Luminous with a trillion LEDs, Xining rises out of the arid plains like Las Vegas, were it designed by Ridley Scott. Tradition and technology collide under cyberpunk skyscrapers. Walking around, you notice the patrons of ramshackle street carts using QR codes to pay for singular snack-food skewers, and reading interactive restaurant menus on their own smartphones while unwrapping shrink-wrapped crockery.
A city sitting on the roof of the world, Xining is the capital of Qinghai, perched up at nearly 7,500ft on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s been a city of historic importance for more than 2,100 years, as a commercial hub on the Northern Silk Road’s Hexi Corridor, and as a strategic stronghold of China’s western frontier under the Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. After constant warfare during the seventh and eighth centuries, it was under Tibetan control from 763-1104, until the Song Dynasty wrestled it back, and named the city Xining, meaning ‘peace in the west’.
Today, Xining is growing at an exponential rate. The city’s population is a mix of Hui Muslims, Han Chinese, Tu (Monguaor people), and Tibetans: an ethnic brew that stirs together key ingredients of each cuisine into intoxicating infusions. What ties them all together is that staple of this part of the world: noodles. Oodles of noodles in every conceivable style, from tiny one-inch squares, to two-foot long, hand-stretched marvels just waiting to be noisily slurped down…
Ma zhong Snack Centre, Mojia Jie street
Amid the brightly lit, noisy food court, tables are crammed with strangers greedily slurping from the rims of bowls, all the while conducting the cacophonous chorus with redundant chopsticks acting as duel-pronged batons.
I hungrily scoop in a mouthful of the jumbo, cuboid noodles before me, and freeze after my first bite. My eyes widen as I meet the gaze of the elderly Chinese woman sitting opposite me; she continues to masticate hers with impassive inscrutability. I wasn’t expecting them to be cold! They taste like savoury, spicy oblongs of jelly.
With no waiting staff, customers order their liangfen directly from the frantic cooks, either by joining the long queue at the service hatch that faces the street outside, or via the doorway to the kitchen that opens onto the food court. It’s from here that I’m offered a front-seat view of how my meal was prepared.
With assembly-line precision, mung bean starch is mixed with water and the resulting off-white liquid is poured into shallow pans, then submerged in boiling water. When it surfaces, solidified and rubbery, it’s put aside to cool, and then lifted out as translucent, jellified sheets, which are then folded and chopped into chunky rectangular prisms. Finally, they’re smothered in soy sauce, vinegar and chilli, and then topped with ginger and spring onion sauce.
The dish tastes like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. What really makes it is that mouth-watering sauce, as the elderly lady in front of me testifies — she lifts the bowl to her lips and hurriedly hoovers the last of it up before making her escape.
Lao Changsha Chou Doufu, Shuijing Xiang (food street)
A mixing pot of cultures — and mysterious, dark broths swimming with octopus skewers, like the miniature set of a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion sea monster — Shuijing Xiang Market is a phantasmagoria of food. Alive with the sounds of frying, this narrow alley is a boiling, bubbling hubbub of gastronomy: the atmosphere is so thick with rich, meaty aromas, you could carve it with a knife.
Amid this melee of cart vendors and modified rickshaw moto-scooters peddling every conceivable halal mystery-meat on sticks, and tiny shops selling machine-plaited, crunchy bread twists, is Lao Changsha Chou Doufu.
From their hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Huang Ju Xiang and her husband, Gonajie, dish up ‘stinky tofu’, a Chinese delicacy served in the celebrated Changsha-style of their hometown: deep-fried, foul-smelling, obsidian chunks.
The dish is prepared by first fermenting bean curd in a brine of milk, vegetables or meat, over the course of months. Accordingly, their store front smells like rotting rubbish — a trademark of stinky tofu, the stench of which is also sometimes compared to sweaty socks — but that does nothing to dissuade the legions of patrons, clutching handfuls of designer bags, who crowd around the stall for a post-shopping snack.
The couple only moved to the rapidly expanding city of Xining from Changsha six months before, to capitalise on the city’s burgeoning economy. Business, they say, is booming.
I brace myself and order up a bowl of their signature smelly soy bean curd, opting for the spicy variety, served with coriander, pickled radish and lots of chilli. Shuijing Xiang Market clearly doesn’t receive too many western visitors and as my dinner is cooked, both customers and the shop owners crowd around to surreptitiously snap smartphone pictures, or line up to take selfies with me. I feel like Ringo at the height of Beatlemania, in as much as I’m being filmed eating my dinner, but I’m not yet being trampled as if I were one of the more popular Fab Four.
Ensconced in the back of the shop, I breathe through my mouth and take a bite into the malodorous meat substitute. The crispy black coating immediately gives way to a succulent white centre, which packs a flavour punch rather like Bovril, and once my taste buds take over, its olfactory impact is immediately muted. It’s really quite tasty although, contrary to conventional culinary wisdom, I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to try it without heaps of chilli.
Fifing Lu, Da Zhong Jie Street
I’m being watched intently. While in some Chinese restaurants you’re encouraged to hand-pick each ingredient and the type of noodles you want, it’s clear that here you’re supposed to stick to the set menu. I’m being scrutinised by the chef and the other patrons — ladies in headscarves with faces pasted white with zinc oxide — as something of an oddity, while I munch down their celebrated lamian noodles in a decidedly off-menu sauce.
The spartan, ceramic-tiled Fifing Lu is a Hui Muslim restaurant near Dongguan Mosque, well known for its traditional long noodles, which are made to order for each dish. The chef rapidly kneads the dough, then stretches it out and swings it like a skipping rope (stopping short of vaulting over it), which elongates under its own weight, folding it into two, four, eight, 16, 32 and then ever-finer strands, before dumping them into a huge pan of boiling water. The whole process, from order to bowl, takes less than four minutes. Feeling a little self-conscious, it takes me about that long to eat them.
Published in the Qinghai guide, free with with the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)