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Qiulin lieba—a symbol of Harbin

By Tian Xuefei | | Updated: 2015-03-26 13:43
Qiulin lieba—a symbol of Harbin

Qiulin lieba, a large round bread baked with beer yeast, is a symbol of Harbin, capital of north China’s Heilongjiang province. [Photo provided to China Daily]

When friends visit Harbin, I recommend they try lieba (the Russian chljeb ‘bread’), a large round bread baked with beer yeast. Actually, this type of bread has become the symbol of Harbin cuisine.

There are three oddities in Harbin—girls smoke tobacco pipes, people drink beer like water and bread is as big as a pot lid, of which the lid-sized bread refers exactly to those from the historic Qiulin Company. It is big, hard and sour, and some even ask if it is bread. But with lieba, you can trace the origin of Harbin, the culture and the people, and learn to get along with them.

Qiulin is the Chinese rendering of the name of a Russian man who established this company. When the Russians built the Middle East Railway in Harbin in 1898, they brought their way of life to the fishing villages of northern China. It was then that a Russian businessman, Ivan Churin, introduced the art of making lieba to Harbin. So far, through the efforts of generations of Russian and Chinese lieba makers, this traditional family art, though already lost in Russia, has been completely and originally preserved in this northern city of China.

Many famous people have written about lieba, as Acheng wrote in the 1960s, "Lieba, the lid-sized bread baked by Qiulin, is one of the delicacies I appreciate the most. It was as big as a wash basin in the early days, more or less like the beret worn by an artist. The lieba baked by Qiulin tastes different, because it is baked with firewood and that gives the bread its special quality, while other lieba is baked by electric oven. You cut lieba into slices not so thin, eat with butter (Qiulin butter is pure), and Harbin sausage—it is yummy!"

I found its inner beauty while watching how lieba was made in Qiulin. The bread is made from simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt and hops. After the liquid hops yeast ferments three times, the flour generates not only carbon dioxide, but also lactic acid, acetic acid, alcohol, organic acid, aldehydes and esters. The fragrance of the hops is released from the oven, which is fueled with scrap wood. In another hour, the bread will be ready.

Lieba was once very popular in Harbin. The first generation of lieba makers made very good money and became girls’ idols. Harbin people used to joke that there was a paradise in heaven and lieba makers on earth; and girls had to be good to marry a lieba maker. But today a lieba maker earns slightly more than 1,000 yuan each month, after Qiulin was bought by another company with some private capital. Old lieba makers stay out of their love for the big oven, while new lieba makers have come and gone, because they can’t raise a family or attract girls they like with such a low monthly wage.

Meanwhile, some poor imitators have added all kinds of additives and packed the bread in bags labeled "dalieba" in the local specialty shops. Many young Harbin people have begun to despise the original taste of Qiulin lieba due to the taste of the new types of pastries with various additives and sweeteners.

Will Qiulin lieba, the intangible cultural heritage in Heilongjiang, be forgotten and disappear with history? That’s absolutely not what optimistic people in Harbin think. They believe there must be some day when this old thing will have a new opportunity to carry the history forward!

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