They say you should avoid coming to Shenyang at all, if possible, because it’s a massively polluted industrialized dump in the middle of the far north east of China, with little to recommend it other than the departures gate at the airport where at least you know you have a chance of leaving (either a greater or lesser chance, depending on which Chinese airline you’ve had the misfortune to choose).
But if visiting Shenyang is unavoidable – as it was for us while the campervan spent two days and a night being fine-tuned at the mechanic’s workshop, before being exposed to the road perils of Inner Mongolia – then you shouldn’t miss Laobian Dumplings, those dumplings of long history and deserved fame.
Perhaps because my expectations of Shenyang were so low, the city totally and utterly surprised me. It had buzz, it had bravado, and it had a lot going for it. I liked it, although I realize I am alone in the world in saying this, even among people who live there.
The Shenyang I found was an exciting city outgrowing itself so fast the outer ring road had just become the inner ring road and the inner ring road had just been converted into a high-speed flyover zooming between luxury shopping centres. Banks were so plentifully crowded cheek by jowl on every city block it was clear everyone must be filthy rich and in need of a place to store their lucre, and indeed when the locals went out shopping it wasn’t for milk or bread, but for large electrical appliances and whole apartment blocks. The place was booming.
Luckily for us, the boom times seemed not to have affected the local food culture too much, because according to everyone I spoke to the most popular restaurant in Shenyang is hands down a cheap-as-chips dumpling den, Laobian Dumpling.
Laobian makes it into Lonely Planet China, usually a sure sign that this is somewhere you don’t want to eat. Suspicious, I also searched Dianping
, the everyman’s guide to what’s good to eat (all in Chinese, I’m improving on that front) who confirmed that this was indeed a very good and very popular spot. (The other thing I love about Dianping is that it lists the most frequently recommended dishes of any restaurant so you have some idea of what to look out for when you’re presented with one of those biblical Chinese menus.)
Ooooooo!-long tea. Why? Read on.
Laobian (“Old Bian”) dumplings have been around since 1829, started by Bian Fu who by all accounts was a true dumpling master, and continued by Bian Degui (1856 – 1942) who, according to the company’s own history ‘was good at absorbing others’ merits to make up his own shortcomings’. No love lost there then. Despite this Laobian Dumpling went from strength to strength and now offers ‘more than one hundred kinds of dumpling.’ You can see why I had to visit.
The restaurant is a bustling but plain three storys, each one packed to the brim with hungry diners. The only nod to fanciness is the Bian dragon logo on the teapots and cups, and the cheery red outfits of the waiters and waitresses.
You can choose individual dumplings form the main dumpling menu, including mandarin duck dumplings, exotic perilla leaf dumplings, wild vegetable dumplings, or even sharkfin dumplings if you’re feeling politically incorrect, or just avoid all the confusion and treat yourself to a set course dumpling feast.
Then began our own dumpling feast with the famed ‘Ice Dumplings’ (28 yuan), steamed jiaozi filled with scallions, tiny shrimp, pine nuts and rich tofu, then placed in a shallow pan and fried in a thin layer of batter and turned out upside-down onto the plate so the crunchy lacey fried batter forms a visually stunning effect. These were amazingly good – crispy at first bite with a soft, finely diced filling.
The regular jiaozi were simple boiled dumplings with a pork and vegetable filling, made much more interesting paired with the roasted smoked chili flakes and minced garlic provided on the table.
For a little novelty I also ordered a single crab ‘dumpling’ (15 yuan) but the waiter wouldn’t have it, telling me each one was no bigger than his thumbnail. So I ordered two. They were so gorgeous with their little black sesame seed eyes on stalks and tiny, tiny claws, but they did taste of nothing more than dumpling dough.
Our final basket of dumplings were mandarin duck (20 yuan for ten), a rich combination of dark, finely chopped duck meat and herbs, stir-fried together first before being added to the dumplings making them rich and satisfying.
The only low point in this dumpling extravaganza came with the bill when I discovered our pot of oolong tea had cost 158 yuan, in contrast with the dumplings, all fifty-two of them combined costing only 70 yuan.
Tea prices, like wine in other parts of the world, can be staggeringly steep in Chinese restaurants, and like the novice who tells the waiter ‘Bring me a bottle of red!’ without asking the price, I had done the same thing with tea. The waiter had simply chosen the best and most expensive sachet of tea on my behalf. It was great tea, but I would have liked to know how great it was so I could savour it a bit more.
Laobian Dumpling 老边饺子馆
Laobian Jiaozi Guan
208 Zhong Jie, Shen He District
Open seven days from early until late
+86 24 24865369
The China Road Trip so far (in case you missed any):