In a small, sun-drenched town in Central Asia, we stumbled upon the best damn noodles in China.
Xinjiang is China's equivalent of the American west, and Uygurs are the gastronomically fortunate people who inhabit the region. Imagine the American West, with its vast, dry, spaghetti-western landscapes. Then add camels, mosques, and green oases. And noodles.
Timur, our guide in Turpan, wanted to take us somewhere fancy for lunch, but everything was closed for Ramadan. Let's just go, we suggested, where you would typically grab lunch--if you weren't observing Ramadan, that is. Timur thought for a moment, and then stepped on the gas. A moment later, we arrived at his favorite lunch spot: east of Turpan's pleasant town center, on the north side of Luzhou Donglu and within walking distance of the Oasis Hotel. That's where we discovered lagman.
Lagman is a hearty, meat-and-vegetables soup which is served over noodles. You may be picturing Campbell's soup over ramen, but that's wrong; lagman combines tomatoes, cilantro, and cumin (an ubiquitous spice in the region) to create a flavor unique to Central Asia. Ladled over thick, chewy noodles, garnished with a handful of chives, and splashed with black rice vinegar, you have the best noodles we tasted in Northern China--a distinction not lightly granted.
Upon returning from China, I looked high and low for information about the food in Xinjiang, and particularly a recipe for lagman. I didn't find any recipes which resembled the lagman in Turpan, not even stinkers (see Internet Recipes for the Unwary). Then, miraculously, Julia Moskin's article on Bukharian restaurants appeared in the New York Times: The Silk Road Leads to Queens. It contained a recipe for lagman which sounded promising. Excellent timing!
The word lagman, by the way, derives from the Chinese la1 mian4 (pulled noodles). Upon ordering in the restaurant, a loud thumping sound ensues from the back kitchen. This is the sound of the noodle chef throwing his dough against the counter, in preparation for hand-pulling the noodles. Hand-pulled noodles are hard to find outside of China, but you cannot use dried noodles in this dish because the thick, chewy texture of fresh noodles is important. See the recommendation below.
Adapted from Julia Moskin's New York Times recipe for Shurpa Lagman (Jan 18, 2006), in turn adapted from a recipe by Gulya Pinkhasov.
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1.5 pounds boneless lamb stew meat, cut into 1-inch chunks
- I substituted beef shank
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 10 cups beef stock
- 2 carrots, cut into 0.5-inch dice
- 2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, cut into strips
- 1 28-ounce can diced plumb tomatoes, with juice
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1.5 tsp ground cumin
- 0.5 tsp hot pepper flakes
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- salt to taste
Chinkiang rice vinegar (black rice vinegar--no substitute)
- Chinese chives (jiu3 cai4), chopped into 1/2-inch lengths
- briefly blanched? Dunk them in the boiling noodle water.
- 8 ounces fresh Chinese noodles (thick), boiled
- these are wheat noodles, not rice sticks or bean threads
noodles must be fresh (not dried)--the thick, chewy texture is critical
- I prefer fresh Korean noodles, found in the refrigerator case at the Asian grocer, because they keep well
- Thick "Shanghai" noodles also work
- In large, heavy pot, heat oil over high heat and brown meat, turning occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add onions and stir often, until softened and slightly colored.
- Pour off fat, if any. Add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 1.5 hours. Add carrots, peppers, tomatoes, tomato paste, cumin, hot pepper flakes, coriander, cilantro, and salt to taste. Simmer, uncovered, 30 minutes more. If flavors seem flat, stir in vinegar 1 tablespoon at a time, until bright and tasty. Cover and let stand 15 minutes.
- Put noodles in bowls, ladle stew over noodles. Add enough stew to flavor the noodles, but not too much--the noodles should not be swimming in stew. Refer to the picture above.
- Cover noodles with a generous handful of chives
Serve noodles with black vinegar, which the diner pours over the noodles. For added authenticity, serve with fatty lamb shishkabobs, tea, and hot, starchy noodle water in a chipped bowl.
in progress: pressure cooker recipe
The Uygurs have great food, and they know it: Uygur World Website
Julia Moskin's great NYT article about Bukharian restaurants in Queens appeared: The Silk Road Leads to Queens.