Dongbei cai: the “Gateway food” to China

I woke up dazed on my first morning in China and stumbled through the streets of Shanghai in awe of the amazing array of breakfast foods (see my last post on Breakfast in Shanghai for more on that). After strolling through Shanghai’s amazing street breakfasts, EF took myself and a large group of other new staff to a local restaurant for our first real meal in China. This restaurant was serving food from a region, Dongbei, that I had never before heard of.

With the smells of fresh jianbing and other street breakfasts lingering in my mind I sat in a jetlagged daze fuelled by coffee and the excitement for my first meal in China. I was immediately snapped out of this haze when lunch was served. A never-ending feast of typical Dongbei dishes began being served in rapid succession to be spun around our table of newcomers on a large Lazy Susan. From authentic sweet and sour pork and endless dumplings, to new dishes like cold tofu skin salads and di san xian (a soon to be favourite of mine) my taste buds were ready for this adventure.

 

********* Never heard of Dongbei?

When you first move to China, you are going to encounter all sorts of new experiences…but most importantly your taste buds will be taken to a delicious new place. You’ll be able to dive in to the dizzying array of regional foods ranging from the mouth-numbingly spicy Sichuan cuisine to the cumin-spiced, middle-eastern flavours of the Northwest and back down South to traditional Cantonese dim sum. Before you start that tasty adventure, it’s best to ease in to it with the comforting food from the Dongbei region.

It’s the most Northeastern region of China consisting of Heilongjian, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces. As you can imagine, this area is known for its harsh and long winters. To survive these winters, the region of Dongbei is known for creating hearty and warming dishes. Unlike the south, the main crop here is wheat. This means noodles and dumplings are the staples. Due to its shared borders with Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea, Dongbei food is heavily influenced by these country’s cuisines as well.

It has a vast variety of dishes with something for everyone. It has flavours that are both familiar but authentically new to foreigners. Most of all though…it is homey and comforting food for the soul.

Let’s call it your “gateway food” to China.

 

Variety is the spice of life…right?

Dongbei food may not be known for its fiery numbing spiciness like Sichuan cuisine, but it certainly offers a plethora of flavours. No matter what your preferences are – sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy, pickled – Dongbei food has something for you.

Craving a cold and light appetizer to start your meal?
Try out one of the many cold salads – cucumber with a hint of sesame oil, garlic, and even cilantro, or a cold and slightly spicy tofu skin salad. A super refreshing start to a hearty meal!

Figure 1. A picture menu at a classic Dongbei restaurant showcases the variety of dishes available, including all sorts of cold appetizers.

Want something a little warmer?
Dongbei is known for its bitingly long and cold winters, so you’ll have no problem finding a hearty soup. Most famous is the pickled cabbage and sweet potato noodle soup (sha guo suan cai dun fen tiao – 砂锅酸菜炖粉条). No, these are not spiralized sweet potatoes. These are made from sweet potato starch and are claimed to warm your insides in the winter.

Looking for a hearty stir-fry?
Look no further than di san xian (地三鲜). Literally translating to “three delicacies on earth”. Both foreigners and locals adore this dish. It’s a simple fried combination of potatoes, green peppers and eggplants. The crispiness from the fried potatoes and peppers blends simultaneously with the soft eggplant, which has soaked up the deliciously sweet but savoury sauce.

Got a sweet tooth?
Lucky for you Dongbei is the home of sweet and sour pork…excuse me???

 

China’s familiar “gateway food”

Dongbei serves up dishes that newcomers will find reassuringly familiar, but in ways that will open your palette to a whole new world of regional Chinese foods.

And yes you heard me right that Dongbei is the home of authentic sweet and sour pork (guo bao rou – 锅包肉). Not the soggy cubes of pork smothered in a gooey, fluorescent orange sauce that you might find at your local Chinese buffet. These thin cutlets of pork are fried in a light, crispy batter and coated lightly with a sweet and sour sauce. Delicate, well balanced and super crunchy, this puts takeout sweet n’ sour to shame!

Another sweet dish popular in this region that might seem familiar is ba si (拔丝). Deep-fried chunks of apple or sweet potato served in a liquid caramel that hardens upon being dipped in cold water. Brings back childhood memories of enjoying candied apples at the fair!

Figure 2. Freshly candied sweet potato (or ba si) is pulled apart leaving strands of caramel.

You’ll also find all assortments of comforting and delicious dumplings (these boiled dumplings famous in Dongbei are called jiaozi -饺子) and noodles. Even including tasty vegetarian options like pickled cabbage (suan cai -酸菜) or tomato and egg (xi hong shi dan – 西红柿蛋).

 

Find grandma’s home in China

Walk in to any traditional Dongbei restaurant and you will immediately feel like you’ve stepped in to a grandmother’s warm home in a rural village. The feeling grows as the variety of home-cooked food comes out to fill the table. This type of meal is best enjoyed amongst large groups so you can share the meal “family style” by taking little bites of each dish and sharing the entire meal.

Figure 3. Our group of new teachers get to know each other around a traditional family-style meal.

For some people in Western culture you might initially be unaccustomed to sharing food communally at a restaurant (except at Spanish tapas), but there is no better way to bring a group of strangers together than tasting the same food together in a true family-style setting.

Even if I’ve just met my dinner group or if we can’t speak the same language, this welcoming atmosphere always makes me feel instantly connected through the communal language of sharing comforting home-cooked food.

 

****

So go ahead and order as much variety as you can – pickled cabbage and pork filled jiaozi (suan cai rou tun – 酸菜肉饨), an assortment of cured sausages; a refreshingly crisp cucumber salad (pai huang gua -拍黄瓜), a bowl of cold mung bean jelly noodles (la pi -拉皮) and a slightly spicy tofu skin salad (ban gan doufu si -拌干豆腐丝) then jump in to a platter of cumin-spiced stir-fried lamb, a whole flattened chicken (xiangsu shousi ji -香酥手撕鸡) and traditional guo bao rou. In true Dongbei fashion, you might as well finish it all off with a big bowl of steaming noodles to fill you up.

Figure 4. A whole flattened and fried chicken, (xiangsu shousi ji -香酥手撕鸡) waiting to be torn apart by hungry eaters!

Figure 5. Vegetarian jiaozi filled with loads of fresh veggies and mushrooms

I can assure you that you’ll feel ready to curl up on your granny’s couch after this homey feast. Or if you’re like me starting your first day with EF – it’s time to try a local bubble tea and get back to training for life in China and an amazing new work experience.

 

Post by: Harris Green

 

Are you ready to fill your stomach with authentic Chinese food?

Teach, travel and train with EF English First today

 


Harris started his career with EF back in Toronto but jumped at the opportunity to move to Shanghai to recruit English teachers. His favourite part of living here is exploring and tasting the variety of regional foods around China and Asia. He is a self-proclaimed “traveling foodie”. You can likely find him seated a table with locals sharing a meal and learning about their culture! If you have any questions about traveling and eating in China please feel free to reach out!