Chef Jet Tila of the Charleston gastro-lounge in Santa Monica spent his childhood working at his family’s Thai grocery store (the first in L.A.) and learned the secrets of Asian cooking from his Cantonese grandmother. His family originally hails from Hainan, a small island on the southeast coast of China. “In the culinary world, Hainan is known for two things,” he says. “One, the Hainanese Chinese controlled the food and beverage industry during the Singapore Raffles era. We were the chefs, restaurateurs, and hoteliers that ran Singapore. You wouldn’t be allowed to be in the food and beverage business unless you were of Hainanese decent. Second is the famous Chinese dish called Hainan Chicken Rice.” Tila recently took a trip to his family’s homeland and tasted its iconic dishes. Here he shares must-eat foods and the places to order them.

Dishes to Try 

Hainan Chicken
“In theory, this is a simple dish of seasoned and poached chicken served with a garlic and ginger pilaf. But when made correctly, it’s perfection. The rice is magical because to make it you render the trimmed chicken fat with garlic cloves. Then toss the white rice into the garlic fat and use the top layers from skimming the poaching liquid of the chicken to boil the rice like pilaf.”

Wenquan Goose
“This dish comes from the coastal area around the Wanquan River near Qionghai. Local villages here raise this local hybrid species of goose and feed it a special diet. Whatever is in that feed yields a goose that has fatty, non-greasy meat. A lot of the goose from mainland China is very greasy. But this breed has a light taste and delicious savory flavor.”

Lingao Suckling Pig
“These small pigs come from Lingao County in Hainan. They don’t weigh more than 20 pounds. You find them prepared many ways—steamed, barbecued—but the best way to cook them in my opinion is to roast them so the skin gets really crispy.”

Hainan-Style Hot Pot
“This is a classic dish that is normally served in a wok with a small flame underneath. The broth is loaded with meat, often sliced beef. At the time of serving, the meat is not fully cooked. This means you can’t dig in right away, you have to wait ten minutes or so for the meat to finish cooking once the dish has been served. It’s typical to get mushrooms, lettuce, and other green vegetables to add to the broth.”

Where to Eat Like a Local in Hainan

Hainan Food Restaurant, 5 Villa, Yalongwan Vocation Area, Sanya, 86/(0) 898-8855-9999

Horizon Fisherman’s Hot Pot, YaLongWan LvYou KaiFaQu TianYu DuJia JiuDian 1Lou CaoPing, Sanya, 86/(0) 898-8856-7888

Hai Ya Restaurant, No.138 New Wind Road, Sanya, 86/(0)898-8827-6962

Photo: Myleen Hollero