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Dongbei is Northeastern Food

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Regional Foods

Fall Volume: 2019 Issue: 26(3) pages: 13 to 18

In the Northeastern corner of China are three provinces near Mongolia in the West, Russia in the North, and Korea not close but in the south whose cuisine is not well-known in the US, but restaurants featuring them are growing. They are the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning whose people like many meats, pickled vegetables, dumplings, soups, and hot pots; also potatoes, a Russian influence. They also adore foods developed in the mid-1800s when China ceded part of this region near the northern terminus of the Great Wall.

Larger than Spain and Portugal together, this is more than three thousand square miles recognized for an important waterway emptying into the Yellow Sea, beginning at the seaport in Harbin and sitting on the Songua River and emptying into the Sea of Japan. Here live more than one hundred million people, the provinces with the capitals of Shenyang, Changchun, and Harbin, respectively. In the sixteenth century this area was led by Nurachi (1559 - 1628) who was building an Imperial Palace that was later completed by his descendants. His son, Abahai (1592 - 1643), did establish the Qing Dynasty in 1636; and he and many of his followers moved south after conquering Beijing in 1644, and by 1680, his people controlled most of what is now China.

During China’s long history, only two dynasties were led by non-Han folk. The Mongols ruled for less than one hundred years (1279 - 1368 CE), the Manchurians for more than twice that time (1644 - 1911 CE); the Mongols ruling during the Yuan Dynasty, the Manchurians during the Qing. Both were Northern Chinese people who were very different from each other. The Manchu were better at stabilizing society and supporting past Chinese cultural traditions; they also shared leadership with the Han in the Northeastern Provinces once called Fentien, Kirin, and Heilonghkiang.

Both groups loved meats, lamb particularly, also goose, venison, and horsemeat; and Heilongjiang was home to Xianbei, Khitan, and Jurchen people. The Manchu were home in Manchuria for whom their area was named.

Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, was called ‘little Moscow’ with many Russian foods loved there, many buildings built by Russians and in the Russian style. The foods included monkey head mushrooms botanically known as Hericium orinaceaus, and deer, rabbit, sturgeon, grapes, corn, even ice cream.

These three provinces are where most Manchurians now live; and they are China’s second largest ethnic nationality. All schools there now teach in Mandarin, but before, people here spoke, read, and wrote a Turguisic language now almost extinct, that did use the Mongolian alphabet.

Here they did grow many vegetables that withstood cold weather because they have many long winter months and they liked and still do, most cold-weather vegetables including those in the cabbage family and potatoes, too. Other than growing them, they grew and still grow ginseng, soybeans, and barley, and they mine lots of coal, and they use the Manchurian Imperial symbol which is a tiger with opium in its mouth. Most Manchurians are light-skinned, tall, and descendants of warring groups, some of whom did live here years ago.

Historians tell us these people came from along the Heilong and Wusuli Rivers while anthropologists say they probably were members of the Sushen tribe mixing with Yilou, Huji, Mohe, and Nuzhen tribes, all probably native to regions north of the Changbai Mountains. Those who did research them, believed they did use stone arrow heads, and wooden pomegranate bows and arrows, and arrived in this area some time between 11 and 221 BCE, were warring groups who gave them as tributes to their rulers, did support Zhou Dynasty folk, and probably did so since 1045 BCE.

As there are few written records about these forebears, their origins may have been Jurchen people, once known as ‘reindeer people,’ who probably settled near these rivers, raised many animals, and were great warriors and great horsemen, too. There are those believing they became Manchurian before the Liao Dynasty (936 - 1125 CE), and in 1134 CE destroyed a previous dynasty. However, this is not definite even though many tried to trace their ancestry. None have been successful doing so by name, place, time, or by foods they ate and still eat.

Han Dynasty people did establish rule during the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) and gained considerable control after the Jurchens who then became powerful but left or disappeared. The Han acquired many tribal lands, forged many tribal alliances, and enhanced military leadership after their leader became a Buddhist with many associations with other Chinese. These increased when his son, Hung Taiji, adopted the name of a local Manchurian God, replaced the Ming Dynasty with the Qing, and settled as China’s last ruling dynasty who were farmers growing lots of sorghum, millet, and rice, adding corn some years later, tending apple trees, raising pigs, and silkworms, too, growing tobacco, and hunting boar and small animals, and gathering ginseng and many mushroom types. They gradually adopted the Mandarin language thanks to their schools, and then fostered it.

Their men who were excellent archers also skilled at horsemanship, were easily recognized as they wore short-cuffed jackets over long gowns, and braided their hair in long queues. Their women were recognized by coiling their hair atop their heads, and by long earrings and embroidered shoes. They lived in three-section houses, the middle was their kitchen, the sides were where they slept.

Nurachi (1559 - 1626 CE) and his followers did many things including moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, absorbing and reorganizing tribes, forbidding the use of Jurchen paternal heritage, and incorporating Mongolian, Korean, and other tribes with Han people already there. In 1644, he changed the dynasty name to Qing, conquered Ming strongholds, and took over what became a multi-cultural society. His descendants ruled China until deposed and the Qing Dynasty ended, but before it did, he concentrated cuisine and culinary behaviors, updated homes, moved their beds known as kangs to the outer walls, moved their elders to northern rooms, younger families to southern ones, and guests and children to their western sides.

In the kitchens, he encouraged the preparation of millet often mixed with ground glutinous rice. This was steamed as pancakes, breads, buns, dumplings, and other foods; he encouraged use of pickled cabbages and other pickled vegetables, preserved pork and other meats most often in wine, ground soy beans and almonds into milks, and made milk teas, sour teas, and fruit teas for all to enjoy, encouraged drinking assorted waters. And a burned rice one became popular; he also helped get the people cooking sweet bean paste with deep-fried rice, made more pastries and rice mixtures as congees, and helped his people enjoy a special one they called Eight-Treasure Congee so named to eat it in the eighth lunar month when made with millet, regular and glutinous rice, sorghum, beans, peanuts, brown sugar, and walnuts.

Before New Year’s Eve, most Mongolians and Manchurians made hundreds of rice-flour pastries to eat during the fifteen day New Year holiday, some with fish to eat New Year’s Eve as wishes for an abundant year, and prepared chunks of boiled meat as wishes for many meat meals even meatballs in brown sauce as wishes for family unity. He also encouraged many crescent-moon jiaotze to be filled with rice, meat, and vegetables as wishes they would live many more moons. These were made before New Year’s Eve to be enjoyed that night at the Reunion Dinner or after it with broom-tail millet fritters and/or noodles, and syrups as wishes for a sweet upcoming year.

Also, at many festivals they enjoyed saqima and cookies made with lots of brown sugar or boiled honey with lots of stewed glutinous rice flourishes or made and enjoyed pastries wrapped in perilla or linden leaves calling them sanzi that were made with rice, buckwheat, and/ or broom-tail millet.

Nowadays, the people lving in these three provinces call themselves Dongbeiren, have many banquets known as Manhanquanxi, or Man-Han banquets that grew in popularity particularly during the rule of Qianlong, the fourth Emperor who ruled from 1736 to 1795, organized many special events, even some in restaurants, and years later many of his chefs and cooks did open eateries including the Fangshan in the mid 1920s in Behai Park. These Qing Dynasty chefs made many palace dishes there, one written had two hundred courses lasting for three days.

Quianlong and the rulers that followed him made many special events there or at the palace, some celebrated an emperor’s rise to the throne, winning a battle, or honoring a family member’s special birthday. Some were called ‘complete Man-Han Banquets’ and were only for royalty, others were rewards for scholars, an honor for someone’s longevity; and there was a famous one for a thousand senior citizens. Some did serve Han foods, others only Manchu foods, and a few served both. One was a ‘Five-Nation Banquet’ serving Manchu, Han, Tibetan, Hui, and Mongolian foods, all served elegantly beginning with a gorgeous cold plate followed by a fancy multi-item hot one. Every dish after these two were served one at a time, all looking lovely.

As the years went on, these banquets became fancier, some served when poems were read or had plays, singers, or jesters to entertain the guests. In 1932, when the Japanese occupied China, they were even more popular, and served in Manchukuo as this northern region was called before, during, and after the 1945 Yalta Conference.

Emperor Qianlong was Manchurian and known for liking a bowl of sugar with bird’s nests soon after he got up in the morning. His other meals often began with pickled cabbage or another preserved food which he said did keep him alert. After he died, local foods included more Korean dishes made with dark vinegar or a kimchi, chili paste, or another spicy item. Some included Spam or raw fish seasoned with wasabi, vinegar, or sesame oil.

The rulers that followed him took advantage of abundant ground water resources and acres of fungi in their forests, many of China’s seventy different birds, fifty different livestock items, a hundred different fish and other foods from the sea, sixty different fruits and nuts, more than a hundred different vegetables, and the country’s forty varied grain items. These expanded main dishes served at China’s royal tables and eventually made their way into affluent homes where potatoes were often served shoe-string-style, lamb prepared in many ways, and meals including many thick soups, pickled vegetables, braised wheat gluten, stir-fried beef and lamb with lots of cumin, spicy bean sprouts, minced spicy shrimp balls, many different mushrooms, shrimp paste with stuffed scallops, meatballs with pickled eggplant, and other local items.

Several recipes show off some of them, and can be from Jiilin, Harbin, or elsewhere in Dongbei, many served with winter melon, black peppercorns, or dried scallops. We encourage readers to make and taste them, enjoy their Manchurian, Russian, Korean, or Mongolian heritage from this cold corner of China. Some were only popular then, some only popular more recently, a few when Puyi ruled. Many are thanks to new industries or when served with items such as deer tails or deer antlers.

Should you plan to make them, if using deer tails, submerge them before removing their fur, and stew them for at least two hours with several Korean pastes and lots of cinnamon. A few are from earlier times and still popular today, particularly in Harbin. That city has the highest latitude of any provincial Chinese capital, is often frozen two hundred or more days each year, has a famous ice festival annually, and many Russian-built buildings on its Central Avenue (as seen on the cover and page 18). One was built by Jewish merchants as was the famous Modern Hotel known as Madie-er Binguan both the Huamei Western Restaurant, both founded by Russian Jews and places passengers visited before or after taking the Chinese Eastern Railway system to or from Dongbei.

Harbin was known for the St. Sophia Orthodox Cathedral built there in 1907 designed by a Russian architect to be an army church for Czarist soldiers, and known for the New Synagogue (seen here) at Jingwei Street in the Daoli District with a Jewish star on its dome. It is the largest Jewish Synagogue in China, was built in 1918, renovated in 2004, and now a museum of Jewish history and culture. Inside, it has more on its ceilings, walls, floors, even its lamps.

No Jewish resident lives in Harbin now, but many descendants return each year to pay respects to their deceased relatives buried in the Huangshan Jewish Cemetery with more than five hundred graves of those who did live here including relatives of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, the grandfather of the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and other less well-known buried there. Many are visited every year and this is known as a small rock is often left on the top of the tombstone showing someone came to pay their respects to the deceased buried below. What follows are some popular dishes from this region, here for you to enjoy, prepare, and taste.

Heilongjiang Potatoes

1 medium-size eggplant, peeled and cut in thin strips
2 carrots, peeled and cut in thin strips
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cut in thin strips
½ cup peanut oil
1 star anise
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
3 Tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon powdered chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided
3 Tablespoons cured ham, shredded
1 chili pepper, seeded and minced
½ teaspoon sesame oil
3 Tablespoons thin soy sauce
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 Teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons cold water


1. Soak potato, carrot, and eggplant strips, each in its own bowl, in cold water for one hour, then drain and dry them in their own towel.
2. Heat oil in a wok or fry-pan, add the star anise, and stir-fry until it turns black, then discard it.
3. Deep-fry the vegetables, one at a time, then mix them together, add the vinegar, chicken bouillon, half the sugar, and the ham. and cook this for two minutes before adding the sesame oil. Serve these vegetables hot or warm.
4. Now, mix in the sesame oil, thin soy sauce, crushed black peppercorns,, and the cornstarch mixture, and boil this until thick, about one minute, then set this aside to cook after draining the vegetables until they are soft, then mix them with the cooked sauce and serve them together.

Monkey Head Mushroom Soup

1/4 pound pork, chopped
2 Tablespoons monkey head mushrooms, chopped
2 Tablespoons dried fish maw, chopped
2 preserved dates, chopped
1 piece tangerine peel, chopped
1½ Tablespoons goji berries
1½ teaspoons coarse salt


1. In a stew pot, bring the pork to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer with the fish maw, chopped dates, tangerine peel, and goji berries for one hour.
2. Reduced the soup’s liquid by half, strain the soup, and put everything back into the wok or pot.
3. Now add salt and taste, and if needed, add more; and then serve.

Fish and Lotus Root Stew

½ pound skinless boneless minced fresh white fish
½ pound lotus root, peeled and minced
2 Monkey-head mushrooms, soaked one minute, then minced
1 Tablespoon melted chicken fat
½ pound Chinese cabbage, cut into thin slices
1 egg white
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger, divided
1 teaspoon Chinese rice vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with one of cold water
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 scallions, sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon minced fresh coriander


1. Mix fish, minced mushrooms, chicken fat, egg white, and half the fresh ginger, and al the rice vinegar, salt, and the cornstarch mixture, shaping this into a half-inch thick pancakes.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, fry the pancake on both sides, about a minute each, then remove it to a platter.
3. Add remaining ginger and scallions and stir-fry for one minute, then add cabbage pieces and cover the wok or fry-pan and, reduce the heat simmering it for six minutes, then uncover and transfer to a preheated casserole, top with the coriander, and serve.

Braised Beef Soup

1/4 pound beef
1 egg white, beaten
1 to2 quarts clear chicken broth
½ teaspoon each salt, sugar, thin soy sauce, ground white peppercorns, and cayenne; dill, celery
1 scallion, minced
1 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons corn starch
2 Tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 pounds watermelon, their rind left on, cut into one-inch wedges


1. Marinate the beef and the rest of the ingredients for one hour, then bring it to the boil and stir in the cornstarch mixture until it thickens.
2. Next, turn off the heat, and stir in the beaten egg white slowly, then the sesame oil, minced scallion pieces, add salt and pepper, as needed, and the watermelon pieces.
3. Serve the soup at room temperature or chilled, as desired refrigerating it covered with plastic wrap.

Fried Prawn Balls

I salted egg yolk
½ pound minced pork
1/4 pound minced shrimp
1/4 pound seeded melon seeds, their shells removed and then minced
dash of salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch in like amount of cold water
1 cup vegetable oil
2 leaves fresh lettuce


1. Steam salted egg yolk until firm.
2, Mix shrimp, pork, and the steamed firm egg yolk and make them into ten balls, wet them, and roll each ball into the chopped melon seeds, pressing them lightly.
3. Heat the oil and deep fry these balls until lightly browned, then drain on paper towels, and put them on a lettuce-lined plate; then serve them.

Sichuan Bean Sprouts

1 pound bean sprouts, tails removed and discarded
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
½ bean curd sheet, soaked until soft, then cut in thin strips
3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed
½ cup chicken stock
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
½ Tablespoon crushed dark rock sugar
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon chili oil
dash ground Sichuan peppercorns


1. Rinse and then drain tailless soy bean sprouts.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or fry-pan and fry the bean curd sheet pieces until crisp; then remove and drain them on paper towels; and discard the oil or use it for another purpose.
3. Add the garlic and stir-fry for one minute, then remove it from any oil left in the pan.
4. Now add chicken stock, soy sauce, rice wine, rock sugar, sesame and chili oils and stir-fry this for one minute, then add soy sprouts and Sichuan peppercorns and stir two or three times cooking for one minute or until the sauce thickens.
5. Now add the Sichuan peppercorns, and stir for another minute, then serve.

Spiced Lamb

½ cup molasses
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon each ground ginger, cinnamon, cumin, and paprika, and a mixture of salt and white pepper
2 pounds lamb cut into half-inch pieces
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
½ cup pomegranate seeds
2 Tablespoons fresh basil leaves, torn into a few pieces each


1. Mix pomegranate molasses, chopped garlic, olive oil, all the ground spices, and add the lamb cubes and let them rest one hour at room temperature, then drain and dry the meat cubes.
2. Now heat a wok or fry-pan, add the oil, and cook the meat until lightly browned, add the marinade , and half a cup of water, and simmer for ten minutes until the meat is tender, then set it aside.
3. In another pot, add the rest of the broth and the pomegranate seeds, then the lamb, and the basil leaves, and serve.

Cumin-Scented Eggplant

2 pounds eggplant, peeled, and sliced in half inch slices
2 Tablespoons coarse salt
1 Tablespoon oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon pomegranate molasses
½ cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped


1. Mix eggplant slices with salt in four cups of tepid water, and stir until dissolved.
2. Next, soak the eggplant for one hour; then drain it, and dry the slices with paper towels,
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, then heat the oil in a wok or fry pan and sauté the eggplant slices until brown on both sides, adding more oil if needed.
4. Mix cumin and cayenne powders, and roast the slices in the pre-heated oven until golden on both sides, about half an hour, then toss in the garlic.
5. Put the eggplant on a platter, and drizzle the pomegranate molasses on it, and sprinkle the pomegranate seeds on top, the cilantro, too. Then serve.

Pork and Cabbage Stew

½ pound ground pork
2 monkey-head mushrooms, soaked for one minute, then minced
½ pound Chinese cabbage
1 egg white
1 Tablespoon minced fresh ginger, divided
1 teaspoon Chinese rice vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1 Tablespoon cold water
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 scallions, sliced thinly
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine


1. Mix pork, mushrooms, egg white, half the ginger, all the rice vinegar, salt, and the cornstarch mixture, and shape this into a half-inch thick pancake.
2. Heat wok or fry pan, add the oil, and fry the pancake on both sides, about one minute per side, then remove it to a plate.
3. Add rest of the ginger, half the scallions, and stir-fry one minute before adding the cabbage pieces and rice wine and then slide the pork pancake onto the top of cabbage pieces, and cover the wok or fry pan and reduce the heat, simmering it ten minutes.
4. Next, remove the cover and put this in a preheated casserole, top with the rest of the scallions.
5. And do serve it on a pre-heated platter.

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