Pot-luck on Hainan Island

On Hainan Island, eating where the locals eat is a test of Rod Pascoe's mettle.
A fish vendor with a live crayfish at the Ten Thousand People open-air dining facility in Sanya City on Hainan Island, China. Photo / Barbara Boyce
A fish vendor with a live crayfish at the Ten Thousand People open-air dining facility in Sanya City on Hainan Island, China. Photo / Barbara Boyce

I'm a big sook, I know, but I just couldn't do it. There was no way I could choose any of the fish writhing in shallow tanks at the Ten Thousand People Market in Sanya, on Hainan Island in China, and tell the vendor to kill it.

It may have been the distressing memories I have from childhood - my late father, Bill Pascoe, boiling crayfish live, or me killing an innocent eel when I was little, just to show off to the other boys at children's camp - but I simply couldn't bring myself to condemn to death any of the crabs, eels, crayfish, shellfish, prawns or other species on sale. It was bad enough seeing them wriggling around in water no more than a foot deep.

I was at the market with a group of fellow Kiwi journalists and our Chinese hosts. We'd decided that instead of having yet another lavish Chinese banquet at any of Sanya's myriad posh hotels, we would eat where the locals eat.

The market is in the south of the city, near the Sanya train station. It's a sight to behold.

There's row upon row upon row of outdoor eating places, and the staff of each stand at the front trying to entice diners in. But first you have to go to the rear of the market - where big, plastic, water-filled crates are set out side-by-side in lines for about 150m - and buy the fish you want to eat, as well as the veges to accompany it.

Then you take everything back to your chosen eatery and the cooks there turn it into your dinner.

For me, there was one paramount criterion for the fish I chose: it had to be already dead.

I suppose I'm like many carnivores. We may like our steak, schnitzel, chops and cutlets, but there's no way we want to watch the animals from which they come being slaughtered.

A plate of scampi awaits a lucky diner  at the Ten Thousand People open-air market on Hainan Island. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A plate of scampi awaits a lucky diner at the Ten Thousand People open-air market on Hainan Island. Photo / Rod Pascoe

I had no idea what any of the species in the fish crates were or what they tasted like, so I just picked a dead one at random.

It turned out I hit the jackpot. My little beauty was a tuna, and it cost me only 67 yuan ($14.50). My companions were pretty impressed.

They were less impressed with what the cooks did with the carrots I bought. These turned up shredded - and fried! This sparked a good deal of hilarity, for the next day or two, I was the butt of a few carrot jokes.

I suppose you could say our meal was the Sanya equivalent of a pot-luck dinner, and as with so many such dining experiences, we well and truly overcatered.

Our group of 10 ended up with 20 dishes, and we had so much food left over that we could probably have kept a local family of mum, dad and the little emperor fed for a week.

Not all the choices were successful. The scampi shells were damned difficult to remove - I eventually forced my chopsticks under and yanked upwards to get to the meat - and a crab shell gave one of my fellow diners a nasty cut on her finger.

And I couldn't get the Diet Coke I was keen to wash my meal down with. (I quickly discovered that sugar-free soft drinks are as rare in Hainan as health warnings on Chinese cigarette packets.)

By the time we had finished our dinner, the table was a mess with so many discarded shells and bones.

But it was a fun night of outdoor eating with amusing companions in the wonderfully warm tropical climate of Hainan, and I came to accept I was not only a sook, I was what the Chinese refer to as a dabizi (literally "big nose", meaning a dumb foreigner).

Checklist: Hainan

Getting there: Cathay Pacific, with sister airline Dragonair, flies from Auckland to Hainan. Return flights to China starts at $1019. cathaypacific.co.nz

Details: For details on China Travel Service deals for Hainan, go to ctstours.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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