There are dumplings, then there are these dumplings. Plump to the point of corpulence they are bursting with unexpected flavours – like carrot shreds and tiny cubes of potato spiced with mustard seed and cumin; or meat spiced with cassia bark, cardamon, pepper, and sugar mixed through with a tiny soft local root tuber called droma.
The shapes are beautiful and give a clue to what filling is inside, but don’t be tempted to over-order – two or three dumplings are enough for a meal.
2. Blood sausage xiěcháng血肠
Blood sausage may not sound like something you’re dying to sink your teeth into, but the flavour is rich, mildly spiced, pleasingly savoury and strong.
Similar to Scottish black pudding, xiechang is made from peppered and spiced sheep’s blood and roast barley. A white version contains the same ingredients save for the sheep’s blood.
Liang fen is Qinghai’s most famous street snack, sold from tiny shop fronts and market stalls (you’ll know which ones by the quivering yellow dome of jelly surrounded by ten bowls of different sauces and condiments). It’s a cold dish with a spicy kick, perfect for the summer months.
The base looks a lot like noodles but is actually shaved mung bean or pea jelly topped with a mysterious blend of vinegar, garlic and sauces, with a healthy serve of chili la jiao on top. There are ground peanuts and sesame seeds mixed through the la jiao to give it textural contrast and nuttiness against the cold, slippery ‘noodles’.
Yak milk, yak yoghurt and bright yellow yak butter are everyday staples in Qinghai. The yak butter is used in cooking and making tea but is also used in monasteries to make coloured yak butter devotional sculptures or burnt as a votive offering.
Yoghurt made with yak milk is set in the bowl and is creamy with a soft tartness and a fine sheen of yellow cream on top. Many people eat it as is, straight from the bowl, or sprinkle it with a teaspoon of sugar first.
5. Shining Cooking Pot Bread kūn guō mómó 焜锅馍馍
What a glorious name for a loaf of bread! Wheat bread dough is rolled up with oil and turmeric, a popular food colouring in Qinghai (see the yellow mantou steamed buns below) and layer by layer placed in a deep cooking pot or tin, taking the shape of the pot as it cooks.
The bread is light and crusty, with flavour coming from the seeds (sesame, caraway and others) sprinkled on the surface. It’s usually eaten with meat, soup or noodles.
Another poetically named dish, wheat noodle dough is rolled thin then cut into tiny diamond flag shapes before being added at the last minute to a clear broth flavoured with tomato, squash, carrot, celery, white radish, spinach and tiny pieces of mutton.
The soup has a very light, fresh taste and is often eaten with steamed mantou bread coloured with turmeric.
Sanzi are a popular street snack and also a traditional festival food for both Hui Muslims and Salar Muslims. Made by deep-frying wheat noodles, they are neither sweet nor salty, but loved for their crisp crunchiness.
8. Hand pulled lamb shōu zhuā yángròu 手抓羊肉
Don’t leave Qinghai without eating this tender and tasty lamb dish. Warmed pieces of lamb on the bone are served with a dish of spicy lajiao on the side. Shou zhua yangrou is one of the few dishes in China eaten entirely with the hands and it does get to be a messy business as the bones piles up on the table.
10. Rice cakes mǐgāo 米糕
Walking through one of Xining’s largest street markets I noticed every single person carrying a bag filled with small snow-white balls. I tracked them down to this stall, doing a roaring trade in a local specialty – a soft rice steamed cake with a sweet treat inside each one – a rich red honey-flavoured jujube, a cluster of sweet sultanas, or some sweet red beans.
Light as air, the cakes are delicious eaten warm, fresh from the steamer.
Travel China, dish by dish!