Dalian dining is all about abalone, sea cucumbers and sea urchins - 5 places to try them
China’s best seafood is harvested from the cold, clean waters around the northeastern city, making it a destination for foodies
In 1898, the Russian empire coerced a lease of the Liaodong peninsula from the Qing dynasty. Almost equidistant between Beijing and Pyongyang, the new port city was dubbed “Dalnyi” – Russian for “remote”.
Thanks to its cold waters, China’s northernmost ice-free port city, in Liaoning province, boasts the country’s best abalone, sea cucumbers and shellfish. It’s also one of the cleanest and greenest of Chinese cities. Come summer, the constant cool ocean breeze has locals and tourists flocking to alfresco cafes, pop-up beer gardens and beach barbecues.
Dalian is a young, immigrant city. Many of its residents’ grandparents ventured north by boat from Shandong, which lies southwest across the Bohai Sea. They came to the Russian enclave at the southern tip of the Liaodong peninsula for more opportunities in the dying days of imperial China, as the Cantonese fled south to British Hong Kong.
Despite the city’s location, Dalianites are quick to inform you that they are not culturally “northeastern” or “Dongbei” – a people often stereotyped as country bumpkins. Dalian locals claim ancestry from illustrious Shandong, the cradle of Chinese civilisation, the hometown of Confucius and lu cai, or Shandong cuisine, one of the four great classic culinary traditions of China.
The food of Dalian is, accordingly, a branch of lu cai, with influences from the more rustic Dongbei style of cooking, such as simple but truly delicious dumplings, plus the use of Liaodong seafood.
For a taste of old Dalian, the casual chain Fuhongji serves steaming bowls of clam noodles. “It’s the flavour of Dalian’s street stalls; originally for workers and fishermen,” says chef Zhang Jing, as he stirs thick, handmade wheat noodles in a bubbling pot of clam broth over a roaring flame. Thinly sliced green beans and scallions go in at the last minute. Ladled into enormous bowls, the noodles are piping hot but retain an al dente chewiness in a clean, sweet and viscous soup.
Dalian menzi is another traditional street snack locals can’t live without. Soft, spongy and jelly-like, menzi are protein-rich cubes made from coagulated potato starch. Pan-fried to a crisp and dressed with smashed garlic and sesame paste, it’s comfort food at its best.
Grand Hyatt Dalian’s new Chinese restaurant, Dalian Dalian, opened earlier this year in February and serves a fancier variant. Their sanxian menzi comes on a hot metal plate, with prawns, sea cucumber and squid sizzling on a bed of red onions.
Executive sous chef Nick Du recommends the local seafood dishes for visitors. “Dalian is the best place for seafood as the seawater is so cold; all the marine life takes a long time to mature, developing fat and flavour in the process. I’d recommend our signature deep-fried yellow croaker with sweet and sour sauce,” he says.
In Shandong, this typical lu cai dish is traditionally prepared with river carp. In Dalian, yellow croaker from the Yellow Sea is the preferred fish. Sliced diagonally partway through, then coated in cornflour and deep-fried, the flesh curls and flares out. Another typical Dalian favourite is hot and sour soup, full of local seafood, with spiciness from the warming black pepper rather than red chillies.
The philosophy of seafood consumption is very different than that of Hong Kong. Winter is the season for seafood. Clams, mussels, abalone, pollock and mackerel all grow fat in the clean, cold waters. Considered tonics, they are eaten to prevent colds during the bitter winters.
While the delicate seafood from the balmier south calls for steaming or a quick stir-fry to maintain its delicate flavour and texture, fish from the freezing northern currents are firmer, meatier, and fishier, requiring methods such as deep-frying, braising and grilling.
“I’d never had steamed fish until I went down south,” says Sally Yuan, a born-and-bred Dalianite and PR at the Grand Hyatt Dalian. “If we steam fish in Dalian, even a cat wouldn’t touch it because of the fishiness. Dalianites expect our seafood to be more robust in flavour.”
While the fish may not appeal to Cantonese tastes, the flavour of the shellfish astonishes. All sorts of clams are like umami bombs, crabs and prawns taste more briny, sea urchins stay creamy and withstand cooking in hot pots while their Japanese counterparts disintegrate with heat. Even sea cucumber, generally eaten for its texture and not flavour, comes with a more fishy kick.
Liaoshen, or Liaodong spiked sea cucumbers, are famed throughout China. Usually sold dried in other parts of the country (but still fetching exorbitant prices), Dalian gets fresh ones for three months during the winter. The spiky sea cucumbers only grow in the extremely cold and deep water around Liaoning. Harvesting is not allowed until they grow six rows of spikes, signifying adulthood, when they are four to five years old.
Five places to try, and what to eat at each
Thick wheat noodles in a clean, clam broth, a taste of old Dalian. A set with pickles and a roujiamo – an oven-baked northern Chinese flatbread stuffed with spiced pork – costs no more than 30 yuan (HK$35).
B1, Dalian Pavilion , 9-6 Dagong Street, Zhongshan District, +86 411 8668 6868
Haichang, or “ocean sausage”, is a species of fat marine worm, an important ingredient in Shandong and Dalian cooking. Rifengyuan makes haichang dumplings bursting with oceanic umami, served with a slightly raw centre. Be prepared to wait: locals queue up for this shop’s dumplings.
Qinhai Street, Xiaoping Island, Ganjingzi District, +86 411 8477 8315
Tiantian Seafoods 天渔港
Choose your meal from the tanks in this Dalian institution. Get raw sea urchins, salt-baked conches, and fresh boiled abalone. You won’t be disappointed with its delectable soft, chewy centre and crisp edges with a sweet, caramelised crunch. And a whole abalone is just 60 yuan.
10 Renmin Road, Zhongshan District, +86 411 8280 1118
Tiger Bay/Fisherman’s Wharf/Enjoy Ocean
Stroll along the promenade to the lighthouse. You may see fishermen unloading their catches, , a massive flock of seagulls or locals collecting shellfish on the rocks. Enjoy the casual seafood barbecues set up along the shore, or walk back to the European-style houses for a seafood meal at Enjoy Ocean, a popular restaurant. Try the sea cucumbers stuffed with minced pork, eaten with crisp lettuce wraps.
72 Binhai Road East, Fisherman’s Wharf, Tiger Bay, +86 411 8273 8088, +86 411 8273 9088
Refined versions of the city’s signatures – seafood menzi, sweet and sour deep-fried yellow croaker, as well as simple but satisfying Dongbei fare, such as pot stickers and house-cured larou (Chinese bacon) stir-fried with garlic.
46/F Grand Hyatt Dalian, #33, C3 Zone, Xinghai Square, +86 411 3988 1234
There are daily flights from Hong Kong to Dalian on Dragonair, China Eastern Airlines, Hongkong Airlines and Air China