- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2005

HARBIN, China — In the dead of winter, on a narrow side street in the middle of one of China’s iciest cities, a standoff is unfolding. I am part of it. On this corner: Oriental Dumpling King, awash in fluorescent light, trimmed in fake gold and overstaffed with young women in green dresses. On this corner: Central Dumpling King, its windows steamed up, its tables filled with people trying to escape the cold and carb up against the fiercest weather China has to offer.

January is the buildup to guonian, the Chinese New Year season. As the year of the rooster approaches, ushering out the year of the monkey, the dumpling — or “jiaozi,” for those linguists keeping score at home — reigns.

Shrimp dumplings. Pork dumplings. Dumplings stuffed with pungent leek, with crispy celery, with pleasantly bitter winter cabbage. Steamed dumplings. Boiled dumplings. Dumplings fried in the pan until they’re golden brown. Dumplings by the dozen, the hundred, the thousand.

I am on a mission to eat these dumplings. During a week in Harbin, I make a daily tally and realize I am consuming far too many. Then I look at the next tables over and see that I am an amateur. Chinese half my size are consuming twice my complement of dumplings, washing them down with Hapi beers as frigid as the air that blows in each time the front door opens.

In a country where geography often dictates cuisine — lamb and pork reign inland, seafood on the coast; noodles orient toward the harsh north and rice to the more temperate south — the dumpling is a gastronomic ambassador across China’s regions, ethnic groups and even religions.

In the far northwest, Muslim Uighurs wolf down mutton dumplings as enthusiastically as Cantonese gulp open-topped shumai in the southeast and Shanghainese savor soup dumplings — elegantly twisted morsels full of pork, flaked crab meat and scalding liquid known as “little dragon buns.”

“When you think about it, it’s the perfect food,” says Oriental Dumpling King waitress No. 005, known to her friends and family as Huang Yibo. Chinese restaurant staffers tend to be identified by numbers, which can reach a dizzying six digits — a combination of the remnants of communist bureaucracy and the Chinese obsession with numerology.

The waitress watches as her colleagues — behind sanitary glass, of course, in keeping with the new China — toil in the dumpling version of Henry Ford’s assembly line, racing to keep up with New Year’s demand for — count ‘em — 33 kinds of dumplings. “They get calluses on their fingers from making so many dumplings,” she says.

I ask in my most polite Mandarin but am denied entrance to the inner sanctum. Too busy, they say. Would you want a hulking, bushy-bearded foreigner running roughshod through your dumpling operation?

Sated — at least for a few hours — I bundle up in a coat that makes me resemble a large version of the morsels I have just consumed. Dumplings, it turns out, are a great inoculation against a Harbin winter day (along with clear Chinese sorghum liquor known by its deceptively innocuous name, “baijiu,” or “white wine”).

At one place, called Dongbei Ya, or Northeastern Duck, I order three dozen: pork-and-cilantro, fresh shrimp and boiled cabbage.

“Are you sure you want 36? That’s quite a lot. Can you eat that many?” the waitress asks me, smiling but defiant.

“Could a Chinese person eat them all?” I ask.


“Then don’t worry about it.”

(Dumplings are really cheap. My total — 36 dumplings, two Cokes and a pot of tea — comes to about $3.20.)

I have come to this far reach of China alone; my wife, a hot-blooded creature, has opted instead for a week on a southern island. She thinks I’m crazy for pursuing the coldest environ in the land, but I feel, somehow, that the secret of northern Chinese hardiness — the strength of a country where hardship is referred to with the phrase “eat bitter” — can be found in the swirling winds of the Manchurian province of Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River.

On this particular afternoon, Harbin’s Ice Festival is in full swing. Ice sculptures, in no danger of melting, are everywhere downtown. At the edge of the city, entire parks are devoted to ornate ice edifices two, three and even four stories high, lit from within using colored lights. Young Harbinians (Harbinites? Harbinese?) stride through them with tiny digital cameras, the flashes twinkling like mirrors through the ice.

Like everyone else who lives here, they seem impervious to the bitter weather, aside from the occasional pink cheek. Even in midafternoon on the sunniest day of my visit, the temperature struggles to reach 10 degrees. On that day, a woman at the bus station, bundled up, says to a companion, “Pretty warm day!” This is what you’re dealing with here.

This all may be because of what lies beneath: Entire stores in Harbin are devoted to long underwear — sort of a Victoria’s Secret for the tundra dweller who has everything.

The city’s Russian influence — it’s not far from the border — is clear in its architecture and the abundance of Orthodox churches that dot the landscape in an officially nonreligious country. The grandest, St. Sofia, towers over a square in the center of town, a reminder that whatever politics may be, culture often has a way of trumping official geography. Still, even the church spires seem to shiver when the wind kicks up.

The diminutive dumpling, I’m told repeatedly, helps cut the cold. For one, the cooking methods retain heat. Unlike quick-fried wok cuisine, in which the heat dissipates in a minute or two, something steamed or boiled is the perfect conduit of warmth from hearth to stomach. All the Chinese characters for the cooking methods used to make dumplings — steamed, boiled, pan-fried — have four small apostrophelike critters at the bottom, signifying flames licking up from a stove.

Then, of course, there are the ingredients. Globs of meat and vegetables pinched into robust dough — not exactly standard Atkins fare — offer the stick-to-your-ribs potential that can give a guy the get-up-and-go to walk, say, a few blocks across Harbin’s frozen cobblestones without turning into an ice sculpture himself (“Dumpling-Sated, Bundled-Up Westerner in Repose”). Pungent mixes of soy sauce, black vinegar and thick, seeded red-pepper paste add to the glow.

I’ll admit it: When I lived in China as a child at the end of the 1970s, I overdid things a bit. The dining hall at our foreigners’ compound made Dumplingfest a Sunday staple, and I’d go for lunch and eat 40 of them.

Then, for dinner, the dumplings would be pan-fried to make sure they all got used. I ate 40 more, appreciative of the increased oil quotient against the biting Beijing cold.

In those days, the making of Beijing dumplings was a special occasion. Families whose entire home was a single room gathered in communal cinder-block kitchens and formed their own dumpling brigades, with children mixing, filling and pinching dough while mothers and fathers manned huge pots of water heated by wood and coal stoves. The result, a weekend feast, was a vast difference from the melancholy vegetables and slivers of tough meat that other days usually brought.

By my final day in Harbin, I waddle out the front door of Oriental Dumpling King, feeling lucky that I fit through. Across the way, Central Dumpling King is just as crowded, and the eternal face-off continues. I realize the winner is, of course, me.

My final count, in six days: exactly 367 dumplings. I am ready to go home. But could that be a little dumpling place on the airport road at the edge of town? The flight’s not for another two hours …

Flights from Beijing cost about $100 to $150 and leave Capital Airport several times a day. Accommodations range from inexpensive ($25 for hostels with shared rooms) to reasonably plush ($100 to $150).

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