Georgian food is quite different from Central Asian food; if I had to describe it simply, it’s like a fusion of Russian and Turkish cuisine. I’ve only had Georgian food in restaurants here in NYC, but loved what I’ve tried. Some foods, like the famous khachapuri cheese bread, are rich and hearty, reminiscent of Eastern European cuisine; others, like khinkali dumplings or tolma stuffed grape leaves show the influence of Central Asia or the Middle East.
Chakhokhbili is a Georgian dish of stewed chicken made with a special mix of herbs and spices called khmeli-suneli. Reading the label, khmeli-suneli has: marjoram, dill, thyme, basil, celery, mint, parsley, coriander, safflower, summer savory, red pepper, hyssop, black pepper, fenugreek, and bay leaves. I found it in Kalustyan’s. If you can’t find it, just use your favorite herbs. Probably just marjoram and thyme would be a decent substitute.
This recipe is from BigGeorgeHighlander, watch his Youtube recipe here (in Russian).
Chicken, chopped into medium sized pieces – 1lb
Onion, diced – 1 medium sized onion
Garlic, finely diced – 4-5 cloves
Basil, roughly chopped
Cilantro, roughly chopped
Diced tomatoes – 1 can or a few tomatoes
Khmeli-suneli spice mix
Red chili pepper, finely diced
1. Sautee the chicken in oil over high heat.
2. After the chicken is browned, add the onion and cook until soft.
3. Add the red chili pepper and cook everything for a bit.
4. Add black pepper and a few teaspoons of khmeli-suneli and mix everything together.
5. Add the diced tomato and a bit of sugar.
6. Turn to low heat, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
7. Add salt, garlic, and the basil and cilantro. Cook everything together for a bit. Complete!
My quest for perfect Uyghur nan bread is still ongoing. In the seven years since I was in Xinjiang, I have never eaten anything like the freshly baked nan bread sold in the streets. Of course, there are countless different varieties of bread being sold – but my favorite was the big, disc-shaped bread. Thick around the edges and thin in the middle, slightly oily and usually topped with sesame and sometimes onion or other spices, it is sold on the street in every city in Xinjiang for only 1-2 kuai.
I’ve eaten at several Uighur, Uzbek, and other Central Asian restaurants in the US since then and I’ve never found it. They serve a bread called лепёшка(lepyoshka) in Russian that is thick and bready, but nothing even resembling the big disc bread.
The big oily round bread is not the only type of bread in Xinjiang. One other variety is a big, round, thick, extremely dry bread that can be stored for a long time. Other nationalities in the region (like Kyrgyz, Kazakhs) make this bread too. I remember visiting a Kyrgyz yurt where the hosts kept a big partially eaten round of dry bread in the corner covered with some cloth. They took it out and served it to us with tea. This bread is usually eaten with soup, sauce, or other liquid as it is too dry to eat on its own. Yet another common variety resembles a bagel, or more precisely, a bialy. We’ll cover this variant in part 2.
My own attempts have been getting better after many tries and many burned or misshapen breads. I’ve gotten good results with a pizza stone, but I suspect the perfect nan bread requires a tandoor oven. FarWestChina has a good post and video about how Uyghur bread is made in Xinjiang.
Before buying some bread stamps in Uzbekistan for cheap ($2-3 for each one), I bought an Uyghur bread stamp from Taobao – just do a search for 囊戳子 and you’ll find plenty of them. You can sometimes find bread stamps on Ebay or Etsy as well. The stamp certainly helps give the bread the right look, but I have used a fork plenty of times with decent results. Finally, in New York, Fortuna grocery in Brooklyn sells bread stamps (they keep them behind the cashiers where they sell plates and teapots).
This bread tastes good by itself and especially with soup or sauce (like dimlama or dapanji). I also like eating it for breakfast with kefir or yogurt.
Ingredients Flour (experiment with all purpose or bread flour, they will give different results)
Warm water. Ratio of flour to water by volume: 3 to 1. By weight: 1.5:1.
Directions 1. In a large bowl, make a mountain of flour and indent the middle. Pour warm water into the middle, add 1/3-1/2 packet of dry yeast and a bit of sugar. Mix well and let stand for a few minutes. When it has gotten frothy, add the salt and the egg in. Then mix everything well, adding water as needed.
2. When everything is well mixed, flour a surface and knead the dough for 10 minutes until it no longer sticks to your hands.
3. Lightly oil a bowl and put the kneaded dough ball in, cover with a cloth and let rest for at least 40 minutes in a warm place.
4. When the dough has finished resting, punch it down and knead it a bit more. You will have to eyeball how much dough you want to use for how big/thick you want your bread.
5. Roll the dough out into a round, flat circle. It should not be too thick or too thin, maybe a bit less than 1cm thick. Do not let the dough get too thin, or it will burn when you bake it! Let the dough rest for another 20 minutes.
6. Form an edge all around the bread with your hands. If you’ve rested the dough for long enough, it should mold easily without resistance.
7. Time to stamp down the center. If you have a bread stamp, stamp concentric patterns all around the center, making sure to press hard so the spikes go all the way through. If you don’t have a bread stamp, use a bottle or other round object to stamp around the center. Then use a fork to poke holes, poking all the way through. There should be holes all over the center. This helps prevent the center of the bread from rising up (we only want the edges to rise in the oven).
8. Lightly brush oil all over the top and sides of the bread. Then put the toppings onto the center, pressing in lightly so they stick. I usually use sesame and nigella seeds, sometimes with very finely diced onion. Some people also put black pepper and/or cumin seeds. Experiment with what you like; there is no fixed recipe.
10. Ready to bake. Put the dough into your 500F preheated oven (I use a pizza stone) and bake until the bread is golden brown all over (10-15 minutes). If you like, you can lightly brush the bread with oil after it is baked. Enjoy!
Morkovcha is an accident of history. Despite its name in Russian – морковь по-корейски (“carrots Korean-style”) – this dish is virtually unknown in Korea.
During the Stalin regime, the Soviet Union enacted mass deportations of various ethnic groups, moving them from their historical homelands to remote regions in other parts of the country. Koreans ended up in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, thousands of miles away from their homeland in northeast Asia. This population of Koreans living in Central Asia is known as the “Koryo saram.”
Morkovcha is essentially a type of kimchi made with ingredients that were readily available in Central Asia: carrots, vinegar, onions, and garlic. It’s a crisp, refreshing salad that goes well with Central Asian food, and is popular all across the former Soviet Union. It’s also very easy to make.
This recipe is from Natalia Kim’s website za100le.ru. Her Youtube channel has lots of Russian and Central Asian video recipes.
Directions 1. Cut the carrots into long, thin slices. I use a julienne slicer for this purpose. Salt the carrots, add vinegar, mix well, and let this sit for about half an hour.
2. The carrots will have given off juices. Drain the juice from the carrots, then add the other spices to taste. Make sure not to add too much coriander powder, as it can give the resulting salad a gritty texture. Mix well.
3. Chop up some garlic and put it in a pile on top of the salad.
4. Dice a small onion, fry until brown in oil, then pour the onion and hot oil over the garlic. Many Russian-influenced salads have this last step of pouring hot oil over the salad. You should hear a sizzling noise as the oil hits. Mix everything well.
Laghman noodles have a special place in my heart. If you go to Xinjiang, chances are you will eat lagman noodles – not only once, but many times, and maybe even every day. In fact, I’m pretty sure there were days I ate lagman more than once in a single day.
Laghman is probably one of the most Uyghur of Central Asian foods – while foods like kebab, plov, and naan can be claimed by many nationalities, noodles are an Uyghur specialty. The etymology of “laghman” is open to debate, but most agree it originally comes from Chinese 拉面(la mian), or literally “pulled noodles.” Hand-pulled Uighur noodles are a wondrous thing – thick with a nice bouncy chew to them.
There are as many different varieties of laghman as there are people making laghman, because there is no fixed recipe. It is noodles topped with a sauce of meat and vegetables. Basically anything is game – lamb, beef, chicken, green beans, bell pepper, bok choy, squash – whatever fresh vegetables are on hand. However, there are a few common points: onion, garlic, tomato sauce, and bell pepper are almost always present.
I have tried for a long time to recreate the taste of laghman noodles in Xinjiang. It is possible that after 7 years my memories of the taste have faded. So far, this is the closest version I’ve made.
This recipe is adopted from Abdulaziz Salavat’s videos (making the noodles and making the sauce). Uyghurs make pulled noodles differently from Chinese (who generally use the folding method, and use flour instead of oil to keep it from sticking). Abdulaziz, an experienced chef, makes noodle pulling look easy, but it is actually quite difficult. His noodles are made by rolling the dough with one hand and pulling with the other. However, if your technique or dough are off, your noodles will be uneven, too thick, or break off.
If you don’t want to pull noodles by hand, you can eat this dish with fresh flour-and-water noodles sold in Asian groceries. I make it this way for quick weeknight meals (making noodles by hand is a lengthy process). In NYC, I buy the Twin Marquis thick noodles sold at Hong Kong Supermarket or other Chinese groceries. They are a decent substitute for hand-pulled noodles, although the taste is a bit different. If nothing else is available, you could use udon noodles, but they aren’t the right shape/texture.
(or buy fresh premade noodles) Sauce: Meat (lamb or beef)
Chinese celery (or regular Western celery in a pinch)
Chili paste – I use the chili garlic sauce commonly sold at Asian groceries.
Chinese black vinegar
Fresh vegetables – Bell pepper, green beans, bok choy (just the white part, not the leaves). Feel free to substitute with whatever is fresh, although bell pepper at a minimum is a must.
Sichuan pepper (“hua jiao”) – optional, but gives a unique flavor
Noodle Making: 1. Make a dough of flour, salt, water, and egg, kneading well for 10-15 minutes. Then let it rest covered for 30min-1hr, making sure the dough does not dry out. After resting it, form it into a rectangular shape about 1cm thick and lightly brush with oil.
You might wonder about the point of resting dough with no yeast in it. It makes the dough easier to roll and stretch out later. Dough that is not rested tends to be resistant to shaping and difficult to work with.
2. Cut the dough into long pieces and roll them into a smooth cylindrical shape. You want these cylinders to be as smooth and regular as possible, because they will be stretched out into noodles and any imperfections will be magnified. Lightly oil a large round plate. Starting from the center, spiral the dough pieces over the entire plate. Lightly brush the coiled dough with oil. Then let these sit in the fridge covered in plastic wrap for at least 5-10 minutes.
What is the purpose of the magic coil? After making laghman many times, I’ve concluded that it 1) Gives the initial round shape to the noodles, to be pulled out later, and 2) allows you to oil them all at once, which is important so they don’t stick later, and 3) allows you to conveniently store them in a stable state that won’t easily dry out.
3. In this step I recommend you keep the dough coil in the fridge covered and work piece by piece, so the dough doesn’t dry out. Take a dough piece and roll it between your fingers to round out any uneven spots. Pull out the noodle piece and make it into a loop, holding both ends in one hand. Dangling the dough down from the ends, spin the bottom so it twirls up and braids itself. Then holding both ends again, pull it out, waving it up and down, and smacking it against the table. Fold the dough over on itself again and repeat the twirling and pulling. The noodles should be pretty thin by now – cut them so they’re a reasonable length and untwirl them. Don’t worry if they seem too thin, as they will swell up when you cook them.
Don’t fret if you end up breaking some noodles in the process – after they’re cooked you won’t notice much how long the pieces are. However, if your dough is constantly breaking, it could be mean that it wasn’t kneaded enough to begin with. After the noodles are finished, either cook them immediately or cover them with plastic wrap and store in the fridge – you don’t want them to dry out.
4. Bring water to a rolling boil in a cauldron and lightly salt. Put in the noodles – don’t worry if it appears like they have stuck together in a mass of dough. If the dough was oiled correctly in previous steps, they will come apart. Poke with some chopsticks to separate out the noodles as they cook. After the water has returned to a rolling boil for a few minutes, taste a noodle – it should be al dente with a nice firmness to it – drain the noodles and rinse them with cold water in a sieve. Plate the cooked noodles and keep them aside for the sauce.
Prep: Slice the onions into half moons. Dice the garlic and celery leaves. Dice the tomatoes. Chop all the fresh vegetables into squares. Cut off the ends of the green beans and cut them into fairly small pieces (maybe 1/2 inch long). Optionally, marinate the meat with corn starch and soy sauce – this can help make it more tender. 1. Heat the wok to high heat, heat oil, then stir fry the meat over high heat. You will cook everything on high heat in one go. After the meat is nicely browned, add onions, cook till soft and golden brown, then add a splash of black vinegar.
2. Add 2-3 big spoons of tomato paste and 1 spoon of chili garlic paste, mixing everything well.
3. Add the celery, tomatoes, bok choi, bell pepper, green beans, and any other vegetables you want to add. Stir a bit after adding each vegetable.
4. Add some water or broth to make a sauce. After the water starts to boil, reduce to a simmer and put the meat back in if you removed it earlier. Add vinegar, soy, Sichuan pepper, and salt to taste. Finish it all off with some garlic, mix, and simmer a bit.
5. Dish the sauce over the cooked laghman noodles. Enjoy!
Lahmacun (pronounced “lah – ma – joon”) is a thin, crisp flatbread with a spicy ground meat topping baked directly into the crust, similar to a pizza. I know it from Turkey, but a similar dish is eaten in Armenia and in Middle Eastern countries, where it is also known as “manakeesh.” Some people roll it up and eat it like a shawarma; sometimes it is served sliced up into squares. In Turkey, when you order this dish, they serve you many pizzas at a time all stacked up, usually with some lemon to squeeze onto it.
It’s not an Uyghur or even Central Asian food – the closest thing in Uyghur cuisine is probably gosht nan or meat nan, which is more like a pie. But it is simple, tasty, and uses ingredients you can find in Central Asian cooking: meat, tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies, cilantro. I have no doubt lahmacun would be a hit in Urumqi. Consider it a dish from the far western end of the Silk Road.
Ingredients (makes 4-5 medium-sized pizzas) For the topping:
1/2 lb ground meat – Beef, lamb, or a mix.
1 medium onion
1 bell pepper
1 large tomato
1 head of garlic
Cilantro or parsley
Red pepper paste – This is a Turkish product and can be difficult to find. It has a sweet, smoky heat and a consistency similar to tomato paste. Middle Eastern grocers might carry it; I bought it in Kalustyan’s. Chili garlic paste, commonly available in Asian groceries, makes a decent substitute.
Tomato paste – optional if you use the red pepper paste and some diced tomatoes. Adds sweetness.
Red Chili Flakes
For the dough:
Flour (All purpose or bread flour)
Dough Making: 1. This is the standard flour/water/yeast/salt dough. In a large bowl, make a big mountain of flour, maybe one glassful. Make a depression in the flour and pour in warm water and about 1/3-1/2 packet of dry yeast.
2. Mix up the dough, adding water or flour as needed until you have a solid mass that you can work with your hands without sticking. Knead a few minutes until it is fairly firm and does not stick to your hands. Form it into a ball.
3. Lightly oil the inside of a bowl, put the dough ball inside, and cover with a cloth or plastic wrap. Let rest for about an hour.
Topping Making: 1. Finely dice the onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, and cilantro. You can blend these to make the topping smoother, but it isn’t required. Put into a container with the ground meat. Add the salt, pepper, paprika, red pepper paste and/or tomato paste, chili flakes, and oil. Mix everything well.
Pizza Making: This recipe assumes a pizza stone, but if you don’t have one, a baking pan with oiled foil or wax paper should work.
1. Take some dough and flatten it out on a well-floured surface. The dough should be almost paper-thin – much thinner than Americans are used to in pizza. You can stretch the dough on your fingertips and toss it from hand to hand to thin it out.
2. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F, then lower the temperature to 480 F.
3. Flour the pizza peel and put the dough onto the peel. Be very quick about the next step – the dough can start to stick if it sits too long.
4. Spread the topping onto the dough in a thin layer, pressing gently so it sticks, but not so hard that the dough sticks to the peel.
It’s much easier to add the topping when the dough is on the peel, than try to move the dough with toppings onto the peel.
5. Put the pizza onto the stone. If you have never used a pizza peel before, touch the end of the peel to the far end of the stone, then lift the handle so the peel is sloping downwards. The pizza should start to slide off. Briskly shake the peel as you pull it out of the oven and the pizza should settle onto the stone.
6. The pizza bakes relatively fast – around 6-7 minutes or until the edges are golden brown and the topping has been bubbling all over for a few minutes. Serve as-is or with some lemon slices and salad. Afiyet olsun!
My first encounter with Uyghur food was in the summer of 2007. I left on a 30-hour train from Xi’an, and got off in Turpan – a different world. Over the next few weeks, I became well-aquainted with laghman, kavap, polo, chuchvara, and other Uyghur foods as I traveled through Urumqi, westwards to Kashgar, and along the southern edge of the Tarim Basin to Hotan.
Seven years since, those places and that food have become almost mythical to me. Uyghur and Central Asian food has been a rare treat for me wherever I could find it – whether it be a Uyghur restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown that has long since closed, or an Uzbek restaurant in Seoul’s “Little Central Asia.”
Here are a few of my culinary obsessions:
A person could cook plov for years and never fully master it. Every time I cook plov, I learn something new about my technique, and find someplace to improve. There are so many variables – the choice of rice, the soaking time, the amount of oil, the amount of water, how much you cook the rice, how long you steam it – and countless different variations in the technique. Here is my post about cooking plov.
I have yet to find a restaurant that makes the hand-pulled, bouncy, chewy noodles like in Xinjiang. Same for “suoman” – pulled flat noodle pieces. Even the sauce does not taste quite the same as in Xinjiang – rich and savory with tomato, with a touch of sweet. Here is my post about cooking laghman.
3. Nan bread
I’ve had some decent renditions of laghman, but nowhere else in the world have I had any bread that comes remotely close to Uyghur bread in Xinjiang – specifically, the big disc-shaped bread that is flat in the middle, oily, and flavored with onion and spices. Uzbek restaurants make a type of bread called “lepeshka”, but this is often doughy and minimally flavored. Here is my post about baking nan bread: Uyghur nan bread and Uzbek nan bread.
Over the years, I searched for Uyghur recipes in an attempt to make it myself, but found almost nothing on the English-speaking web. Only recently did I discover that there is a wealth of information about Uyghur and Central Asian cooking available in Russian. It makes sense, given that most of Central Asia used to be part of the Soviet Union, and there are many expatriate Uyghurs living in these countries.
My two biggest resources have been:
1. Stalic Khankishiev. He is an amateur-turned-celebrity chef who runs a livejournal with detailed recipes and beautiful photos, and there are countless Youtube videos of his cooking shows. He’s also written several books, which I will review in another post. He is fairly well known in Russia, where most people are familiar with Central Asian food (almost all Russians have tried plov and shashlik, for example).
2. Abdulaziz Salavat. He is a professional chef who runs a Youtube channel with lots of detailed videos about Uyghur cooking.
Trying these recipes myself as someone who rarely cooked before, I found most of these recipes quite simple and forgiving for a beginning cook. It’s a blend of Eastern and Western cooking: like Eastern cooking, most dishes are simply fried or stewed without the complicated procedures of Western cooking; like Western cooking, many dishes are cooked relatively slowly, and the ingredients are few and easy to find in NYC groceries: meat, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, cumin, flour.
You may notice that I generally do not give measurements or quantities in my recipes. This is because the measurements and fussy parts of cooking were what turned me off from it originally. I like cooking simple food. I don’t mind labor intensive dishes, but I don’t like overly complicated recipes or too many ingredients. I never measure anything. Generally, your own common sense for the amounts will do just fine. The pictures should help give you an idea of proportions. If the proportions make or break the dish, I will point it out.
I am far from an expert on Central Asian food. With this blog, I will chronicle my experiences in cooking, and hope to share what I learn with others who want to recreate this amazing food at home. I appreciate any advice you have.
All photos on this site are my own work unless a different source is mentioned.