished with peas. All of these nearly extinct dishes exerted, and are still exerting, a strong influence on Thai eating habits.
There is a little restaurant towards the back of Si Yan Market that makes tasty khanom jeen Hailam. It is called Mui Ah, and is open daily from the morning into the afternoon. It serves the noodles either wet or dry, and also offers a pork version as an option for customers who don't eat beef.
Another place to try, Jay Wah restaurant, is located at the entrance of Soi Luk Luang 7, off Luk Luang road near Thewakam bridge. They do business only in the evening, from 5pm to 10pm. The main dish is khanom jeen Hailam made with pork, and it's quite good.
A restaurant that serves Western dishes prepared in the original, old-fashioned Hainanese style is Silom restaurant, located near Wat Khaek off Silom road. They still serve the beef salad, beef tongue stew, and fried, minced pork dishes described above.
Khao man kai shops are all over the place. There is a good one at the base of Wat Sa Ket bridge on Damrong Rak road. It is called Jutaphote. Others worth trying are a famous shop in Plaeng Nam road off Yaowarat, and Thong Lee shop on a small soi off Yaowarat close to Ratchawong road.
If you are interested in tasting Hainanese food prepared by Hainanese cooks, now you know where to go.