Soman: Uyghur chopped lagman noodles

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My version of Uyghur soman (дын-дын цомян, 丁丁炒面)

Soman is my absolute favorite Uyghur food. I have never been able to find it outside of China, and today I made it for the first time. It’s been nine years since I’ve eaten it!

Soman goes by a few names – sometimes just “soman”, sometimes “din din soman”, in Central Asia “дын-дын цомян”, and in Chinese 丁丁炒面(ding ding chao mian – literally “stir fried noodle cubes”). It’s essentially the same dish as lagman (recipe here), but the noodles are chopped up into little cubes before cooking. You get lots and lots of little noodle pieces that you can pick up and eat with a spoon – the closest analogue in Western cuisine is the German spaetzle. Despite being similar to lagman, it’s really a completely different eating experience!

Uyghur_Soman
Soman, as served in a small cafe in Niya/Minfeng on the edge of the Taklamakan desert.

As with lagman, the dish can be served in a stew, or stir fried with the toppings. This recipe is for the stew version, but the stir fried one is simple – just put less water in your sauce, then add the soman noodles after cooking and stir fry everything for a bit.

How to make the soman

The general process I follow is: 1) make the dough and rest it 2) do all the prep for the lagman 3) coil the dough into noodles 4) cook the lagman sauce and let simmer 5) chop up the noodles and cook them 6) serve.

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The magic noodle coil…those who don’t coil their noodles, will not make a good lagman.

The first few steps are exactly the same as in the laghman recipe. My only extra tip is to make sure your dough is not too dry, and that you don’t leave it out for too long. Soman is usually a bit thicker than lagman, and if it dries out, it’s possible for the center to not cook through.

1) After coiling the noodles, brush them well with oil and put them in the fridge for a bit. When you are ready to chop the noodles, start uncoiling the dough pieces and stretch each one out into a basic noodle shape. With soman, you don’t have to be as careful about making your noodles uniformly round & thin like lagman. Using a knife, start chopping the dough into little cubes. Pile the cubes up on an oiled plate.

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Chopping the noodles can take much longer than it seems. Try not to pile too many noodle cubes onto one plate, and put the plates into the fridge when full. Otherwise, the noodle pieces can end up sticking and melting together if you leave them for too long.

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2) Boil a pot of water and pour all your noodle pieces in! You may find that the noodle pieces have ended up sticking together and to the plate in one big mass of dough. Don’t fret – if you oiled them enough in the coiling stage, they should come apart in the boiling water. Use chopsticks to poke around in the noodles and make sure they separate and don’t stick to the bottom.

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3) After the water returns to a rolling boil for a few minutes, try the noodles. They should be al dente. Quickly remove all the noodles, place in a sieve, and briefly rinse in cold water and toss.

How to make the stew

The stew is the same as in the lagman recipe, but make sure you chop every ingredient (meat, vegetables) into a cube shape. The whole idea behind this dish is that everything is chopped up so you can eat it with a spoon.

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When the stew is done, plate the soman noodles and generously ladle the stew over it, making sure each plate has a good amount of sauce. Mix everything together in the plate a bit. Enjoy!

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Central Asia food report!

I’ve returned from a 2-week trip to Central Asia! I spent a week in Uzbekistan and a week in Kyrgyzstan, eating some of the foods I write about on this blog. Prior to this trip, it had been 8 years since I was last in Central Asia (in Xinjiang) so it was good to eat some old favorites and try some new foods.

Plov
Uzbekistan is the motherland of plov and it did not disappoint in this regard! I ate plov in every city I visited – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. Each region has its own plov variety, which I found really interesting as there is basically only one variant of plov(or “polo”) in Xinjiang. The Uzbek plov was generally oilier than mine, and their rice grain is different. I had been using basmati, but in Uzbekistan they use a thicker, rounder grain of rice, almost like risotto or Japanese sushi rice. Here’s my plov recipe.

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Plov in Bukhara.

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Plov in Samarkand. Note the chickpeas and how all the elements (rice, carrots, meat) are separate.

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Plov in Khiva. Note how the rice is all white.

Laghman
Finally, to eat laghman made by someone other than myself! While Indian biryani or even Turkish pilaf has some resemblance to plov, there’s basically nothing like laghman to be found in the West. I keep cooking and cooking laghman at home, and after 8 years away from Central Asia, sometimes began to wonder if anyone else on earth eats this dish. Here is my Uyghur lagman recipe.

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Uyghur-style laghman at Chinar restaurant in Bukhara

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Kovurma laghman at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

The traditional Uzbek lagman is more like a noodle soup with all sorts of vegetables and potatoes in it. It’s often flavored with dill. However, they do have other varieties of lagman like “kovurma lagman”, which resembles the Uyghur version (noodles with a sauce on top), and many restaurants sell Uyghur-style laghman as well. I personally much prefer my laghman with a sauce topping rather than in a soup.

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Guiru laghman at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

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Guiru laghman in Bishkek.

I was pleasantly surprised by the food in Kyrgyzstan, at least in the cities. While the traditional Kyrgyz food might not be that exciting, due to their location in between Uzbekistan and China they have some great restaurants serving Uzbek, Uyghur, and Dungan cuisine. The laghman was great, and actually surprisingly similar to the one I cook at home. Of course, since my own recipe comes from an Uyghur chef from Bishkek, perhaps it’s not so surprising.

Manti
A staple of our travels! This is one dish I rarely make at home because it’s just so time consuming; plus it’s easy to just buy frozen dumplings from the Chinese grocery even if they aren’t the same thing. But Central Asian manti are really quite special, especially with some yogurt sauce. Chuchvara soup is even more time consuming; I admit I’ve only done it myself once because it takes so long to fold all those tiny dumplings. Here is my manti recipe.

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Meat
In Kyrgyzstan I ate a dish called “kuurdak” which is very similar to “kazan kebab”(I haven’t posted the recipe yet). Basically roasted meat with potatoes. It’s rather oily, but very tasty.

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Kuurdak at an Uyghur restaurant in Osh.

I also ate plenty of shashlik/kebabs in Uzbekistan. Here’s a meal from a rest stop in the middle of the Kyzyl Kum desert on the road from Khiva to Bukhara. For being in the middle of a desert, they had surprisingly good food.

shashlik_lunchShashlik lunch at a rest stop in the Kyzyl Kum desert

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Shashlik at Besh Chinor restaurant in Samarkand

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On the left, “hasip”, a type of Uzbek sausage; on the right, “naryn”, cold noodles with horse meat. At “Miliy taomlar”(National foods) in Tashkent.

Bread
In Uzbekistan they generally make a big, puffy, round sort of bread as opposed to the flat disc-shaped bread you see in Xinjiang. I bought myself some Uzbek bread stamps in Samarkand – a cooking tool almost impossible to find in the West, though you can order one at quite some cost from China – details in my nan bread recipe. I found them in the Siyob bazaar in Samarkand, sold for 10,000 som each (around $2.50 USD). Not really a common tourist souvenir so may be hard to find outside of a bazaar, although I remember seeing them being sold in Khiva as well.

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Beautiful bread bought from Samarkand’s Siyob bazaar.

boor_sok
In Kyrgyzstan, they served a type of bread called “boor sok.” It’s little pockets of frybread, not unlike sopapillas. Very tasty. I’ll have to try making them at home.

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Uzbek bread stamps.

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G
osh nan or Uyghur meat pie. Here’s my recipe.

Cold dishes/appetizers
At every meal, some type of salad was served, usually with the bread. Typically a simple salad from tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, and a pinch of salt, but sometimes flavored with some fresh herbs too. You can see the little salad in most of the pictures above.

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Ashlyanfu at Arzu restaurant in Bishkek

I also got to try “Ashlyanfu”, which comes from Dungans (Chinese Central Asians). It’s a cold noodle soup with wheat noodles and mung bean jelly noodles. Sounds strange, but very good. I’ve yet to try making this one at home, maybe because it seems rather labor intensive (making the jelly noodles). In mainland China, they eat something similar called “liang pi”; I eat it sometimes at the Chinese places near my home.

Tea
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Naturally, green tea was served at every meal. Unlike in Xinjiang where people “wash” the tea bowls with some hot tea and then throw it out, in Uzbekistan they pour some tea into a bowl and then pour it back into the pot, sometimes multiple times. I picked up my own Uzbek teapot and tea bowls. They were selling all sorts of fancy elaborate porcelain in the tourist shops, but I really just wanted the same exact blue and white teapot that appears in almost every restaurant in Uzbekistan (it makes an appearance in a few of the pictures above). Luckily I found them in Siyob bazaar in Samarkand for cheap – a teapot and four bowls was around 25,000 som or $6 USD.

Hope you enjoyed the photos – I’ll try to get back to posting recipes soon.

Uyghur laghman noodles with omelette

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EatingLagman
Every restaurant has its own variety of laghman. In Uyghur restaurants, it usually means a dish of noodles topped with lamb and vegetables in a tomato-based sauce. In Uzbek or more Russianized restaurants, it’s often more like a noodle soup. In essence, laghman is just wheat noodles with sauce. Even Italian spaghetti bolognese could be considered a distant European cousin of laghman.

I really like the addition of sliced omelette. The recipe is adopted from Abdulaziz Salavat who calls it “suiru lagman”(video in Russian).

Ingredients
Flour, salt, and egg for laghman dough – or buy premade flour noodles
Lamb or beef meat – diced in small pieces
Bell pepper – diced
Tomato paste, 1-2 tablespoons
Onion – diced
Garlic – diced
Salt
Red pepper powder
White pepper powder
Paprika
Chinese black vinegar (e.g. Chinkiang vinegar)
Soy sauce
Cilantro – chopped
3-4 eggs (for omelette), beaten

Directions
1. Make the laghman noodles following the directions in the previous post. Boil in salted water until done, then rinse and plate.
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2. Prepare the omelette in a separate pan: fry the beaten eggs in oil until solid, turn and fry a bit more on other side. Cut the omelette into slices.
CutOmelette

3. Over high heat, stir-fry the lamb pieces in a heated wok until lightly browned.

4. Add in the onion and cook until soft and translucent.

5. Add the garlic and a bit of cilantro, cook this until the garlic is fragrant.
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6. Add in the tomato paste, cooking it for a bit first, and mix well.

7. Add some water or bouillon to make a sauce. Turn the heat down to medium. Add in the bell peppers and cook for a bit.
Cooking

8. Add salt, white pepper, red pepper, and paprika. Let everything cook and the sauce reduce for a bit.

9. Add a dash of soy sauce and black vinegar. Add in the cilantro.

10. Finished! Top the noodles with sauce and omelette slices.
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Uyghur laghman noodles

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My version of Uyghur laghman noodles.

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.

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Laghman, as served in an Uyghur restaurant in Bishkek.

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.

"Dapanji"(stewed chicken) laghman served in a cafe near Hotan.
“Dapanji”(stewed chicken with potatoes) laghman served in a cafe in Niya, a town on the very southern edge of the Taklamakan desert.

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.

bukhara_laghman
Uyghur-style laghman as served in a restaurant in Bukhara.

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.
PackageNoodles

Ingredients
Noodles:

Flour
Salt
Egg
Oil
(or buy fresh premade noodles)
Sauce:
Ingredients
Meat (lamb or beef)
Onion
Tomatoes
Garlic
Chinese celery (or regular Western celery in a pinch)
Tomato paste
Chili paste – I use the chili garlic sauce commonly sold at Asian groceries.
Salt
Soy sauce
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.
White pepper
Sichuan pepper (“hua jiao”) – optional, but gives a unique flavor

Directions
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.
MakeDough
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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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Making 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.
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2. Add 2-3 big spoons of tomato paste and 1 spoon of chili garlic paste, mixing everything well.
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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.
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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.
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5. Dish the sauce over the cooked laghman noodles. Enjoy!
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