34 Province Project: Qinghai 青海

Qinghai, “Blue Sea”, seems a singularly inappropriate name for this vast, landlocked, largely arid and barren province in the middle of western China. The name comes from its most famous feature, the strikingly blue Lake Kokonor (“Blue Lake” in Mongolian), calqued into Qinghai in Chinese.

Much of Qinghai is off limits to tourists without a permit, but in 2018 we stopped in provincial capital Xining for couple of days to acclimatise and paid a visit to nearby Kumbum Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s alma mater, before continuing onwards to Tibet. Historically, near all of Qinghai was in fact a part of the Tibetan province of Amdo, but the city is now overwhelmingly Han Chinese and it’s the Hui (Han Chinese) Muslims with their white skullcaps and green halal restaurants that are a much more visible minority now.

Consequently there isn’t really a unique “Qinghai cuisine” to speak of, and Wikipedia happily lumps it under the broader umbrella of Chinese Islamic cuisine, meaning the same kebabs, lamb, naan, yogurt and hand-pulled noodles we saw earlier in neighbouring Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia. Probably the most interesting dish I personally ran into was niàngpí (酿皮), wobbly giant noodles a solid square centimeter in diameter, served with a chilli-vinegar sauce and some breadlike pieces of fu (wheat gluten). Alas, the only restaurant in Singapore that used to serve the stuff, Alijiang once again, has dropped it from the menu, probably because nobody here knew what the hell it is.

Nevertheless, to my general astonishment, there is one Qinghai restaurant in Singapore! Yi Zun (伊尊) is a Chinese-Muslim halal restaurant specialising in beef noodles, and while they style themselves as Xinjiang cuisine, it’s run by Madam Aisha, who hails from Qinghai. Located in trendy Joo Chiat, the location seems a bit odd until you realise it’s right next to the heart of Singapore’s Muslim community in Geylang Serai. They briefly dropped off the Internet last year and I was afraid they had joined a long list of COVID casualties, but they’re doing fine and if anything the shop looks like it’s very recently completed a spiffy renovation, with a rather fascinating wall mural covering everything from the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow to camels in the Gobi Desert and the Great Wall, a completely pointless server bot wandering around, and a large framed poster of Madam Aisha beaming down on none other than Madam Aisha in the flesh.

The star of the show here is the Lanzhou-style Signature Beef Noodles we already taste tested in the Gansu episode, and they’re a worthy competitor to previous champion Western Mahua. The noodles are made to order, come in a selection of widths according to your liking, are served in a single long strand the way Allah intended them to be, and have just the right amount of chewiness (or “QQ”, as they like to say in Singapore). Excellent, although Western Mahua still has the edge because I found their mala chilli sauce tastier than the chilli-only variety here.

On the side, we had Xinjiang Skewers, and much to my amazement the mutton skewers came served on sticks of red willow (红柳 hóngliǔ), the first time I’d seen this since Xi’an. Unfortunately, the meat itself was kind of chewy with chunks of cartilage, and while we’d ordered the “mild spicy”, what we actually got was closer to nuclear spicy. The non-spicy beef skewers were better overall but not particularly exciting, so Western Mahua’s sister restaurant Alijiang maintains the edge here as well.

And that, somewhat regrettably, is pretty much it as far as Qinghai dishes are concerned, the rest of the menu is a halal-ified collection of Sichuanese and Cantonese staples like chicken siu mai, mala xiang guo and — my personal favorite — what the menu proclaims to be the “Xinjiang classic” of Chongqing-style grilled barramundi fish, this for a province that literally holds the Guinness World Record for being the land farthest from the sea. But hey, Qinghai is the “Blue Sea” after all, so maybe I’ll let them have their barramundi and flop onto the next province like a fish out of water.

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34 Province Project: Ningxia 宁夏

Ningxia (“Peaceful Xia”), formally the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, just might be the most obscure out of all 34 Chinese provinces. Carved out of Gansu only in 1958 to give China’s Hui Muslims a notional homeland, it’s small in size, small in population, and wedged up against the Gobi Desert and Inner Mongolia, firmly out of the way as far as the course of Chinese history is concerned. The Xia (夏) of the name means “summer”, and shares the character with the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty of 2500 BC, but it actually refers to the Western Xia (Tangut), a Tibeto-Burman people who ruled these parts from the late 800s to 1227. In that fateful year, Genghis Khan attacked for the sixth time and completed what may be the first recorded case of successful genocide, giving the Tanguts a choice between “peacefully” joining his horde (hence the name) or death, and consigning the Western Xia to historical oblivion.

Given this cheerful history, Ningxia is not exactly a culinary hotspot, its primary historical export being the recently trendy “superfood” of goji berries (枸杞 gǒuqǐ) and its best-known dish being hand-picked lamb (手抓羊肉 shǒuzhuā yángròu), although even this simple dish of boiled mutton eaten by hand is widely eaten in the entire Mongol-sphere. Even the Hui Muslims who the region is supposed to be for form only a small minority (30% or so), and the heart of their culture lies in cities like Shaanxi‘s Xi’an to the south.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out that Ningxia is now best known in China for grape wine. Famously, in a blind taste test of 5 Ningxia wines against 5 top-flight Bordeauxs, the top four slots all went to Ningxia wines.

Once again ordering online from Ang Leong Huat, I picked up a $35 2019 Riesling from Kanaan Winery, with some trepidation: Chinese wines tend to be sweet, and Riesling can swing either way. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a crisp, lemony tipple, quite light in an almost NZ Sauvignon Blanc way. Definitely my favorite Chinese wine to date!

Drinks sorted, it was time to get my hands on some of that hand-picked lamb, and one of the few places in Singapore that offers this is Alijiang in Vivocity. Attentive readers will doubtless recall that this was one of the very first restaurants visited back in episode #1, Xinjiang, which also makes this the first restaurant to cover two provinces. With COVID measures mostly rolled back, it was busier than ever (reserve a table!) and we ordered up a feast. What the English menu calls Hand-Shred Mutton is Dōngxiāng shǒuzhuāròu (东乡手抓肉) in Chinese, a tip of the hat to the Muslim Dongxiang people who live in a corner of Gansu near Qinghai. $38 gets you a plate of 8 fatty lamb ribs, steamed until so soft that they do, indeed, fall off the bone if you so much as poke at them — delicious! The bean paste dip on the right was kinda meh, and raw onion was raw onion, but the chilli dip in the middle was great, far less spicy than it looks and a nice accompaniment to everything including the naan bread. Ningxia wine not featuring on the menu, we washed it down with Wusu Beer (乌苏啤酒) from Xinjiang, whose primary selling points are apparently that the bottle is large and the alcohol content is high; the taste, alas, was distinctly watery. Interestingly enough, Wusu is also fully owned by Carlsberg, meaning that the profits from both hipster Beijing brew Jing-A and this stuff flow back to Denmark.

Doubling down on lambtastic action, we also ordered Alijiang’s most heavily advertised specialty, “Grilled Lamb in Cage” (架子肉 jiàziròu, “shelf meat”), an actual Uyghur speciality from southern Xinjiang but popular mostly for the theatrics: true to the name, the lamb comes attached to a brass cage with a flame for show in the middle. It’s carved up at your table and served, incongruously enough, with a slice of not-so-Xinjiang roasted pineapple on the side. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, fatty but not excessively so, this was the top dish of the day and disappeared in a flash.

For dessert, we had a complimentary if equally inauthentic display of Uyghur dancing. The soft serve machine was broken, but at least the bill was accurate this time: $150 for 4. So can I now say been there, done that for Ningxia? Not quite, but hey, even this was a lot further than I thought I’d get in Singapore. Onward!

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