(Read on for our list of the top five dishes or check out the video above to see them in action!)
Harbin is tucked way way up in the far most North Eastern province of China alongside the Russian border. Like many Chinese cities, it has a vibrant street food culture that is uniquely it's own. The food is salty and rich and strangely.....familiar. Compared to the street food in other provinces, Harbin's street food looks like they knew my dad was coming to visit so they curated a menu just to his tastes. Piles of savory grilled meats, fried potatoes and mushrooms, ice cream stalls, and skewers of seafood. Plus a bottle of cold beer(they actually sell ice cold beer here, a rare thing in China) is only 60 cents. (Read on for our list of the top five dishes or check out the video above to see them in action)
Everything is seasoned with a little bit of cumin, salt and (if you want it) a spicy red powder. You won't find many complex sauces here or what westerners might consider to be "strange" flavors. They serve their meat and seafood salty with tons of garlic. Or, alternatively with a bit of honey or a sprinkle of sugar on the chicken wings to give them that sweet and salty flavor that keeps you eating and eating.
If you visit Harbin, you absolutely must visit the night markets. These are comprised of stall after stall after stall of street food vendors all shouting their offerings to the crowds. They are scattered throughout the city and are open from 5pm-ish to 10pm-ish. Wherever there is a university, there is sure to be a night market close by. It's a popular activity for the university students. The markets get fairly crowded in the evenings with students eating, shopping and hanging out with their friends. You can avoid the crowds by arriving early.. but people watching is half the fun.
The biggest night market has the typical Harbin street food plus some more trendy/adventurous fare such as black stinky tofu, deep fried durian (surprisingly delicious), grilled pig's feet, and scorpions on sticks. The smaller night markets carry the tried and true staples that Harbin university students (and the rest of Harbin) know and love. No matter which market you end up at, you shouldn't leave until you've eaten these five things:
5. Garlic Oysters
You can find these garlic oysters not only at the night market, but also from stalls scattered all across the city. They are incredibly popular and once you've had one, it's easy to see why.
The oysters are topped with rice noodles, a mound of chopped garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, green onions and chili peppers. Then they are placed on a charcoal grill and doused with a bit of rice wine. They are cooked until the noodles are soft and the sauce is bubbling away in the shell.
The noodles soak up the flavor from the oyster, the garlic and the sauce transforming them from a lowly topping to the star of the show. The oysters may be small but they pack an umami punch that makes eating one or two of them super satisfying.
4. Treasure Crab
The next dish on the list has that 'wow' factor that draws in the crowds. It's hard to walk past a stall grilling perfectly arranged crab meat in it's own shell without stopping for a better look (and perhaps a little taste).
The shells are filled with a lump of crab meat with the leg meat artfully draped over top. Once you choose between the creamy mayo or the garlic soy topping, they light up the grill, add a little cooking liquor and oil to the shell and grill grill grill until the whole thing is bubbling. The result is creamy (or garlicky depending on your topping choice) crab with a grilled smokiness that makes you wonder why anyone would cook seafood any other way.
3. Grilled Octopus
Ok.. so this octopus isn't cooked over a charcoal grill, but it still makes the list due to it's flawless execution.
The hunks of tentacle meat are snipped with scissors, pressed onto a hot flat top grill and held there until they are tender morsels of perfection. Then they are brushed with a bit of oil, sprinkled with cumin, sesame seeds, salt and chili powder and served to you piping hot. There's enough seasoning keep things interesting but not so much that it masks the flavor of the octopus. True story: I've taken the metro to the night market solely because I was craving this even though we had food at home. It's that good.
We've posted about guo bao rou (sweet and sour pork) before but it's worth mentioning again. Guo bao rou is Harbin's signature dish and you'd be foolish to visit the city and not have a serving (or two... or three) before you left. There's many a restaurant offering platter after platter, but at the night market you can watch them fry up a fresh batch right before your eyes. The breading is extra crispy, the sauce is tangy and gingery and the pork nestled inside is in tender slices instead of chewy chunks. Every time I eat a batch I feel a little sad knowing that one day I'll have to leave this sweet and sour pork behind. It's just not the same back in Canada.
1. Lamb/Beef/Pork Chuanr (skewers of BBQ meat)
If for some mysterious reason you arrived in Harbin and could only try a single dish from the night market.. or could only visit a single restaurant, it would hands-down have to be a BBQ place. Yes the sweet and sour pork is epic. Yes you cannot get it anywhere else. And yes... you've probably had BBQed meat on a stick before. However, BBQ here isn't just about the meat (which is delicious, incredibly delicious), it's about the entire dining experience.
It's about ordering a wide range of different skewers and then slowly enjoying them as they arrive hot off the grill. It's Harbin tradition to crack a beer (or if you are a real Harbinite, a whole box of big bottles of beer) while you enjoy platter after platter at a table full of friends. At the night market you can order a few skewers to sample as you browse, but for the real-deal you need to stop at one of the stalls with a tent and seating so you can relax and enjoy the experience.
Like many of the other dishes here, the skewers are seasoned with cumin, salt, sesame seeds and chili powder and are charred in the best possibly way from the grill. You want to look for stalls that have skewers with a nice balance of meat and fat on each stick which will keep the meat moist and flavorful while it's cooking.
If you want to really eat like a local, grab a handful of raw garlic cloves from the always-present garlic bowl and alternate bites of meat with small bites of garlic. Perfection.
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