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Discovering Northeast China’s Hidden Flavors

A dinner in Dongbei features regional specialties. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

A dinner in Dongbei features regional specialties. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

When dinnertime rolls around, cuisine from China’s northeast — called Dongbei — generally gets short shrift. Throughout the mainland, citizens prefer to seek out spicy Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine, exotic ingredients such as those from Yunnan or Guizhou, or seemingly sophisticated fare from Shanghai and surrounding provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

Yet after spending a week traveling through Heilongjiang as part of a provincial government-invited business delegation, I came across food far more nuanced and evolved than what I’d tried before. We stopped in the three largest cities, Harbin, Qiqihar and Daqing, and although the focus was certainly on business, all events involved copious eating and drinking. I’ve come to understand how the geography, climate and history of China’s most northeasterly region have resulted in a rich cuisine.

It’s hard to find good Dongbei restaurants. In Beijing, there’s the Dongbeiren chain, meaning “person from Dongbei,” which is where my Western friends like to go when they want the heavy, oily foods such as the common Dongbei dish “disanxian.” This classic home-style dish, which generally is made of stir-fried potatoes, eggplant and green pepper in a sweet soy sauce, pairs nicely with plenty of Harbin or Snow beer, two popular Dongbei brews.

Dongfang Jiaozi Wang, or “Eastern Dumpling King,” doles out reliably satisfying dumplings with a good variety of fillings, but these won’t impress any gourmand. There’s the high-end provincial representative government office canteen, which mainly works well for fancy banquets, and Xiangcun Renjia (“village home”), serving inexpensive home-style country food that is fun for late summer nights of eating and drinking with friends when quality is less important than quantity.

However, when I ask my Beijing-based friends from Harbin — the capital city of Heilongjiang, the northernmost of the three Dongbei provinces, after Liaoning and Jilin — where they go for northeastern food, they are invariably stumped for decent restaurant recommendations and usually end up inviting me over for a home-cooked meal instead.

Northeast China’s rich resources

In terms of geography, northeast China’s Heilongjiang region, which shares a long border with Russia, is resource rich, boasting abundant unpolluted supplies of water, soil, forests and minerals. The province’s agricultural system is one of the nation’s most developed in terms of modern techniques and technologies, having started investing in agriculture even before the founding of modern China in 1949, in large part thanks to Russian support.

Translated as “Black Dragon River,” the province contributes greatly to the country’s store of starches — wheat, maize and soybeans among them — from large-scale fields reminiscent of what is seen in Brazil, Canada or the U.S. in terms of degree of mechanization and mono-crop structure. As the governor himself quipped during a meeting, “in other provinces, you hear locals boast of farms with areas of just a few square kilometers; here, we talk about farms with areas of a couple thousand square kilometers!”

The climate also necessarily affects Heilongjiang’s cuisine. The province is known for blisteringly cold winters, which feature the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival of lit-up sculptures. The long winter months create a demand for soups such as the well-known heijizajuntang, or mixed mushroom soup cooked in a black-chicken broth. Stewed dishes are popular, my favorite being the various tofu dishes full of deep, well-steeped flavors, made from the locally harvested soybeans.

Along with my fellow Beijing travel mates, I tasted youdoujiao for the first time. These are the fatter cousins of green beans steeped in a fermented soybean broth until they are so tender they fall apart on the tongue. Qiqihar, the third-largest city in the province, is known for its hock ham grilled a la plancha.

International influence

Heilongjiang’s proximity to other countries means its cuisine has gained an international element. Russians have had a presence in Harbin for decades, as evidenced in its architecture and religious institutes such as churches and synagogues.

As a result, residents regularly enjoy breads sold along the street at the many baked-good shops and served at meals along with butter, cream, cheese, fish roe and even patés. Gherkin-style pickles can be bought at most supermarkets and often are served alongside other cold appetizers and salads before starting the rest of the meal.

Unlike many other places in China, aside from Shanghai, raw fish is quite common and no one will raise an eyebrow when it’s placed on the table. Kimchee and other pickled ingredients from South Korea are common at every meal.

As a vegetarian, I was pleasantly surprised to find plentiful liangcai or cold dishes. Every meal, no matter how simple the restaurant, entailed at least one salad, and if there were multiple salads they all offered distinct flavor profiles pairing the dressings in nuanced ways to balance the ingredients.

Simple lettuce and tomato salads were served alongside a Russian dressing. Kuju, or frisée, came coated with a sweet vinegar dressing to balance the bitter greens. Raw vegetables such as radishes, turnips, Chinese lettuce and daikon were chopped into sticks and laid out to be dipped into a smoky hoisin sauce.

Although I may have begun unearthing the richness of China’s northeastern cuisine, I’m still unable to explain why Beijing’s Dongbei restaurants are lacking. That’s a research project I’ll continue to tackle.

Top photo: A dinner in Dongbei features regional specialties. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein

Zester Daily contributor Manuela Zoninsein is a Brazilian-American reporting on sustainable food, travel and business from Shanghai. A former dining editor for Time Out Beijing, her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, ClimateWire and Newsweek. She writes about her passion for healthy, interesting and sustainable food at