Cici and Mrs. Chen are waiting for us back at the Shangri-La, ready to examine my purchases: a few small bags of dried sea cucumbers, which I feel compelled to buy after learning that they are, at least according to the shop assistant, believed to cleanse the blood and nourish the yin—after the previous night’s baijou-fueled feast, this sounds like something I could benefit from. Tan, meanwhile, takes to the kitchen to prepare our dinner. The banquet begins with a selection of Japanese-inspired cold starters and ends nine courses later with scallops steamed with lima beans, shallots, and mijiu, a rice wine, served atop mounds of fluffy egg whites. In between we nibble on a salad of sea cucumber—tough and bland, and without immediate benefit to my yin, I note—slurp hot-and-sour soup with cuttlefish eggs, and pick at sea-snail dumplings that Mrs. Chen declares are not as good as hers. She might be right. It’s all washed down with tepid beer. “Give a Dalian local a cold beer and they’ll get drunk in a second,” says Tan, explaining the lack of chill.
Mrs. Chen, Cici, and I roll onto the plane the next morning to Harbin, around 400 kilometers west of the Russian border. An hour’s flight north of Dalian, Harbin is a world away in flavor. Popular for its winter ice-sculpture festival, the city can see average temperatures dip to minus-20 degrees Celsius for months on end; at the height of the festival in January, temperatures closer to minus 40 are not uncommon. Here, you eat to stay warm.
The city of nearly 10 million, which began as a small fishing village on the southern bank of the Songhua River, is eerily quiet when we arrive. It’s still fall, but a cold fog hangs over the town, keeping most people indoors. Like Dalian, Harbin’s cuisine, culture, and architecture are deeply rooted in the city’s history, time spent bouncing between Russian and Japanese occupiers. Sadly, much of this heritage was destroyed by factional fighting during the Cultural Revolution when the city’s European community was forced to leave the country. Most of the grand Russian buildings erected in the early 1900s have since been demolished, though a few remain along Zhongyang Dajie (Central Avenue), including the onion-domed St. Sophia’s cathedral, now the Municipal Architecture and Art Museum.
Wandering the strip in the early afternoon, we also discover a number of Russian bakeries and restaurants. Although it’s no longer in the hands of the Russian family who founded it, century-old Huamei restaurant still draws consistent crowds, if only to snap photos of its gilded ceilings reminiscent of Moscow’s old subway stations. Unfortunately, the food has lost its edge since the departure of its Russian chefs: the cabbage rolls are stuffed with pork instead of beef; the borscht is made with tomatoes instead of beets; and the local Hapi beer is served warm. But the thick, dark bread is fantastic.
Sold all over town, loaves of Harbin’s round dalieba (literally, “big bread”) are the size of dinner plates and can weigh up to three kilograms. If you throw one into water, it will sink like a stone, so heavy and thick is the crust. But break through this formidable carapace and you’ll discover a fluffy, soft inside, slightly sour and pungent thanks to the bread’s key ingredient—triple-fermented yeast skimmed from beer vats—and its cooking method: loaves are slow-baked over hardwood to give them a rich, smoky aroma.
Another of Harbin’s culinary draws is its cured meats, which are a world away from the rubbery red sticks of pork that pass for sausages in supermarkets across much of China. Harbin’s sausages were introduced by Polish workers brought in to assist with the construction of the railway in 1900. By 1905, sausage houses could be found on every corner of the city. A handful remain in the old Daowai neighborhood, and as soon as we’re done scoffing bread at the Huamei, we set out to find them.
It’s late afternoon and almost dark by the time we arrive, and most of Daowai’s ramshackle buildings glow under the light of paper lanterns: red to indicate typical Chinese fare, blue for pork-free restaurants catering to Harbin’s Muslim minority. “The more lanterns over the door, the more reputable the place,” explains Mrs. Chen, leading us straight to a brightly lit hole-in-the-wall, Beishan Jiuguan (North Mountain Inn). All of its lanterns are red.
Inside, a tiered counter sags under the weight of piles of preserved meats, including pâtés and terrines and more than a dozen types of sausage. We order a handful of small plates beginning with feng gan xiang chang, a type of sun-dried sausage with smoky hints, a bit like chorizo; and songren xiaodu, a combination of toasted tripe, pine nuts, and sesame oil, particularly tasty when paired with the restaurant’s roasted peppers and hunks of raw garlic. There’s also melt-in-your-mouth baked pork known as cha shao rou and a silky terrine made from pigs’ knees,trotters, and cheeks. We sip Hapi beer and cheap vodka served in old jam jars. Our fellow diners offer us cigarettes and pass plates of boiled soy beans along the table. When it’s time to leave, we pack our bags with takeaway boxes of meat for later.
Around the corner, we stop for oversize dumplings in Zhangbao Pu Hutong, a narrow alley lined with piles of leeks and cabbages—overflow from the dumpling house’s kitchens. When it opened more than a century ago, the restaurant, which takes its name from the alley, served doughy pockets filled with Siberian tiger meat, bear meat, and venison. Today, fish, mutton, and pork are the staple proteins, paired with black fungus, corn, pumpkin, and nuts. We’re led through the bustling kitchen to the dining room, where locals sit on low stools around lopsided Formica tables. Mrs. Chen and Cici order stir-fried pigs’ brains and slabs of smoked cow tongue. I settle for the dumplings along with tender pork ribs marinated in a garlicky sauce.
Our last stop for the night is Fu Qiang Da Gu Bang, which advertises its specialty in its name. There’s not much holding the wooden restaurant together. The stairs creak as we make our way to the first floor dining room, where proprietor Chan Shen sits tallying bills on an abacus. The ceiling is so low that we’re forced to stoop to reach the table. Our chairs are upturned beer crates. “The authorities have been talking about knocking down this neighborhood since 1984. We’re still standing,” Chan laughs. He hands us industrial-size plastic gloves, which we need to handle the huge hunks of gu bang (pork hock) that his wife brings us, served in a clear soup flecked with pickled cabbage. “If you don’t suck out the marrow, it’s the greatest loss,” says Chan, handing us straws. The meat, stewed for hours, falls off the bones.
On our final day in Harbin, the temperature drops to freezing, so we ditch sightseeing in favor of more eating. Besides, there’s one local delicacy we’ve yet to try. On the northern bank of the Songhua lies a small village with a big name: Longjiangdiyi Cun, more commonly known as Fish Town. Here, monstrous restaurants specialize in dishes featuring river fish. Our table in Longhua restaurant is set in a mock boat. An army of waiters bustles us toward a wall of aquariums where we select our meal. Nothing is wasted: the fish heads are boiled with cabbage to make a cleansing broth and the skin is deep-fried and dusted with spices. Side dishes begin arriving at the table: braised pig’s trotters with chili and dried long beans, pickled cabbage topped with slivers of pork belly, thick cuts of bread, and, of course, tall bottles of Hapi. Cici leans back, loosening her waistband. “Happy, Mom?”
Air China (airchina.com) Operates direct daily flights from Hong Kong to both Dalian and Harbin as well as flights from Singapore via Beijing. China Southern Airlines (cs-air.com) offers numerous flights between Dalian and Harbin every day.
When To Go
Pack your winter woollies and time your visit to correspond with Harbin’s International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, famed for its fantastical laser- and lantern-lit ice sculptures—everything from replicas of the Great Wall of China to the Eiffel Tower. In 2010, the event is scheduled to run from January 5 to February 5.
Where To Stay
The Shangri-La Hotel Dalian (66 Renmin Lu; 86-411/8252- 5000; shangri-la.com; doubles from US$143) is a great base, not only for its comfy rooms but also for its central location. The business center sells a fabulous map of the city’s best restaurants—it’s in Chinese, but the concierge will happily translate and point you in the right direction. Dalian’s newest lodgings, the Kempinski Hotel Dalian (92 Jiefang Lu; 86-411/ 8259-8888; kempinski.com; doubles from US$92) features 400 modern rooms as well as a Paulaner Brauhaus, should you feel the need for a cold German beer.
The rooms at the Shangri-La Hotel Harbin (555 Youyi Lu; 86-451/8485-8888; shangri-la.com; doubles from US$123) are the city’s best, and come with calming views of the Songhua River.
Where To Eat
The small restaurants around Dalian’s seafood market, Rong Sheng Dixia Shichang, will fry, boil, steam, or grill whatever fish you happen to purchase. For posher surrounds, head to the Shangri-La hotel’s Shang Palace restaurant, specializing in seafood degustation menus.
Skip the borscht at Harbin’s century-old Huamei (112 Zhongyang Dajie, Daoli; 86-451/8461-9818) restaurant and settle for people-watching over Hapi beer and freshly baked bread instead. Harbin’s flavors are at their best in the old Daowai neighborhood. Be sure to try the dumplings at Zhangbao Pu (12 Zhangbao Pu Hutong, Beitou Daojie; 86-451/8839-6943) and the tender pork hock at Fuqiang Dagu Bang (58 Beisi Daojie; 86-451/ 8837-8916). You’ll be lucky to get a table at Beishan Jiuguan (12 Beishan Daojie; 86-451/ 8836-2957), one of the best places in town to sample Harbin’s cured meats and terrines. Should you fail, there’s a newer, and much larger, outlet of the restaurant nearby (92 Baozhang Jie; 86-451/8898-6888).
Originally appeared in the October/November 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Manchuria: Dishing up Dongbei”)