Qinghai attracts tourists from across the world not only by its spectacular landscapes but also by its distinctive food culture and culinary delights of the ethnic groups inhabiting on the highest plateau of China.
Mutton Eaten with Fingers
In Qinghai, one of the four major regions with vast pastoral areas in China, herdsmen are skillful cooks of beef and mutton. Shouzhuayangrou, or boiled fresh mutton eaten with fingers, is one of the traditional local delicacies. Immediately a fat lamb is killed and skinned, its meat is boiled with salt and prickly ash. It is normally done when the water starts boiling because that is the way to keep the original flavor and tenderness of the meat. The diners cut the meat into big pieces with a Tibetan knife and eat it with fingers. Traditionally, herdsmen will present the meat on the chest and tail of a lamb to the most distinguished guest to show their respect and hospitality. Another Tibetan custom is to test a would-be son-in-law with the tough task of eating the meat on the bony neck, which is difficult to bit off completely. Only those who can eat up every bit of the meat are considered capable and promising sons-in-law.
This is typical homely food for common households in Qinghai, and is fairly easy to make – mix wheat flour with cold water, press and pull the dough into a long strip, then reduce it into nail-sized square-shape noodles. Noodles in a bigger size are humorously called lanzui mianpian, meaning they are too big to be put into mouth smoothly. Square noodles can be cooked in a number of ways, boiled and served in mutton soup with diced mutton and sliced tomato and radish; stewed with beef, mutton, bean curd, bean-starch vermicelli and vegetables; or stir-fried with the same ingredients, and so on.
It is made with highland barley and has a sweet, refreshing taste, just like fermented glutinous rice wine that is very popular among people living south of the Yangtze River. To make it, first husk barleys after being soaked in water; then, boil the cleaned kernels till the outer layer split, then drain off water and dry up the kernels; lastly, seal the kernels with sweet yeast in an earthen pot and store it at 15 degrees Celsius for 3 to 5 days. Tianpei wine is then ready to serve.
Fazi (raft-shaped food)
It is a tasty specialty popular in Qinghai. It is so named because it looks in a way like a fazi, a sheepskin raft used by herdsmen for transportation on the upper reaches of the Yellow River. Locals mix minced sheep entrails with salt, ginger, prickly ash, chopped green onion, pepper powder, minced scallion, soy sauce, vegetable oil, and a little flour; fill this mixture into a processed sheep stomach; wind small intestines around it tightly to make a sealed ellipsoid; then boil it, and when this is done, steam it for another 15 minutes. Locals all enjoy fazi, which is savory, fatty but not greasy, and often eat it in three ways – cut it into thin slices and eat with vinegar, soybean paste, garlic and fried hot pepper; cut it into thick slices and fry with oil; or cut it into chunks and serve with mutton soup sprinkled with minced garlic and coriander.
Naipi (a kind of cheese)
Naipi, a kind of cheese, is one of the well-known specialties in Qinghai especially that produced in Menyuan County in Haibei Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It contains rich nutrients, including protein and fat. Naipi is easy to make – heat fresh milk to the boiling point, then continue to heat it over low fire and keep stirring it to let water evaporate and the milk condense into a round thin cheese cake at the bottom of the pot; pick up the cake with a roller and fold it into semi-circles; and dry it up in a cool shady place.
Ganban Huang Carp
This special dish of carp is tender and nutritious. The Huang carp is a unique species living in Qinghai Lake (the largest inland saltwater lake in China), and the Gyaring and Ngoring lakes. The fish can be cooked in several ways: stewed in light soup, deep-fried, smoked, steamed, or cooked with sweet-and-sour or spicy-and-sour broth. But the way known as Ganban Huang Carp is specially delicious and spicy with the most distinctive local flavor. To prepare this dish, you first clean the fish after removing its internal parts; rub it with salt; and dry it on a flat stone or sand beach in the sun. Before cooking, you need to prepare a paste with wheat flour, pepper, prickly ash, hot pepper powder and garlic mince, spread it evenly on both sides of the dried carp, then steam it, or deep-fry it to serve.
Sanzi (fried noodles)
It is a kind of fried noodles, a favorite food among local farmers at festivals. People of Hui and Salar ethnic groups make the most delicate and best-quality sanzi. First, make dough with fine wheat flour, eggs and prickly ash-flavored water (boil prickly ash with water, then remove the prickly ash); wait till the dough becomes soft and even; then stretch it into noodles and twine the noodles into circles; finally, deep-fry the noodles. The tasty and crispy sanzi can be stored for a relatively long time and is often given to guests as a nice gift on Muslim holidays.
Mashi (pasta in soup)
Also known as tongtong’er or geda’er, this is a kind of cylindrical pasta served in soup. You first make hard dough, and roll a small piece of it into thick, long and round strip; reduce it to small dices; press and roll each dice on a chopping board into a cylinder with your thumb. Boil the tiny wheaten cylinders in water; drain off water and immerse them in a broth containing dices of mutton, beef and mushrooms, bean curd, edible fungus, spinach and bean-starch vermicelli. Local residents usually serve mashi to their children on the day before a new semester starts because the cylindrical pasta is hollow, which they believe connotes a smart head that will lead to academic success. This is why mashi is called “smart food” as well.
Shijin Renshenguo (Assorted nuts and fruits)
It is a mixture of a variety of choice fruits and nuts, served as a delicious and nourishing dessert. High-quality ginseng fruit is steamed with lotus seeds and glutinous rice. The cooked mixture is sprinkled with dices of green prune, haw jelly, walnuts, raisins and cherries, and then covered with hot sweet starch broth.
Niangpi (thin wheaten sheet)
It is one of the traditional specialties of Qinghai. To make niangpi, first you need to make a piece of hard dough with flour and warm water, knead it till the flour and water mix well; knead the dough further in cold water in a basin till the starch is washed off and the dough looks like a honeycomb, which is called mianjin; now you steam it, and then steam the starch paste, pour water out of the basin and spread the starch paste evenly on a big plate and steam it again. It then becomes niangpi. Cut niangpi into thin stripes; add diced mianjin and cover it with a broth containing vinegar, hot pepper oil, custard paste, scallion and garlic mince. It tastes refreshing, cool, spicy, and springy.
Steamed Beef Tendon
This cold dish is often found on the dinner table of Hui ethnic families on special festive occasions. The pre-treatment is complicated – first, remove the hair from the skin of a cattle hoof and scorch it properly; second, soak the hoof in diluted soda solution after scraping off the burnt outer layer; then repeatedly scratch and wash it clean till it turns golden. The cooking is elaborate as well – first, boil it; when it is well done, bone it and steam the tendon till it becomes very soft and the skin splits; then cut it into strips, and steam it again with various condiments of salt, pepper, prickly ash, soy sauce and hot pepper powder; finally, serve in beef soup sprinkled with minced garlic and coriander.
Braised Lamb Meat
It is a traditional specialty in areas where local residents live on both farming and pasturing. It is rare because it is cooked with high-quality fresh lamb available only in the spring or autumn lambing season. The cooking procedures are as follows: clean the lamb, then cut into dices as large as one inch square; stir-fry the lamb over strong fire till the skin turns golden; add soybean paste, hot pepper, ginger, prickly ash powder and salt, continue to fry; when the lamb looks brownish, add a cup of water, put on the pot cover and let it simmer over low fire. It is ready when water evaporates and the lamb is well done. This is a nourishing food that looks invitingly shiny and has a distinctive aroma. The braised meat is soft, rich-flavored and fatty, but not too greasy.