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Harbin: A Dongbei City

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in China, Hong Kong, and/or Taiwan

Fall Volume: 2015 Issue: 22(3) page(s): 22-24 and 31

Yes, I often did dream of going to the Northeastern corner of China. Why? If for no other reason than to see and taste what I read was their three to five kilo Russian-influenced Chinese bread found on many tables accompanying the local Chinese food.

This large city, the eighth most populous in China, is in the Northeastern Province of Heilongjiang. It is one of the three provinces in this Dongbei region, the other two are Jilin and Liaoning. And, yes, I was able to see and eat that bread on this, our first trip there. All of us, Chinese and Americans, did eat it on the street outside one of the bakeries whose line showed its popularity; it was long all day long. The bread was great! We also ate Russian-Chinese and Korean-Chinese food in this city and we ate at a fantastic fish restaurant and other places. This was a phenomenal city influenced by its north and south neighbors, their people, and their their lives. It is vibrant, upbeat, and beautiful. I suggest you put it on your travel agenda and see everything from the pedestrian street to its eateries and its wonderful people.

This was my first visit to China’s northeast, I not only tasted their sour chewy Russian-influenced bread known there as da lie baor or its khleb but we learned it has been made here for more than a hundred years; and that it is a bread that starts as a sour dough. it was introduced by a Russian baker, and yes, it does go well with Chinese food. In fact, we tasted it during our first hour in this city after looking at the long line of folk waiting to buy it. That line was for this Russian-style bread. So I did ask one in our party to stand on it and wait to buy us one.

Matter of fact, later we often saw that continuous line, and we did witnessed a lady drop hers. It fell out of her bag and onto the street. We then watched her for ten minutes or so as she brushed it off with her sleeve. Clearly, she was frustrated and determined to get it as clean as possible. That was no easy task. Clean or dirty, it would go great with kvass, a Russian fermented drink made from rye bread. Two stores away from this bakery, we visited a fancy store selling Russian goods including candies, smoked fish, sausages, and many other Russian imported items.

Near this line was near the tourist office. We did visit it and on its second floor saw an exhibit about this city. We climbed up and at the top of the steps saw ourselves walking down a street behind a live five-hundred pound beauty, a Siberian tiger.

That clever photographic trick was exciting as we were inside their building and looking at ourselves as if we were outside of it. We were in Harbin and according to the 2010 census, more than ten million Chinese people live here in this city in the province between Russia and Korea. And, the tiger was full size, looked hungry, and in living color as if it were on the corner of Zhongyang Dajieon Street. We wanted lunch, looked like he did, too.

We read about the many hundreds of tigers, pumas, lions, and other animals a few kilometers away. actually across the river in a two hundred fifty-plus-acre park. Before coming, we read this city has the Harbin Symphony Orchestra, China’s first orchestra founded in 1908, and Harbin’s No. 1 Music School, another first as it was founded in 1928. We were here eight days, so much to see and do, and we did not have time to visit these attractions.

Nicknamed the ‘Ice City,’ Harbin began as a small settlement and became a city in 1898 with the coming of the Trans-Manchurian Railway. Some call that the Chinese Eastern Railway. The Russian immigrant population, Manchu folk, and the Han Chinese were the only ones allowed to work on this new means of transportation that went between the cities of Vladivostok and Port Arthur.

A 1913 census showed the next largest ethnic population after the Manchu were Jews, Poles, Japanese, and Germans. They and others spoke forty-five different languages and were among the fifty-three different nationalities living there at that time.

Eventually, there were tens of thousands of Russian Jews coming to this region of China for their own safety. They helped build Harbin into a cosmopolitan city known to support many firsts including seeing the newest fashions from Paris unveiled here. A later first, a recent one, was the ability to reach Beijing in a short time by bullet train. That is faster than by any other means and close to the same speed as by air.

This city known as ‘Ice City’ was, in 2004, China’s top tourist city. Then and now called 'UNESCO’s City of Music,' in the late Stone Age circa 2200 BCE, it was known as Wanyan Min. Founded and proselytized by a Mister Wanyan Aguda; he founded the Jin Dynasty and was its first emperor (1115 - 1123 BCE). He established its capital then called Shangjing Huining Fu and he supervised its construction. This city did resemble what is now known as Kaifeng, a capital city that later moved to Tanjing, and is now in Beijing.

Harbin is growing fast. It now has its own university, the Harbin University of Commerce that started downtown and recently moved to what was a suburb, from the old part of the city. This academic institution has one of China’s largest money museums with an amazing collection of old and older monies used throughout China. It is fantastic and we did spend some time there.

On a different day. we took a short stroll over a bridge to an island in the Songhua River. There we saw the 'Ice and Snow World' illuminated outside at night, inside during the day. During mid-December and most of January it is illuminated ‘round the clock.’ Inside were huge blocks of ice ready to be compared to the Zhaolin Garden with that year’s 'Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival.' This is one of four ice events in the world, the others are in Sapporo in Japan, in Canada’s Quebec City, and in Norway’s Holmenkollen. This one was absolutely amazing.

we were here at the end of November, and did wander inside looking at past year's winners. We thought of this city’s short occupation by the Russian army in 1945 - 1946, the earlier State of Manchukuo here 1932 - 1945, and that this city was the site of the notorious Japanese Biological Warfare Laboratory. We also thought that in 1988, only thirty of the original Russian immigrants still lived here, and now there are thousands of Russians again.

As we are food folk, we started to turn our attention to our stomachs and did want to see the Confucian Temple, St Sophia’s Church, and other things touristic before eating at one or more of its famous restaurants.

The first place we did went to was the Lao Yu Tou Fish Restaurant outside the city. This many-storied building serves fish in most popular local ways, as it did years ago. Escorted to the fish tanks near the front door, we picked a three-plus pound one and they carried it and many accompaniments for us up three flights of stairs to the room we were assigned to. Plop, it went into an about thirty-inch wok over what would become a big fire built under it. We sat on keng-like benches the fire kept warm as our fish and its trimmings cooked for lunch. The pictures taken tell the tale of our delicious meal here; and we suggest when in Harbin, you seek this restaurant out.

We also suggest you visit the Huangshan Cemetery to see many graves from mid-1800s to the early 1900s; some military, others of different nationalities. We went to the Jewish area and came upon two headstones with the name ‘Newman’ on them and wondered who they were. We also gazed into the small empty synagogue, it was locked at this time.

For this Newman, being in Harbin was a dream come true. My grandparents were from the part of Russia sometimes called Poland. I was raised by my grandmother because my Mom was a full-time pharmacist. I did know the cuisine, and knew foods from China and Korea thanks to an aunt and an uncle. As a child, they spoiled me taking me to many Asian eateries, most were Chinese when I was about seven or younger and thereafter. Even then, I adored these foods.

Before going to Harbin, we knew about its weather and was prepared to freeze. However, we were lucky because the warmest day was comfortable enough to wander down that pedestrian street as it was nine degrees C which is 48 degrees F. We we were actually dressed too warm. The coldest day when we were there was minus five degrees C or 25 degrees F. That was warmer than expected and were dressed in too many layers.

Some food in Harbin was familiar; remember I grew up with very few vegetables; mostly ate cabbage, corn, cucumbers, and potatoes, and a few carrots and green peppers. Sometimes we had mushrooms, beans, and sweet potatoes. In Harbin, these were dressed with very little soy and lots of aged vinegar. My Bubby, I called her Baba, cooked with them and she made lots of pickled foods so foods here were reminiscent of what I ate when young and she cooked for me.

This city was once called ‘Little Moscow’ and the Jewish section in the cemetery is the largest Jewish burial place in the Far East. We learned some Jews were probably moved there between 1958 and 1976 and now the headstones do face Jerusalem as they should. Many do have small stones on these monuments showing visitation in their past that someone did visit, as did the Israeli President Olmert who came to his grandfather's tomb. It was pictured in a previous issue.

On our other days in Harbin, we went to the Huamei Western Restaurant at 57 Xitoudao Street, a Russian-style eatery opened in 1925 still serving Russian-style dishes such as Chicken Stewed in Pot, Pork or Fish Fillet with Milk, Chicken Cooked on Iron Plate, Fried Veal Cutlets, and forty other Russian dishes. We ordered veal cutlets, and they did remind me of my youth. Like typical Russian eateries, this one was two-stories elegant outside and in, loaded with mirrors, lots of gold paint and other glitz, inattentive service, big portions, and mediocre food.

We did not get to any Muslim restaurants, though we had wanted to go to the Family Bai Muslim Restaurant, 196 Hongqi Street for their meat dumplings said to be spectacular, but time did not allow. Nor did we get to Dongfang Jiaozi Wang, known as the 'Orient King of Dumplings' for their jiaozi, maybe we will on a future trip.

We did get to the Super General Korean Restaurant, their branch phone is; 0451-84837878, and it is one of their eight Chinese-Korean places. It is worth going to, is huge, and they serve some ten million people in this city. Was fascinated that customers here are handed plastic bags for their cell phones, and they are expected to order on their i-pad. It has colored photos of some of their dishes. We had their Miso Soup loaded with celery, pieces of onions, potatoes, and soft tofu; and that was after our very good Kimchi; which was so good we asked for seconds of each kind.

One favorite dish among the eight we sampled turned out to be Mashed Potatoes circled with greens, garlic shoots, and brown gravy. Here, we also ate Skin of Tuna, Cod Fish, Roasted Beef with its sauce in a teapot, Roasted Pork in Hot Sauce, a Korean Hot Pot with rice and a single soft soybean in its center, and Hot Lemonade and Vinegar Water and Tea. It reminded of the boxed item we purchase at our local Asian supermarket before this trip, no we know where this beverage comes from. All of these dishes were very good. They were a true combination of Western, Chinese, and Korean chow. Most tasted as if mixed with kimchi and they probably were.

Other Korean eateries recommended include Oriental Dumplings; 38 Zhongyang Avenue or Big Harvest; 283 Yiman Street. At the latter, we suggest you try their tea which is made with wheat, not a tea leaf in sight. A similar place is Lao Du Yi Chu; 25 Xishisandao Street. Here, the dumpling soup is made with the water they boil their dumplings in. To us it did taste like water and not stock or soup, but their smoked sausages, smoked salmon, and many of their vegetable dishes made with eggs or pork strips were fantastic, some Japanese tourists told us. They also said to go to Qian Lima BaiHe Liali; 777 Xianfeng Lu every tourist we talked to raved about this place saying it was great; we will put that on the top of our list for a future visit.

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