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.

noodle_coil
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.

noodle_chop

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.

noodles_chopped

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.

cooking_sauce

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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Beshbarmak – Central Asian Nomad “Lasagna”

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My version of beshbarmak.

Beshbarmak looks like something a nomadic horseman would eat: wide pasta topped with big hunks of meat and onion. It doesn’t look particularly appetizing. But believe me when I say it is something special.

I added bell pepper to my version to give it some color, but it is entirely superfluous. The magic is in the rich, savory meat broth and the tender pasta sheets. My wife, upon seeing it for the first time, called it an “open-faced lasagna.”

Beshbarmak as served in Kazakhstan. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Beshbarmak literally means “five fingers” due to the way it used to be eaten. It originates from the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, and nowadays this type of dish is enjoyed all across the region: as beshbarmak by the Kazakhs, Kygryz, Tatars, and Bashkirs, as turama or dograma in Karakalpakstan and Turkmenistan, and naryn by the Uyghurs. Truly a pan-Central Asian dish!

Traditionally, beshbarmak is cooked with all sorts of different lamb and horse meat cuts, as well as kazy (horse meat sausage). I have a hard enough time finding lamb meat here in NYC, so I just used lamb shoulder chops. It would work well with beef, too.

My version is a little different from the traditional dish. Traditionally, the meat is boiled (I sautee it then simmer) and there are no vegetables other than onion. I was inspired by this Uyghur video which is actually for a different dish entirely. Stalic has a video for beshbarmak, as does Abdulaziz Salavat (both videos in Russian). The Russian Wikipedia article for Beshbarmak has everything you would want to know about its etymology and its different national variants.

Ingredients:
Flour
Egg
Salt
Oil
Lamb meat
Onion
Cumin seed
Bullion cubes/powder
White or black pepper
Bell pepper (entirely optional)

Directions:
Noodle making
1. Make a dough out of flour, egg, salt, water, and a bit of oil. Knead for 10 minutes and set aside, covered. Let it rest for at least half an hour.

2. Roll the dough into a cylinder and use a knife to cut off a small piece. Lightly oil the piece.
CutDough

3. Use a rolling pin to flatten out the piece into a big, thin, pasta sheet. Continue until you’ve used all the dough. Make sure to space out the pieces so they don’t stick together.
RollDoughPieces

4. Bring some water to a rolling boil, lightly salt, and put in the beshbarmak pieces one by one. After the water has returned to a rolling boil, let it cook for another 1-2 minutes. Be careful not to overcook the noodles – you want them al dente.
CookNoodles

5. Drain the noodles and rinse them with cold water. Layer the noodles in a plate.
PlateNoodles

Making the topping
1. Sautee the lamb meat in oil over medium-high heat until browned.

CookMeat
2. Add in the onions and cook until soft and translucent. Add salt, cumin seeds, and white or black pepper. Mix well.

CookOnion
3. Add bouillon/water until the contents are barely covered.
4. When it starts to boil, turn the heat to low and cover. Cook for at least 30 minutes.
CookBroth

5. Open the lid and add in the bell pepper. Cook this briefly over medium heat.

AddBellpepper
6. Pour some hot broth over the noodles to warm them up. Put the topping on the noodles. Ash bolsun!

Beshbarmak

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.
RinseNoodle

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.
add garlic

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.
LagmanTop

Shaanxi “Belt” Noodles with Cumin Lamb

Kudaimian1

Shaanxi province lies on the northwestern frontier of China’s “heartland”; the last stop before the Gansu corridor, which snakes northwest between the Tibetan plateau and the Gobi desert up to Xinjiang and Central Asia. Shaanxi food has some clear Central Asian influence: lamb, beef, and cumin are commonly used, unlike the rest of China. You could think of Xi’an (the capital of Shaanxi, and in ancient times the capital of China) as the eastern end of the Silk Road. Kebabs are a common street food in Xi’an, as are fried bread sandwiches stuffed with lamb meat.

Biang biang noodle shop in Xi'an
Biang biang noodle shop in Xi’an with the special “Biang” character

“Belt” noodles (裤带面 ku dai mian) are a Shaanxi specialty. They’re also known as “biang biang mian”, written with a special, extremely complex Chinese character that doesn’t exist in dictionaries (Wikipedia article). Just like the name, they’re wide like a belt and somewhat thick with a good chew to them.

Xi'anBiangBiangNoodles
Biang biang noodles with pork, in the Xi’an noodle shop pictured above

I spent the summer of ’07 in Xi’an and tried this dish in a couple restaurants. Every place selling belt noodles serves it slightly differently; the common feature is red chili powder, garlic, scallion, and vinegar. The noodles are often eaten with no meat at all, but stewed pork, lamb, and beef are common toppings.

New Yorkers will be familiar with Xi’an Famous Foods, who serve a similar dish. I like their food, but I find their noodles aren’t as good as in Xi’an, or homemade. Their cumin lamb noodles are absolutely drenched in oil – while it is an oily dish, their version is way too oily even for me.

This recipe is loosely adopted from 雯婷茜子’s recipe at Meishijie (recipe in Chinese).

Ingredients
For noodle dough:
Flour
Salt
1 egg

For topping:
Lamb meat
Cumin seeds, coarsely ground
Salt
Garlic, finely diced
Spring onion, finely diced
Red chili powder – ideally the somewhat coarsely ground kind where some pieces of seed are still visible. In between powder and crushed/flake form. It’s sold in Chinese groceries.
Chinese black vinegar (e.g. Chinkiang vinegar)
Light soy sauce
Bok choy or other leafy green vegetable (optional), boiled. Bean sprouts, green pepper, and cilantro could also be nice garnishes.

Directions
Noodle making:
1. Make a dough out of flour, egg, salt, and water. Knead well for 10 minutes and let this rest for 1 hour.
2. Make a thick cylinder out of the dough and cut it into smaller pieces.
DoughRoll
DoughPieces
3. Coat these pieces in oil and set aside.
OiledDough
4. Take one of the pieces and flatten it out with a rolling pin.
FlatDough
5. Lift the flattened piece, holding each side, and wave it up and down, smacking with the middle of the dough while pulling gently. You should hear a “thwap! thwap! thwap!” noise. Smacking the dough helps stretch it out. You should end up with a long piece of dough about 1-2 inches wide and very thin.
PulledNoodle
6. The ends you held will probably be a bit thicker than the rest of the noodle, flatten these out with your fingers or the rolling pin. Cut the noodle in half if you like (makes serving them easier).
7. Unlike laghman noodles, these noodles (owing to their flat shape) have a real risk of sticking together even when they go in the water. Either space them out or oil them to make sure they don’t stick.
NoodlesReady
7. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water; after the water returns to a rolling boil for 1-2 minutes, the noodles will be done (taste one to make sure). Pour the noodles into a sieve and rinse with cold water.
DrainNoodles
8. Plate the noodles. Some sticking/ripping of the noodles is inevitable. If you can make belt noodles without them sticking together or ripping, I salute you.
PlateNoodles

Topping:
1. Chop up some lamb meat, fry over high heat, and add salt and cumin seeds. Put aside.
CookLamb
2. Finely dice the spring onion and garlic, set aside.
3. Put a dash of soy sauce and black vinegar on each noodle bowl and mix well.
4. On top of the noodles, put the diced garlic, spring onion, and a heap of crushed red pepper in mounds next to each other.
NoodleWTopping
5. Heat some oil until it is very hot. Now, for the magic step: pour the scalding oil directly onto the heap of red pepper. You should hear crackling and smell an aroma as the pepper and garlic is instantly cooked.
6. Top with the lamb meat and any vegetable, if you like.
7. Mix everything well before eating. The hot oil turns the chili powder into chili oil. Enjoy!
Kudaimian3
EatingNoodles

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.

bishkek_lagman
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.
noodle_coil_1024

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.
cookmeat

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.
make_lagman

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.
cook_laghman_sauce

5. Dish the sauce over the cooked laghman noodles. Enjoy!
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