Eating through the Far North East

As part of my work I spent a few months in the northeastern tip of China, Heilongjiang province, in the winter of 2019 and 2020, where it was practically twenty degrees celsius below zero every day. Other than ice skating on frozen rivers and walking on snow, the only winter activity was staying home or spending time in a heated mall. The only thing left to do outside of work was obviously to eat—and I was blessed because the area had so many new and exciting dishes to discover.

Instead of providing a list of restaurants, I would mostly be introducing regional dishes prepared in the northeastern tradition, stuff you can find pretty much everywhere in the cities of Liaoning (遼寧), Jilin (吉林) and Heilongjiang (黑龍江). This cuisine is very underrepresented in the media, yet I truly believe it’d be worthwhile making time for a trip to the Northeast just to eat. You would be off the beaten track and per-head spending even at the best restaurants are just RMB50~100 (US$7~$14). If you need specific recommendations for restaurants, just PM me.

Dongbei-style Large Hot Pot (鐵鍋燉, tie-guo-dun)

Typically only one kind of meat or seafood would be served, and an entire party of four up to eight would sit round the large metal pot waiting for the food to be cooked (traditionally under a wooden or bamboo lid). This requires patience, as it takes around 40 to 80 minutes to finish. The flesh absorbs all of the soup’s goodness and are super satisfying, especially in wintertime. Corn dough are sometimes stuck on the sides of the large pot for some seriously fluffy corn buns.

This one is lamb. The meat pulls apart easily when the lid of the pot is finally uncovered. The soup is super savory and peppery. Appetizers include liquor-infused strawberry slices and various fungus, beancurd, jellyfish and veggies marinated in vinegar and soya sauce. In recent years even north-easterners have grown to like to add a bit of chilli to their food, so some of the appetizers could be spicy.

This is oxtail (牛尾, niu-wei), and in my opinion was the best of the three, although it takes about 60-75 minutes to be ready (we went for 70-minute walk out in the -20°C cold to burn some extra calories and kill the time). The slow-cooked oxtail was remarkably tender, not fatty at all and created a rich stock for the mushrooms and cabbage to absorb. A whole two kilograms of it only cost us about RMB250 inclusive of all the rest of the ingredients.

Crispy Pork (鍋包肉, Guo-bao-rou) and Sauerkraut and Pork Soup (殺豬菜, Sha-zhu-cai)

Next up is guobaorou 鍋包肉, crispy sweet and sour pork, a North-eastern delicacy that is well-known across the whole country. Pork gets dipped in several thick layers of flour and eggs and gets deep-fried to golden.

As we get the dish straight out of the wok, the golden dough remains super crunchy and the pork is thin and tender. People who enjoy deep-fried food would love this.

Right next to the pork is a pot of hot sauerkraut soup called shazhucai 殺豬菜, typically with pork and tofu, but you get to decide what meat and side ingredients you want in it. Traditionally, peasants would kill their piggy before the New Year and make this soup with the meat. I love the taste of sauerkraut here. It’s so refreshing and as it’s much less pungent and heavily seasoned than kimchi it’s possible to eat a lot of it.

Barbecue (烧烤, shao-kao)

This is probably not so exciting because almost everyone has been to a Korean barbecue restaurant. Because there is a sizeable Chaoxian (an ethnic minority group in mainland China who speak Korean) population in the northeastern part of China, what is generally perceived as Korean cuisine is widely available here. That’s a two-person set menu at RMB110, with twelve dishes in total (some on the other side of the pot), including various kinds of beef, pork, prawns, chicken and vegetables. Some of the beef are marinated in advance, and have that distinctive sweet-savory taste characteristic of bulgogi.

This was one of my favorites, but again takes ages to be ready (about 45 minutes). For roughly RMB120, we get an entire leg of a lamb to grill on charcoal (烤羊腿, kao-yang-tui) and it tastes incredible. It’s hard for the lamb to be cooked thoroughly this way so we have to use a knife and a long fork to carve out the meat and grill it closer to the charcoal as we eat (much harder than it sounds!). It takes a lot of work and is part of why it’s fun and extra tasty. No seasoning is needed as the lamb is not gamey, although you can sprinkle any amount of cumin, white sesame and chilli powder as you eat. The meat is tender with just the right amount of fat (unless you eat the skin as well, which is super fatty) and the flavors are much more complex than cow meat.

Chargrilled Skewers (串烧 or 烧烤, chuan-shao or shao-kao)

This one is going to be a long series. Chargrilled skewers are one of the most iconic foods of the Northeast, and we couldn’t have enough of them. Some varieties are only seen in China. Let’s start with some of the more normal ones…

This is ox tongue.

This one’s beef.

That’s lamb. These three are from a Russian restaurant where the skewers tend to be much larger and more kebab like. Local northeastern restaurants tend to prefer to serve skewers that are mini-sized and often the minimum order quantity is 10 for each variety, each costing about RMB 0.5 or 1.

The picture below is taken at one of Harbin’s oldest and most famous skewer restaurants. On the left we have beef tendon, which is a popular meat to grill as a skewer in the northeast. Beef tendon itself comes in so many varieties–tendon of the cow’s foot (熟筋 shu-jin), tendon of the cow’s leg (筋腱 jin-jian), tendon of the cow’s back (板筋 ban-jin), tendon near the cow’s heart and liver (生筋 sheng-jin), etc. They also commonly serve meat from the side ribs (肉筋 rou-jin). Often times these are available for pork and lamb as well. Most of the above are lean meat, some with more chewiness than others, but that is from collagen (protein) and muscle rather than fat. More traditionally, people simply order “beef” or “lamb” skewers, often with a choice for it being half fatty (半肥瘦, ban-fei-shou) or completely lean (瘦肉, shou-rou).

The photograph below pictures a variety of beef tendons from left to right (I really can’t tell which is which).

Below is a simple lamb skewer made in the Xinjiang tradition with cumin and chilli. It’s half lean and was the best I had in the northeast.

The large boney piece above is grilled beef knuckle. The meat near the bones are lean and very tender, with occasional bits of chewy and flavorful tendon. The only embarrassing bit would be that one would need to eat with one’s hands (gloves typically provided), but I promise that it would be so worth it.

Grilled bone marrow (牛骨髓, niu-gu-sui) is of course also a thing in China, with cumin, sesame and chilli oil. As you can see, it’s huge. I don’t personally like the texture of fat in my mouth, but this is different. The bone marrow’s taste is out of the world–soft and rich, with a nutty flavor and a delicate texture.

And then we have grilled live oysters (烤生蠔, kao-sheng-hao) and potato slices (i.e. potato chips pretty much, but unprocessed) which are again very popular shao-kao items on any restaurant menu. Seafood is very fresh as they’re typically caught along the northeastern coast. Large, sweet and succulent.

While we’re at that, I must introduce these “ice prawns” (冰蝦, bing-xia) which are really only found in this part of the country. The ice prawns typically come with their own roe and are served completely frozen (not chilled). They were first cooked in a broth and then frozen. You can eat the shell and practically every part of it (although I do not eat the head, the legs nor the tail). The flavor is a balance of briny and sweet and the texture is super crunchy. The shell is edible. I love it with some Chinese liquor. They are mostly only found in these skewer restaurants.

Other than seafood, one of my favorite new tries is mao-dan 毛蛋, literally “hairy egg”, which is a fertilized bird egg that has been incubated for two to three weeks with recognizable bird features including bits of hair. It sounds gross, but when it’s properly grilled, it tastes like a mixture of fresh egg and birdie, with some crunch from the char and grill, and naturally also soft bones. The texture and flavors are so complex and rich. Nothing is needed other than a sprinkle of salt and maybe chilli. This is how it looks–you can see the hair.

They also grill quail (烤鵪鶉, kao-an-chun) with sesame seeds and it’s super crunchy.

Or quail that’s again, not quite fully hatched yet. This is not half as good as mao-dan, however, and I did not dare to eat the head. But it was worth trying.

Miscellaneous: Other Dongbei and Heilongjiang Specialties (其他东北和黑龙江特色菜)

This is cold buckwheat noodles (冷面, leng-mian), a local specialty. You get to choose normal flour noodles as well, but we prefer buckwheat. It tastes exactly like the Korean variety. You can opt out of the chilli sauce, of course. The soup base is mostly sweet and a bit citrusy and savory. While it might seem counterintuitive to have this while it’s snowing outside, it is in fact still a popular dish in winter. Shops that sell cold noodles typically specialize in just this one dish, and there’d be about a dozen cold appetizers (mainly vegetarian) for you to pick from a counter cupboard–ranging from kimchi (辣白菜, la-bai-cai) to seaweed (海带丝, hai-dai-si) to beansprouts (豆芽, dou-ya) to deep-fried tofu puffs (豆腐泡, dou-fu-pao). They usually also have cold cuts like marinated beef (卤牛肉, lu-niu-rou).

This is a famous braised fish dish (得莫利燉魚) in the Dongbei region. The fish were traditionally caught along the Songhua River (松花江) near Demoli village (得莫利村) by the Russian border. The fish is first pan-fried and then braised in a fermented bean sauce for about twenty minutes. Some restaurants would add tofu and vermicelli which tend to pick up the rich flavors of the stew. The fish is tasty and meaty and we love the aromatic flavors of the stew.

Another variety that is less popular but still seen in some places is a stew of fish and lamb (燉羊肉和鮮魚, dun-yang-rou-he-xian-yu). This has an even richer soup base and typically takes upwards of half an hour to prepare. I ate every single strand of enoki mushroom in the stew because the soup was just too good.

This is donkey meat (驢肉, lü-rou). I just thought it would be interesting to try an animal meat that is quite uncommon elsewhere. Dongbei is not the only province specializing in this, however. Instead of having it fried which tends to be greasy, we chose to have cold cuts of roasted donkey, a few pieces from each available body part (the leg, ribs, etc.). It was nicer than I imagined, especially when serving it with freshly chopped onion, but it is not something I would actively seek out next time.

Rolling fried meat, cucumber, scallion and parsley in a piece of rice paper is a very northern dish (捲餅, juan-bing), its most popular variety outside of the country being Peking duck. We had a go here in Heilongjiang as well and it was a nice. Relative to restaurants in wealthier regions and countries, meat portions (the default is usually pork) are smaller here, and the smallest order quantity for rice paper here was twenty-four pieces, and one could choose between at least two varieties of rice paper–some are more stretchy and chewy, some are drier and more floury.

Seafood is abundant here and this time we had them steamed instead of grilled or fried. Yellow clams from Dandong (丹東黃蜆, dan-dong-huang-xian) are famous for their uniquely sweet flavor profile and substantial mouthfeel. We also had raw crab (醬油蟹, jiang-you-xie) which was rich with roe. They were an absolute delight. We were also pleasantly surprised by the steamed oysters (with garlic and vermicelli) which were probably the best I’ve had in a long time. We compared the size of the oysters with that of a crab (see photograph above) to show how big the oysters were (way larger than my palm).

Scallops are also a specialty here. This one is a creative dish (炸元貝, zha-yuan-bei) that deep-fries scallops like guo-bao-rou and it’s a superb finger food to go with drinks.

Muslim Specialties (清真菜, qing-zhen-cai)

In the northeast, one would come across quite a few restaurants run by ethnic minorities, typically from Xinjiang or other areas of highlands in China, and they are usually Islamic. Their specialty is always lamb and lamb-related dishes. If you are a fan of lamb or just of new things, do pop into one of these restaurants and check them out.

One of the most famous of all is the shao-mai (燒賣), which are the same Chinese characters as the Cantonese siu-mai, but are completely different things. These are dumpling-like and have semi-raw tops that still taste floury. The flour wrap is thick, carries with it a little bit of soup and the meat inside is sizeable. Many locals would eat about twelve of these plus a bowl of hot lamb soup as their dinner. For us, having two each would already be a bit too much. The meat inside is freshly chopped and does taste wonderful. Lamb soup is typically refilled for free and you can have as much as you want, although they are relatively expensive (RMB 50 each). You can choose between lamb offal (羊雜, yang-za) or just normal lamb meat (羊肉, yang-rou).

This is wok-fried lamb with onion and tastes pretty standard, except the plate is huge and the slices are thick.

This is braised lamb cheek and the texture of the meat is tender. I just thought there was a little bit too much skin and fat. Otherwise it’s as good as any wagyu beef cheek from a western restaurant in Hong Kong or London.

Hot Pot (火锅, huo-guo)

Not much need to be said about hot pot, except that any visitor really ought to have beef and lamb up here in the north because these meats have so much more umami and succulence than down south!

Street Food (街头小吃, jie-tou-xiao-chi)

These are candied fruits (冰糖葫蘆, bing-tang-hu-lu) that are found in trolleys in pretty much every corner of city centres across the northeast. They would have kiwis, blueberries, strawberries, apples, dates and so on. What makes them so special is the fact that they’re completely frozen, as outside temperatures go as low as minus 30 degrees celsius even in the day. What you get is a super crunchy sweet treat that’s definitely worth trying. In January, where the largest strawberries are harvested in the northeast, and are no less juicy and milky compared to their Japanese counterparts, I would highly recommend opting for strawberries.

This was in fact photographed in Dalian, Liaoning, which is another province in the northeast. It’s deep-fried tofu with a mixture of questionable sauces that almost look like wall paint. But oh god did it taste good. That floury square wrap and the tofu pieces are thrown into the oil bath for half a minute and then drained. After that the tofu gets rolled inside the floury square with a variety of sauces. I typically steer clear of deep-fried food but I returned to other stalls for this twice. It’s called 冷面卷豆腐, leng-mian-juan-dou-fu, which if literally translated would be “fermented tofu wrapped in cold flour”.

Russian Food (俄罗斯菜, e-luo-si-cai)

As Heilongjiang borders Russia, you would imagine that there’d be a little bit of Russian influence along the border. We don’t see a lot of Russian people anywhere, but there are some Russian restaurants everywhere in Heilongjiang, and you’d see many more in Harbin. The restaurants that fare better are those that are more conscious of local and global culinary trends and attempt to create some sort of a fusion of inspirations that’s neither Russian nor Chinese nor Western.

This is pâté with flying fish roe and red onion. The pâté was super smooth and we really quite liked it.

This is cod fish liver pâté. It was the first time I had this. I asked the restaurant manager how they made this and he told me that they simply buy them in cans and serve it straight out. We found this so tasty (especially with the diced red onion) that I went through a challenging search to find its Russian name (ПЕЧЕНЬ И ИКРА МИНТАЯ) and Chinese distributor. I found it in the end and ordered a few cans, and it was indeed the same thing.

This was smoked fish. I can’t remember which was which, but it was pretty OK. I wouldn’t have it with wasabi and soy sauce though, and would still prefer Norwegian smoked salmon.

This was ice prawn with roe again, but a special one that’s very “fat” and dwarfish. It’s simply called Coldwater Prawns (馬加丹蝦, ma-jia-dan-xia) and traditionally have come from the Russian city Magadan, where lots of fresh seafood originate. I loved this. It was a bit pricey (but only relative to local prices).

This is grilled fish head. It was wild caught Russian flounder. The flesh was a melt-in-your-mouth kind of texture. Again a highly recommended dish.

We also had kebab-like skewers of beef and lamb meat at Russian restaurants and they were always good.

Dumplings 水餃

Last but not least, dumplings! This is probably the northeast’s most well-known dish outside of the region and country.

A trip to the northeast won’t be complete without at least one hearty meal of dumplings. At a dumpling restaurant, you can choose from a dizzying list of meat and vegetarian options depending on your preferences and often one gets to see how they are immediately wrapped (taking less than 5 seconds each) and then boiled by experienced chefs. Dip that in some vinegar and soy sauce and there you have a simple yet filling meal.