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Ten Must Try Foods in Qinghai 十大不容错过的青海美食

Travelling to Qinghai? Want to know what to eat there?

Qinghai is one of China’s most wild, remote and beautiful provinces. Due north of Tibet, the western desert gives way to high grasslands in the east and south, bordered by snow-capped mountains and deep river valleys filled with forests. 

In the summer nomadic Tibetan yak and goat herders bring their flocks to the lower pastures to feed, establishing summer camps of white tents in the grasslands, but in winter the snows come early and last for a long, long time.

Many areas of Qinghai are predominately Tibetan, others mostly Hui Muslim, with many towns and villages an apparently well-balanced mixture of both ethic groups and a mosque alongside a monastery to prove it. 

The food of Qinghai reflects the high-altitude, rugged landscape that can sustain only a limited choice of vegetables and few fruits, and yet is perfect for growing barley and raising yaks (who thrive on the cold climate and high altitude).  The food is simple and sustaining, with a unique blend of Tibetan and Hui Muslim influences.

1. Hui style dumplings huíshì jiǎozi回式饺子

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.

Xiechang is sold in markets coiled length on length like a snake, or sliced and fried on a griddle as a side dish.

3. Spicy mung bean starch noodles liáng fěn 凉粉

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’.

4. Yak milk yoghurt líniú suānnǎi 犛牛酸奶

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.

6. Flag Flower Noodles qíhuā tāng miàn 旗花汤面

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.

7. Deep fried dough twists sǎnzi 馓子

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.

Just a note: the price of your dish is based on the weight of lamb sold, so tell the waiter whether you want enough for one, two or ten people.

9. Yak butter tea pocha བོད་ཇ་ sūyóuchá 酥油茶

Perhaps more of an acquired taste than any other of Qinghai’s foods, yak butter tea (called pocha in Tibetan) is oily, strongly flavoured and salty. A daily Tibetan staple, yak butter is churned together with strong brewed black tea and some salt, with or without the addition of milk and barley flour. 
But make no mistake – if you are suffering from altitude sickness yak butter tea is the best tonic and seems to help enormously with the symptoms.

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!

Ten Must Try Foods in Guizhou and Guangxi

Highway to Heaven: Qinghai’s Route S101

The Road Trip. You’d think by now I might have worked road trips out of my system, after covering most of China last year on 30,000km of its good and not-so-good roads.
But I’ve always loved road trips – three months in 1982 when I was twelve, driving through Europe in a broken down Volvo station wagon with my parents and two sisters, playing Donkey Kong as we drove through the Swiss Alps; six months driving from Scotland to Turkey and back in a Scottish Mountain Rescue Ambulance in 1991 with my boyfriend (now husband), surviving on potatoes and tea; many shorter trips just days or weeks long exploring parts of the magnificent Australian countryside.
The road is full of promise, uncertainty and sometimes, serendipity. Go as slowly as you want, stop at anything that piques your interest, change direction, change plans, change destinations at whim. My favourite way of travelling.
We were back in China again last week, the whole family this time, and had nine days to fill – but which road in which part of this vast country should we choose? 
We decided on Qinghai province’s south-east corner, bordering the Tibetan Plateau. This part of the world is remote and sparsely populated, full of nomadic Tibetan yak and goat herders, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and wild natural scenery – high hills, grasslands, sparkling rivers and mountains. We had experienced just a taste of it last year (and I wrote almost nothing about it, to my shame) and were dying to see more.
Our friend Jonas, who has lived in the area for several years and explored all of it (Jonas blogs about living and trekking in Qinghai at Adventures of Jonas), met us in Xining, the capital of Qinghai, and helped us map a route taking us south on the S101, a good provincial road, passing by several lovely monasteries and beautiful scenery. 
We changed tack from our original plans of visiting Yushu, in the far south, because of uncertainties about the roads and conditions we would find there – it was all but levelled in an earthquake three years ago. Instead, Jonas inspired us to see the beautiful countryside northeast of Yushu.
Just to get your bearings, here’s a map of the area:
Our route started from Xining and headed south on the S101 to Golog, a distance of 500km or according to Googlemaps about 12 hours’ driving. We’re pretty well acquainted with Mr Google’s driving estimates in China, and in a perfect world he would be exactly correct. 
This isn’t a perfect world though – this is China – so if you add a further 50% to the estimated time – increasing 12 hours to 18 hours – it will be about right, taking into account the many variables Mr Google can’t see – yaks blocking the road, roadworks, queues at toll stations, detours, diversions and accidents.
We had heard that the area south of Golog may be restricted for foreigners, so depending on the situation and the road we intended to continue further south or make our way westwards to the famous Langmusi Monastery in neighbouring Sichuan.
A. Start Point: Xining 西宁
The road trip began in Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, right near the Qilian wholesale butter shop on the street that divides the Tibetan Market from the Muslim Quarter. It was an auspicious place to start, near those fat golden rounds of yak butter, where the Tibetan traders pass by in one direction to do business in tents, felts, furs, turquoise and coral, and the Muslims walk in the opposite direction to buy tea, mutton, apricots, peaches and rounds of thick white bread in the street markets behind the mosque.
Xining is a fascinating small city, ethnically diverse, and filled with temples, mosques and monasteries. Sitting at 2300m altitude it’s a great place to spend a couple of days acclimatizing before heading into the high country further south.
B. Guide 贵德
Guide (pronounced Gway-duh) is the first stop on the S101 as you pass from green pastures into more arid countryside with deep red canyons and spectacular eroded land forms. There are beautiful little garden restaurants lining both sides of the highway with fruit trees, butterflies and flowers enclosed in walled gardens where you can eat simple country food.
Just south of Guide township and directly off the highway is the Guide Zhakanbula Geological Park
C. Ningxiu village 宁秀
Our first stop for the night was in Ningxiu village, a predominantly Tibetan village where one long, wide road bisected the low buildings. There were a couple of small grocery stores selling dried goods and tin pots, and two dumpling restaurants, one Tibetan, the other Hui Muslim.

Walking along the main street we met, quite possibly, all the inhabitants of the village who came outdoors to meet us and take photographs. I found it extraordinary that they, handsome and black-haired, some in traditional dress of heavy wool coats lined with coloured silk, would find us interesting and exotic. Us in our rough traveling clothes and comfortable shoes.
We spent the night in a tiny five-roomed guest house with an outhouse and a coal-fired stove in each room to guard against the cold mid-summer night air. Our fellow guests, Tibetan families on their way to or from somewhere else, spent much of the evening sitting on our beds and watching us, smiling.
Smoking ‘baccy and sniffing snuff. With prayer beads.
Just outside the village is a beautiful set of prayer flags on a small hill. The prayer flags are printed all over with Buddhist prayers and powerful Buddhist symbols, and when blown in the wind they spread good will and compassion to all.
D. Shizang Monastery 石藏寺

Our next day’s drive took us to Shizang Monastery, a small Tibetan Buddhist Monastery we found on one of our Qinghai maps. It doesn’t seem to exist in any guide books but like most monasteries you can visit freely. It lies down a spectacular winding green valley about ten kilometres east of the S101 (there is a small sign on the road in Chinese).

Shizang means ‘hidden by stone’ but is also a homonym for the Buddhist Canon. It didn’t really have any significant meaning until we reached the end of the valley where an imposing red rock cliff rises up from a riverbed, revealing the monastery hiding behind it. A twenty metre Guanyin is carved and painted into the cliff face as you approach.

The monastery itself is rather plain from the outside, as Tibetan monasteries go, but inside is an unexpected riot of colour and pattern. We were shown around by a very kind monk who spoke a little Chinese. He told us all the other monks were away on vacation visiting their families – I hadn’t known monks had vacations but they are, many of them, students, and it is end of school year vacation in China. Even monks need a break sometimes.

I was entranced by the monastery shop – not a souvenir shop, but a grocery store where monks and those who worked at the monastery could buy goods – pot noodles, mosquito repellant, washing detergent, incense, prayer flags, yak fur boots. All your regular monkly goods.

E. Lajia Monastery 拉加寺
The mighty Yellow River is still very young and not so wide as it passes through the town of Lajia (Rogya in Tibetan). The town sits astride the river at the foot of immense red-purple sandstone mountains, and clinging to the mountain’s foot is a small and lovely monastery,  Lajia Monastery. It’s buildings line up in a row from river’s edge to mountain’s foot, each one higher than the last so the overall effect is of golden-roofed steps leading up the mountainside.
Lajia has several small hotels and guesthouses where you can spend the night, and plenty of Chinese, Hui Muslim and Tibetan restaurants.

F. Maqin 玛沁 (also known as Dawu 大武)

Maqin sits at a high altitude – 3300m – where the air is cool, clean and dry. It’s a fascinating place, stretched along a valley between rows of velvety green hills and far-off mountains. 

As the capital of the Guoluo (Golog) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture the town’s population is more than ninety per cent Tibetan, all of them wonderfully friendly and very curious.

The town’s main attraction is the Maqin Monastery, currently being expanded, and its incredible network of prayer flags covering the hillsides above the monastery like a phantasmagoric spider’s web, spreading as much good will and compassion as humanly possible.

For us though, Maqin was full of serendipity. Unable to get a bed in any of the town’s three main hotels (‘full’, ‘full’ and ‘full’ despite acres of empty rooms) we found a cosy guesthouse for next to nothing, and spent the day wandering the twisting streets leading up to the monastery – watching monks take on the local teens in a basketball game, and being invited inside many homes for bracing cups of yak butter tea, an acquired taste.

The high air brings everything into sharp intensity, including your heartbeat and your breath, making you slow down, right down, and just take it all slowly in.

Footnote: From Maqin we planned to continue south further along the S101, but we had the distinct feeling that this would get us into strife and so we headed east towards Tibetan Gansu Province instead. More on that story in an upcoming post on Langmusi Monastery.

Tips for Driving the S101
There are daily direct flights to Xining from Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and many other Chinese cities. (see Ctrip for details)
Shanghai-Xining 3.5 hours, from 1500rmb direct
Beijing-Xining 2.5 hours, from 1450rmb direct
Xian-Xining 1.5 hours, from 620rmb direct
Chengdu-Xining 1.5 hours, from 950rmb direct
Car Hire
We used a local Xining car rental company – email me at for details. They can drop the car at your hotel and pick it up afterwards. One way rental is also possible (eg Xining to Chengdu) for an extra fee.
A Chinese Driver’s License is required, and a cash deposit of 6,000rmb. The car company needs a rough itinerary in advance.
Daily rental varies – we paid 380rmb ($US65) per day including insurance for a VW Passat.
The ideal vehicle (and what we will hire next time) is a 4WD. Many roads and parts of the highway are very rugged and a 4WD would have been much more comfortable and given us more flexibility.
Good detailed maps of Qinghai Province are available from the Xinhua Bookstore in Xining, on the ground floor.
In the areas we travelled through Tibetan was the primary language spoken. We were always able to find someone who spoke a little Chinese. English was rarely spoken.
In Xining Chinese is the primary language and most large hotels have some English speaking staff.
Parts of Qinghai Province are restricted to foreigners. Check with Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum before you go, and get local information in Xining at one of the hostels or from local police. The area south of Golog is currently restricted.