If you want seafood, Dalian offers a fine kettle of fish
Seafood and dumplings.
Those are what Simon Wang, a food and beverage manager, misses most whenever he is away from Dalian, Liaoning, his native city.
Unlike many Cantonese seafood dishes, fish and shellfish, however fresh, are usually served with tangy sauces. Fresh and dried chilli peppers are sometimes used, but sparingly; the tanginess comes from vinegar and sometimes ginger.
Dalian has the Yellow Sea on one side and Bohai Sea on the other. Its waters are relatively clean, allowing abalone and oyster to thrive, along with an abundance of other edible marine life. Some fish - such as the small soft-fleshed yellow croaker, the flat, elongated hairtail and a snapper-like species with no English name - are almost exclusively local to Dalian and its environs.
Markets display all these, as well as mussels and a large variety of crabs, prawns and shellfish - from the most minute to enormous whelks, and large sea urchins. Dalian Number 38 Market, near several hotels in Zhongshan district, also sells live hollow sea worms, popular in local cuisine for only about three years - and lots of dried seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables.
At Star Seafood Restaurant around Xinghai Square, crisp fried crab with a seasoned batter, is outstanding. More typical are steamed clams, in a deluge of dark soy and sugar sauce with dry chilli. Here, the sea worms are called 'sea intestines' and served with spring onion in a mild soya-based sauce. The snapper-like fish comes braised, with a sauce that gets its light brown colour from fermented soya bean. Its taste is subtle and toned down with sugar.
'Braising is one of the most popular ways of cooking in Dalian,' says Wang, who works at New World Dalian Hotel. 'Braised pork ribs, fish and prawn are local favourites.'
Fish and shellfish farms dot Dalian's coastline, supplementing fishermen's catches.
As in much of north China, dumplings are common in family or casual meals. In Dalian, though, they are served boiled - rather than fried or with noodles - and they come with dips of any combination of vinegar, ginger, minced garlic, sugar and dark soy sauce.
'Everyone still makes them at home,' notes Wang. 'Pork and cabbage are the most traditional, but there are lots of different fillings - including pork and seaweed; sea cucumber with shrimp; shrimp; whelk. Garlic shoots and flowers are chopped and added sometimes.'
I try an unexpected shrimp-and-cucumber combination - the crunch of both is pleasant and the flavour is subtle. Cucumbers are eaten raw, with sliced onion and lettuce and dipped in a pungent soya bean paste.
Chao Ninshi, a Dalian chef of 13 years and at the helm of the Royal Restaurant of China (which serves Manchurian cuisine), says seafood comes to mind when he is asked to describe the city's best ingredients.
'Abalone, sea cucumber and red crab [its shell is red before cooking] are all great here and a lot cheaper than in Guangdong and Hong Kong,' he says.
'A favourite is 'Mamma-style' fish, with onion, garlic, spring onion, ginger - braised in oil and soy sauce,' Chao adds, referring to a homestyle method of cooking.
At smaller restaurants, some of which are open to the elements between long, icy winters, fish may be listed, but the menus mostly feature hearty meat dishes with rice or with fried noodles. Most popular are cuts of pork in thick, flavourful sauces - fried liver or kidneys are homestyle dishes that many enjoy.
Another domestic dish is shredded pork in fish-flavoured sauce. Story has it that this dish was born when a Dalian housewife used leftover braised fish sauce in a pork dish, rather than waste it. Fish sauce is now deliberately used to season this dish, a favourite among locals.
Dalian is not big on desserts but does enjoy a fried sweet cake or two, in which gelatinous puddings are battered and fried.