Sizzling Hot Hainan Flavors

By Nicki Johnson / HICN / Updated: 18:02,19-February-2023

Chinese people have been enjoying the intoxicating burn of spicy foods for around 400 years. In traditional Chinese food culture, flavors such as mustard, leeks, ginger, and numbing Sichuan pepper can all be described as spicy due to their strong, hot flavors. These vegetables are also considered medicinal, and were considered health foods by many ancient Chinese. When pepper plants came over the ocean to China, they turned Chinese cuisine on its head, creating all new flavor combinations when mixed with the many ingredients already used in local dishes.

Freshness is the key to Hainans heat

To be hot in Hainan, you have to keep it fresh.

The Hainan Yellow Lantern Pepper is common on the island. [Artist: Wu Yuan]

Fresh-picked Hainan Yellow Lantern Peppers shine like the fiery Hainan sun. These brightly colored peppers are usually processed into jars of yellow lantern pepper sauce that grace the tables of local restaurants. But beware! Even a small drop of this potent concoction transforms any dish into a fiery flavor extravaganza and ignites a burning hunger that cant be satiated.

Pick a red chili pepper and put it into the pot, and the fresh, intoxicating aroma will fill the whole house. Its the magic ingredient for the perfect spicy flavor, every time!

One tiny bird eye chili pepper chopped into a small dish of dipping sauce or added to the stir-fry oil will definitely wake up the taste-buds of every diner at the table.

Small red peppers are one of the four specialty products of Dongfangs Sigeng Town. Although they arent large, they pack quite a punch!


A Hainanese woman making pepper sauce. [Artist: Wu Yuan]

Freshly made Hainan pepper sauce showcases the unique spicy flavor of Hainans Yellow Lantern Peppers. On the island, the sauce is made in a special way - adding the oil is the last step. In other areas, pepper sauce is made by first boiling the oil, then adding the pepper, but the Hainan way is to just add a layer of hot oil onto the surface of the peppers, which results in an even hotter sauce, while keeping the fresh-picked flavors of the peppers intact.

Becoming the King of Peppers

Hainan Yellow Lantern Peppers actually originated in Cuba and Peru. Due to their shape and bright color, they are also known as Yellow Emperor Peppers, Overlord Peppers, or just as Yellow Peppers. Since they are so incredibly hot, they have also been hailed as the King of Peppers!

Later, these yellow peppers were imported to Hainan, where locals began cultivating them. Thanks to the islands abundant sunshine and rain, the peppers grew well, especially in the southern coastal regions. Gradually, these peppers became a specialty of Hainan.

Hainan Yellow Lantern Peppers. [Photo: Yuan Chen]

Since they are so spicy, Hainanese people usually make Yellow Lantern Peppers into hot sauce. Although this dipping sauce might not look like anything special, in fact its the heart and soul of the everyday food of Hainan.

In addition to the Yellow Lantern Pepper, Hainans main peppers also include  facing heaven peppers, picked peppers, yellow bell peppers, and sweet peppers. Different types of peppers are grown in different areas, with sweet peppers mainly grown in the Dongjiao Town area of Wenchang and red chili peppers in Wenchangs Wengtian Town, while Boao Town and Tanmen Town in Qionghai are well known for their pickled peppers. Want to try the very best Hainan Yellow Lantern Peppers? They come from Lingshui!


Picking chili peppers in Boao Town, Qionghai. [Photo: Yuan Chen]

Pepper makes all the difference

Pepper has been an integral part of local food for a very long time, and makes a real contribution to the flavor profile of the cuisine. In the 1940s pepper was brought to Hainan from Southeast Asia by overseas Chinese, who began to cultivate and develop the pepper plant on the island, turning it into a specialty product of Hainan.

Fresh pepper, dried pepper, ground pepper.... in Hainan, pepper is not only widely cultivated, its also well loved by the locals, who use it to spice up their cooking and give it a bit of a flavor punch.

Local Hainan pepper [Photo: Yuan Chen]

A bit of ground pepper is sprinkled on rice noodle soup fresh from the pot at local breakfast stalls, adding a kick of spice to the savory soup. That sizzling hot flavor will wake you right up and clear your head for the day ahead!

A plate of pepper pork belly is served, and the meaty aroma mixes with the spicy smell of pepper, making the mouths of everyone in the restaurant start to water. The pork is tender and the pepper is hot but not too spicy. How could you resist?

Haikous Shuixiangkou Spicy Soup Rice is a whole meal in a bowl of soup. The heat of pepper is paired with the savory flavor of pickled vegetables, creating a dish that can satisfy even the hungriest of travelers. 



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