Thursday, July 7, 2016

Qinghai, Ramen Roots - Part 1: Food



Why on earth was I out in the middle of China, in the middle of summer, on a bus full of other bloggers and YouTubers? Surely there are plenty of great bowls to search out (there are!) here in Japan. Surely there are more populous places in China with more noodle shops than Qinghai, one of the country's largest provinces in terms of size, but smallest in terms of population.

Map showing the location of Qinghai Province
(By TUBS -

Qinghai is large, indeed!


Well, I had the honor of being invited, that's why! Qinghai is one of the country's fastest growing provinces, and with the support of the local tourism board, groups of tourists were set loose on the land for a week. If you can read Chinese, there is some info over here (maybe, I don't read Chinese much).


It was me, the Ramen Adventurer, along with a dozen other influential travel and lifestyle bloggers from around the world. At first, I ate a slice of humble pie (or slurped a bowl of humble noodle), as the others on this trip, whom you'll meet if you read my next few posts, have followings that are 10 to 100 times mine.

But Qinghai has a draw for the ramen hunter. I'm constantly following the future of ramen, seeing how it is evolving and changing, but I rarely delve into the history. Stepping back through the ages will take you to Qinghai.


It doesn't get much more historic than this. These are the oldest noodles ever found in an archaeological dig. Four thousand years. And though the infamous Silk Road dates back about half that time, noodle culture from the region spread along trade routes, no doubt influencing the noodles we slurp today.

Routes of the Silk Road.

Alas, this wasn't a noodle-centric trip. If it had been up to me, we would have been chopstick-deep in 面 (mian - noodles) from the get-go. Noodles, as I would learn, are reserved as more of a staple food. You think the local tourism board wants us eating nonstop noodles?


No way! If you want to eat well, China is an amazing country. The above, crispy fried yak, set the standard for the week. Lots of meat, lots of spice, and lots of flavor. They say there are five million people in Qinghai, and five million yaks. Better make that 4,999,999 yaks.


Cheers! Ganbei!


If you aren't ready for the unusual, it's best to drink up!


Baozi are everywhere. Steamed buns filled with everything from shredded carrots to spiced mutton. As long as they are served hot, I could survive off these. anyone?


When I travel, I am happy to take part in local customs. I'm ecstatic when those customs involve drinking.


But when those customs require you to drink three shots of local barley hooch? Multple times? Having to drink with five people means 15 shots of ?? - baijiu.


Adam's first drink of many. His drinking would lead to some interesting stories. Keep an eye on his site, Duffel Travel, for some epic drone videos. Yes, he had a drone. No, we weren't allowed to use it.


Kiersten needed as much as she could handle for the next course. Of course, as the Blonde Abroad, she's sure to try the local delicacies.


The famous ????, caterpillar fungus. Basically, this fungus is a parasite that infects the ghost moth larvae, kills it, and mummifies it. Then, to add insult to injury, it grows a fruiting body out of the caterpillar's head, which releases new spores. Appetizing? They are used in traditional Tibetan medicine, and larger, high grade ones can be around $50,000 a pound.


Eggs fried up with nostoc commune, a kind of algae that grows on the high altitude grasslands of Qinghai. Surprisingly tasty, with hints of umami.


While the tourism board was doing their best to wow us with the variety of local flavors, I had noodles on my mind. I searched the net, asked the hotel, and even tried to enlist the help of locals to find the best of the best.

But everywhere I turned, people just gave me streets. Go to mojia jie, an alley toward the south, or xuefu xiang to the north, and just pick any shop with people in it. That was the extent of the advice I would receive.


The Japanese language was formed, historically, from other Asian countries, and many Chinese characters are similar in Japan. Although the character for noodles is 麺 in Japan, it is 面 in China. Close enough. So 拉麺 (ramen) must be 拉面! It's so easy! And 干 means dried, so this place must serve soupless ramen.


Score! Soupless beef ramen to be exact. Ethnic Muslims are a major part of Qinghai's population, so you'll find a lot more beef ramen than pork.

What else is on the menu?


I was out with Yuka and Christine, and they wanted something as vegetarian as possible. At 14? (about two bucks) the 土 looked like a possibility. 土豆 Dirt bean?


Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh! Potato! A dirt bean is a potato.


Consensus? Simple.

A simple noodle, made by hand in house, smothered in sauce and spice. I found all the noodles on this trip doughier than Japanese ramen noodles, and much heavier in the stomach. Locals came and went for a quick bite, obviously leaving much fuller than before.


Yuka from Experience JAPAN with Yuka and Christine from Grrrl Traveler.

I've been told that most shops are the same, and quick glances at passing menus seems to confirm this. I'm sure the locals supplement their orders with all sorts of toppings; pickled vegetables, tofu skins, and various animal innards were common.


The drinking (always three shots) was continuous.


One of our group members had a few too many, and found himself in a situation.



Drink too much and end up with a ring on your finger (in this case an orange silk scarf around you neck).


More 面, but when you are with a group, you take part in the same Chinese food ritual as you do in America, England, or Australia; you share.


Charcoal-fueled hotpot with a broth to die for.


What about the vegan in the group. Well, that food report is easy, she ate dragon fruit morning, noon, and night.


Yes, those are sprinkles on the mango-orange sauce. Although I love to learn about local food, some things I just don't bother asking about.


On a boy's night out, I really should have ordered this. What are acid noodles?


Instead we had an order of some of the best meat all week. English title on the menu? Grandma's Beef.

Essentially spicy beef jerky. Love the maraschino cherry garnish.


Is that, an entire roasted goat, for us?

No, it's for the wedding upstairs. Nicer Chinese restaurants have all levels of cuisine, and a special occasion calls for a special dish.


People say not to eat fish when you are nowhere near the ocean, but these fish rolls were addictive. If you are worried, Qinghai has no lack of beef and yak to keep you satisfied.


And plenty of dirt beans!


Most higher-end shops had this on the menu. Yes, that is sashimi. I'm happy that the local economy feels it necessary to offer something special, but that looks terrifying.


The most unexpected yum of the trip; battered tomato slices covered in sugar. Who knew!


All the bloggers, from all the countries could agree; we ate very well in Qinghai.


This beef dish was as good as it looks, but it held a surprise.


Noodles sizzled on the bottom.


From the same shop, 角面, noodle squares. A bit hard to eat with chopsticks, but this dish can be found all over China, in many flavors of sweet or savory.

Another theme with noodles in China is ease of prep. Big, expensive noodle machines give Japanese noodles some of their character, but here it's all done by hand.


You know your final dinner is going to be good when you can watch a direct feed into the kitchen.


Fried fruits stuffed with rice.


Puff pastry filled with pumpkin and red bean.


Grandma's beef!


Braised beef rib with a rich sauce. I know this is a luxury food, but I would love to see a couple slices on a nice, simple bowl of local ramen.


A mystery fish, braised in a spicy sauce. If someone can tell me what this is I'll add it here.


And of course, three shots with the head of Qilian's tourism board.

More stories about Qinghai, and some more bowls of 面, coming soon!

Part 2: Places.
Part 3: People.