Borscht and caviar pancakes, rye soda and beer, milk ice pops, and Russian tiramisu—they’re some of the foods you might find in Harbin, the northeastern Chinese city known for its blistering cold winters and famed ice sculpture festival.
But the city also has a surprisingly cosmopolitan Russian identity that’s woven into everything from the architecture to food.
Sometimes called the “Moscow of the Orient,” Harbin’s connection to Russia dates back to 1898, when Russian engineers arrived in the city to construct the new Chinese Eastern Railway.
By the 1920s, more than 100,000 Russians had settled there, including Russians fleeing the Communist revolution and Russian Jews fleeing anti-Semitism back home.
They founded orchestras and ballet halls, built baroque villas and onion-domed churches, and—most importantly—cooked food and opened restaurants, leaving behind their culinary stamp on Harbin’s cuisine.
The Russians are gone now, most of them having left in the 1950s during a wave of repatriation, but there are still places where you can still experience the city’s Russian influence.
My first thought upon walking into Boteman, an audacious restaurant on Harbin’s main drag: this is what the film production set of an Anna Karenina remake would look like if its interiors were sourced off Taobao, China’s Amazon.
A kitschy record player sits atop a bar stocked with bottles of vodka, a white piano shares a small stage space with two Christmas trees (it’s mid-January by the way), while a tinkly rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” plays in the background.
There is something Disneyland-esque about the lunch experience here. A waiter in a polyester bowtie brusquely takes my order of borscht, “potato mud” (mashed potatoes served as a circular patty), and a baked fish fillet with sour cream and ketchup.
Standard Russian fare, and surprisingly authentic, given the restaurant’s interiors.
Walk down Harbin’s Central Avenue, the longest pedestrian street in China, and you’ll find Lucia, a humble restaurant tucked away on a small side street.
In contrast to the gaudy Boteman, the Lucia experience feels less Taobao meets Tolstoy and more like walking into a grandmother’s living room in 19th-century Moscow, the real deal.
The owner, Misha Hu, who’s half-Russian and half-Chinese, opened the restaurant more than a decade ago to celebrate and preserve Harbin’s Russian heritage.
It serves dishes that Misha’s Russian mother used to cook in his childhood: gently-fried potato slices with diced mushrooms, blini (crepe-like pancakes served with salmon caviar), and, of course, borscht.
(Read more: How Russian borscht became a Hong Kong staple)
The food is good, nothing revelatory, but knowing that it’s the recipe of a woman who traveled so far, started a family, and laid new roots in a foreign country changes the game for me. It feels like I am eating in somebody’s home.
Once a hotel with over 100 years of history, Madieer, also known as the Modern, is considered by locals as the embodiment of the city’s Russian legacy. Today, it houses a cafe, restaurant, and brewery all on Central Avenue.
At the restaurant, the two highlights are beef stroganoff, a classic Russian comfort dish of sautéed beef served with sour cream sauce, and the less conventional “fruit pizza,” a thick crust topped with milky cheese and pineapple slices.
It’s all washed down with bottles of gewasi (or kvass in Russian), a non-alcoholic soda made from fermented rye bread.
Dessert is Madieer’s famous milk ice pop, served all over Harbin and China. It comes in five flavors: original, matcha, rum, vanilla, and durian.
Bomele 1931 (芭米莉食品)
When the Russians arrived in Harbin, they also brought their bakeries, which have survived over the years by adapting to the Chinese palate.
One of them, Bomele 1931, has grown into a popular chain in the city.
It’s most famous for dalieba, a Chinese take on Russian rye bread. But instead of rye flour, it’s made with wheat flour, to satisfy the Chinese craving for softer and sweeter bread.
The name itself is a bilingual fusion of da, meaning big in Chinese, and lieba, a phonetic approximation of khleb, the Russian word for bread.
Gogol Bookstore (果戈里书店)
For all the talk of the death of print, Gogol Bookstore has found a way to survive and thrive.
On any given evening, the store is packed with readers young and old curled up on couches, chairs, and floor cushions with books in hand.
Considered by many as one of China’s most beautiful bookstores, the space is ornately decorated with neoclassical interiors, oak bookshelves, and old-world charm.
The secret to Gogol’s survival? The bookstore does more than just books. It also has a cafe that serves tea and cakes, hosts events in an upstairs members area, and even offers the venue for weddings.
Harbin Jewish History and Culture Museum (哈尔滨犹太历史文化纪念馆)
The city’s Jewish history museum is housed inside a nearly 100-year-old synagogue that was once patronized by more than 20,000 Russian Jews who settled in Harbin to escape persecution.
The population wove itself so deeply into the fabric of the city that the Jews called themselves Harbintsi in Russian. They set up religious councils, charitable institutions, and relief organizations.
Today, their synagogues, high schools, and dining halls continue to stand, even though the population left after the Communists came to power in China.