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July 18, 2021

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Northeastern food becomes trendy

The cuisine of northeastern Chinese provinces is gaining loyal followings in Shanghai, with new restaurants specializing in the unique tastes popping up across the city and giant iron wok stew becoming the new fashion.

The three northeastern provinces include Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, and their cuisine is often underrated when compared to Sichuan or Cantonese cuisines. Because of geoclimatic diversity, each province has its own unique culinary specialties.

The northeastern region’s cuisine is well known for huge portion sizes. If you travel there, always be conservative when placing orders in restaurants and start moderately. The flavor profile is predominantly salty without the use of complicated sauces and condiments, and the more common cooking techniques are frying and stewing.

From dumplings to iron wok stews

Northeastern cuisine’s representation in Shanghai used to be dumpling restaurants often packed with customers during special occasions like the Winter Solstice, a time for Chinese people to pay respects to ancestors that calls for eating jiaozi.

In the past year, another northeastern dish has grown quite popular in Shanghai: iron wok stew, or tieguodun, a cooking technique from rural areas in the northeastern provinces that stews meats and vegetables together. People can sit around a warm hearth to enjoy the sizzling food.

It’s a form of cooking that people also refer to as luandun, or messy stew. Because it requires setting up a special hearth and an iron wok, restaurants that serve this dish are specialized, similar to Sichuan hotpot eateries.

The iron wok is several times larger than regular woks in home kitchens, with more depth to hold more food. It’s imbedded in hearths that traditionally use wood fire (restaurants now mostly use electric heating sources), which also provides warmth on cold winter days.

The majority of iron wok stew restaurants in Shanghai are decorated in traditional, rural northeastern style, with vibrant flower prints, old newspapers glued to the wall and booths/private rooms with fun names like “village head.”

Their menus are simple: choose a protein (goose, pork ribs, beef, lamb, chicken or fish) and vegetable sides to cook in the wok. The goose and pork ribs are more expensive than other meats, but they are also well worth the splurge, as the longer stewing time can better infuse rich, salty flavors into the meat.

The main part of the stew is usually cooked in advance and poured into the iron wok after the order is placed. It then takes at least 20 minutes to continue cooking the meats until they are soft and tender.

The snap beans from northeastern China are a must have, which are extra meaty, become very soft after stewing with the meats, and soak up the delicious broth. Pickled white cabbage can also be added to balance the rich flavors with its acidity.

The stew is best served with corn flour buns that are freshly made and placed on the side of the wok. They’re cooked with heat from the wok and have a crispy bottom and soft center, which is heavenly when dipped in the stew.

Chinese white cabbage and white radish sustained people in northern provinces during winter before modern agriculture enabled growing all kinds of fresh vegetables throughout the year. A typical family in northeastern China stocked more than a ton of Chinese white cabbage and cooked it in various ways over the cold winter months.

Chinese white cabbage, pork and sweet potato vermicelli stew is an everyday recipe to serve with steamed rice, and the meat can be substituted with hard tofu. It’s worth mentioning that the northeastern region has some of the best tofu products in China, especially hard tofu and dried bean curd sheets (usually stir-fried with green chili).

Chinese white cabbage can also made into pickles or Chinese sauerkraut, using only water, salt and cabbage and fermenting for almost a month. The pickled cabbage is often used in stews as a fresh leafy vegetable. Classic recipes include pickled cabbage and pork ribs, pickled cabbage and blood sausage (it’s fresh and seasoned pork blood stuffed into pork-intestine casings and then boiled), and of course, the popular pickled cabbage and pork dumplings.

The signatures

To survive in the extreme heat, eating chilled and cold dishes is a must, so don’t miss the northeastern-style starch noodle salad.

Known as lapi, the smooth and al dente noodles are made of potatoes, sweet potatoes or other starches. Lapi is made much like liangpi in Shaanxi Province by steaming a thin layer of starch liquid on a flat pan. Lapi salad is usually topped with shreds of stir-fried lean pork meat, cucumbers, carrots, bean sprouts and more, as well as a dressing of soy sauce, vinegar and garlic paste. Some people prefer to add sesame paste sauce into the dressing for extra richness.

The region has another iconic salad dish called tiger salad, or laohucai, which tosses vegetables, including cilantro, green chilies and cucumber shreds, in a simple dressing of sesame oil, soy sauce and salt and topped with a handful of deep-fried peanuts for extra nutty flavor and crunch. It’s a perfect cold starter for the summer to boost your appetite.

There’s quite a lot of deep-frying in northeastern cuisine. Guobaorou is a popular dish in northeast China, a sweet and sour fried pork made by marinating and double dying lean pork tenderloin meat. The dish originated in Manchurian huangjinrou, or golden pork, which was said to be created by Nurhaci, Khan of Great Jin and the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The sweet and sour sauce is simply composed of vinegar, sugar and salt. Slices of soft, lean pork tenderloin meat are coated in a thin batter of potato starch, and should be fried twice before they’re stir-fried with sauce and colorful toppings like thin shreds of leek and carrot.

Guobaorou is best enjoyed fresh and sizzling hot. It’s not an ideal dish to order as takeout because the sealed container would make the fried pork soft and soggy.

Disanxian, “three treasures of the earth,” is a traditional vegan stir-fry in the northeast.

The first step is to deep-fry chunks of eggplant, potato and green chili, then stir-fry the vegetables in a sauce of light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and salt. It’s best served with a bowl of hot steamed rice.


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