Laghman noodles (拌面)

Learning how this Chinese dish got it’s name is almost like taking a course in west Asian culture, history, and geopolitics. It’s known as Laghman noodles in English, after Laghman Province in Afghanistan where it has its roots. Laghman Province is a mixed bag of ethnicities with about half the population being Pashtun and most of the remainder being either Tajiks or Nuristanis.

Laghman Noodles

Laghman Noodles

The capital of Laghman Province is Mihtar Lam, a tiny town of only twenty thousand people high up in the Hindu Kush of eastern Afghanistan. On the other side of those vast mountains, much father along the Silk Road, lies the People’s Republic of China and the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang (where Xinjiang, 新疆, Xīnjīang, literally means “new frontier”). The nearest city is Kashgar, hundreds of miles inside the border. Kashgar is almost a thousand miles away from the provincial capital of Ürümqi, which itself is another two thousand miles away from the capital of Beijing, about the distance from Chicago to Los Angeles. Whew.

So the Western name of this Chinese dish recalls its origins almost a world away from China in the Muslim highlands of Afghanistan. But our story doesn’t stop there, because the Chinese name, 拌面 (bàn miàn), means stirred or mixed noodles and often implies handmade noodles that are stretched, pulled, and shaped right before being thrown into boiling water and served with a stew. The shape of the noodle isn’t important; sometimes they are pressed into shells or ears, other times stretched into long delicate strands. So the Chinese name implies a tasty and rustic type of noodle over a savory stew, while the English name hints at its ancestral origins far across the mountains in distant lands. What’s not to love, really?

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Ürümqi, let alone Kashgar or Mitar Lam.  But Beijing does have restaurants that showcase cuisine from all across the country, and I’ve had noodles stretched right at the table into tasty strands that were boiled in broth in front of our eyes. Wonderful. And delicious.

For your own take on Laghman noodles, start by grinding whole cumin seeds into a fragrant powder.

Freshly ground cumin

Freshly ground cumin

Next, cut lamb into bite-size pieces and season it with the ground cumin and soy sauce.

Seasoned lamb

Seasoned lamb

Then cut your vegetables into pieces to prepare for stir-frying.

Clockwise from upper left: chopped scallions, a red pepper, cilantro, roma tomatoes, a red onion, an orange pepper, green chiles, and garlic

Clockwise from upper left: chopped scallions, a red pepper, cilantro, roma tomatoes, a red onion, an orange pepper, green chiles, and garlic

Lastly, get your noodles ready. I don’t work with dough very much, so I bought fresh (not dried) noodles from the market. If you are bold enough to make your own noodles, mix 4 cups flour with 2 eggs and 1 tsp salt. Add enough water, maybe 3/4 cup, to make a stiff dough and then knead thoroughly. Wrap the dough in plastic and let it sit for 30 minutes. Then knead again and begin stretching into noodles or shaping into thin ears. Use liberal amounts of oil on your hands at this point to keep the noodles from sticking.

Or you could just do like me and buy fresh noodles.

At the farmer's market, buying noodles and tomatoes

When I was in Beijing last month, I bought noodles from this vendor at the local farmer’s market who for some reason was selling only noodles and tomatoes. Possibly channeling her inner Italian?

Fresh noodles

Fresh noodles, ready for cooking in boiling water; these are small-batch noodles from RP’s Pasta Company in Wisconsin, where their motto is “From farm to fork with a conscience”

Heat your wok and brown the lamb. Next add the garlic and onion and stir-fry briefly.

Lamb, garlic, and onions in the wok

Lamb, garlic, and onions in the wok

Finally, add the rest of the vegetables and stir-fry until everything is cooked through.

Final prep: everything is cooking in the wok.

Final prep: everything is cooking in the wok.

All that’s left is to turn the vegetables and lamb onto the cooked noodles, garnish, and serve. In Xinjiang, tables frequently come with black vinegar that diners can pour over their bowl to taste. I love black vinegar from from Shanxi Province, which is famous for it.

Shanxi black vinegar

Shanxi black vinegar

One last comment before the recipe: this dish is in perfect keeping with the spirit of this blog. It’s easy to make, hearty, and full-on comfort food. Please enjoy.

INGREDIENTS and PREP:

  1. 0.5 lb lamb, cut into small bite-sized pieces, marinated for 20 minutes in 2 Tbsp light soy sauce and 2 Tbsp freshly ground cumin
  2. 4 large cloves garlic, minced; 1 red onion, sliced
  3. 2 roma tomatoes, 1 orange pepper, 1 red pepper, 6 green chiles such as Thai or Serrano; all coarsely chopped
  4. 2-3 oz noodles per person, boiled until chewy (2-3 minutes for fresh noodles, per package directions for dried noodles)
  5. 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped; black vinegar for adding at the table

DIRECTIONS:

  • Heat your wok until barely smoking. Then add 1 Tbsp peanut oil and swirl it around. Then add the lamb mixture (#1) and let it cook undisturbed for about 1 minute until browned on one side. Then stir-fry for an additional 30 seconds.
  • Next, add the garlic and onion (#2) and stir-fry everything for about 30 more seconds.
  • Add the chopped vegetables (#3) and gently stir-fry for a few minutes. The vegetables, especially the tomatoes, should give up some moisture to make a broth. If it ends up looking too dry, you can add 1/4 cup broth (beef or vegetable). At the end of the cooking, there should be some liquid in the wok; this is not supposed to be a dry recipe.
  • Drain the cooked noodles (#4) and put them into a large serving bowl. Spoon the vegetable and lamb mixture over the noodles, making sure to include the delicious liquid. Garnish with the cilantro (#5) and serve. Diners can add black vinegar to taste; I like about 1 tsp, maybe just a little more.

Variations: There are three very obvious and very tasty variations, all completely authentic. First, omit the lamb from #1 above and make this a vegetarian dish. (If you do this, add 1 tsp cumin and/or 1 tsp caraway seeds to the vegetables while they’re cooking in the wok.) The next variation is to change the vegetables around to suit what you can get fresh in your market. Lastly, vary the type and quantity of green chiles to control the spiciness. Really, there are as many variations on this dish as there are cooks in Kashgar, so don’t be shy about experimenting and finding what works for you.

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14 Responses to Laghman noodles (拌面)

  1. Pingback: 71 interesting anecdotes a Trini needs to know in Uzbekistan | Rishi Sankar: Ah Trini Travelogue / Ah Trini Traveller

  2. zohrasaed says:

    Hi this is a great recipe. I grew up with laghman and we even called spaghetti and marinara, laghman! But Laghman in Afghanistan is very far from Uyghurs [it’s closer to South Asia — the northern tip of Afghanistan that touches China is an entirely different ethnic group and their foods are similar to Uyghurs] and it is not a native dish in Laghman area at all. It’s a very bread and rice culture. So I don’t think it originates from there. But if you have done more research on that connection, I’d love to learn more. I’m working on a food essay on the travel of food. This was a great post and I’d love to be in conversation if possible. Thank you!

    • TastyAsia says:

      Thanks for the interesting comment. My research consists of talking to Chinese people, a Tajik cab driver, and some chefs. I’m not an expert, and I know that different laghman recipes can have differences in everything from the main ingredients, to the spices, and even to the shape of the noodles. I think the name and the spices came from Afghanistan, while the noodle base came from farther east. Thanks again for commenting.

  3. julie id says:

    we had a dish in xiamen known only as “huimian” — “muslim noodles” — which the xinjiang-style shops served. it sounds like what you’re describing, but the KEY ingredient — ZACHOI — is missing!

    do u (or one of the other readers) know what this is properly called? it was basically western-thickness spaghetti, ground beef, zachoi, and a TON of garlic/grease. shops MIGHT have listed it as banmian — looks familiar — but most ppl called it huimian.

    as such, rly could not FIND it in beijing or shanghai. someone told me lanzhou-mian, perhaps, but what u describe here sounds closer. x/c that you’re missing the zachoi and adding a whole lot of other veggies. quite certain the ones in xiamen didn’t do that.

    is there a “lanzhou-banmian” or somesuch more specifically what i describe?

    DUOXIE!

    • TastyAsia says:

      Hi there! By ZACHOI, I think you’re talking about zha cai (or 榨菜), which is pickled mustard greens, also known as pressed vegetable or Sichuan preserved vegetable. This would be more of a southeast Chinese ingredient, so somewhat foreign to traditional Laghman noodles. But tasty and quite likely to be seen and appreciated in Xiamen! Thanks for the comment.

      • julie id says:

        sorry, asked my question and never looked back!

        yes, i’m just spelling it zachoi since that’s the usual in english. i’ll go with pinyin for obscure stuff, but everyday things like zachoi, chop suey, chow mein, etc…our screwy english spellings (usually pseudo-cantonese) are too deeply ingrained.

        anyway, these shops were pure xinjiang. doesn’t strike me as any sort of “fusion” cusine, or anything that’s even adapted to xiamen or southern tastes. lotta these guys seemed pretty short-term in the area to boot. w/e the dish is, i’m pretty sure they’ve brought it along unchanged. u sure zachoi isn’t common up there?

        fancier among them looked like this: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Shanghai-Lanzhou-Zhengzong-Niurou-Lamian-2782.jpg

        as u can see, variations on “lanzhou” and “beef lamian” in the signage.

        so…if not “laghman” noodles (btw, i agree with those below that this is just a funky spelling of lo mein/la mien/ramen), can someone come up with a better name? linguistic discussion linked below also sticks tomatoes and peppers into your dish…we most definitely did NOT have those in ours! just noodles, ground beef, zachoi, garlic and grease. and more garlic and grease. and yet more garlic and grease. 😉

        ADDICTIVE BEYOND WORDS.

        anyway, i’m going with “lanzhou banmian” for now. but i’m still not sure; as i said, the locals just called it “hui-mian” and i was caught off guard in beijing and shanghai when this term got me nowhere. typical response was “they’re ALL hui-mian — WHICH KIND do u want?!”

        • Zohra says:

          Laghman is traditional yo Xinjiang and the rest of Turkistan. Tracing the root of a word doesn’t mean that the word and dish (with tomatoes and peppers) is not native and authentic to a region. I’m not sure if I’m reading a flippant tone and dismissal of laghman as if it was something just thought up.

          • julie id says:

            if u mean ME, i certainly didn’t mean that. i just meant “laghman” vs “la mian” was clearly not coincidence; the word — and probably the dish — went from one region to the other. i assume from china TO xinjiang and beyond, but i see that the linguists are split on this point. if the whole history of noodles in china came FROM turkistan, etc., that’s fine by me.

            i think i’ve made clear i am a big fan of these dishes! my experience in xiamen was limited to the sparse beef crumbles and zachoi version i’ve descrived, but the dish described in the OP — and the many dishes on pravit’s blog — sound even better. i had a few such dishes during brief travels in beijing/shanghai/etc, but i can’t recall details or names. xiamen i was based in, so 99% of my exposure comes from that.

  4. pravit says:

    Hi! I’m pretty sure the Afghanistan province “Laghman” and the noodle dish in Xinjiang is just a coincidence. There is even an entire thread with linguists discussing the etymology of the word here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=13843 . The etymology is most likely from the Chinese word “la mian”(pulled noodles) or possibly “lao mian”(lo mein, “stirred noodles”).

    But anyway, I found this post looking for other laghman recipes in English. I just posted a laghman recipe myself over at my blog. Keep it up, not many people are blogging about Xinjiang food.

    • TastyAsia says:

      Interesting discussion on that thread, thanks for sharing.

    • julie id says:

      wow, i love your blog! u wanna come live permanently in my house? 😉

      you seem to really know your stuff. especially re: all those variants. so do YOU have any opinion re: my above query (garlic & zachoi version)?

      TIA!

      • pravit says:

        Hah! I’ll consider the offer, my wife might have an issue with that though…

        I’m not sure what zachoi is. I had “ban mian” a few times outside of Xinjiang, usually in places run by Hui – I remember the sauce being a bit different from the noodles in Xinjiang. Here’s a picture I took in a noodle shop in Xi’an: https://silkroadchef.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/huistylelagman.jpg

        Regardless, there are endless variations and you can put whatever vegetables or meat in the sauce you like… should be really easy to make…

        • julie id says:

          it IS easy to make…it’s the “finding/ordering it in chinese city other than xiamen” that i’m having trouble with!

          zachoi is…well, as the OP pointed out, my spelling is a yankee corruption. more properly zhacai in mandarin, or zasai in japanese (which is usually the market i find it in).

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zha_cai

          except that now i’m beginning to think it should be SUANCAI. articles on xinjiang cuisine note heavy use of this. including in a dish of beef noodle soup.

          i realize any sort of combo can be created on the fly, but if the article is already putting beef, noodles, and suancai together, i suppose that is as close as i am going to get.

          gotta lose the SOUP, tho. our was definitely a dry/plated version.

          nothing like your photo, btw. way too COLOURFUL!

  5. julie id says:

    “but if the article is already putting beef, noodles, and suancai together” — oops, left out the key line: “if the article is already putting beef, noodles, and suancai together…AND CALLING IT A HUI DISH”.

    meanwhile, i dunno how i missed THIS page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanzhou_beef_lamian

    that photo is not QUITE what we had, but if u lost all the *liquid*…well, maybe…colour is bland and there are no VEGGIES to speak of — two points i’ve been stressing about our version.

    meanwhile, this post establishes that xiamen (“fuzhou”, close enuf) is a hotspot for these places: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/822288

    at this point i think i need to go back and read up on the diff between “xinjiang”, “lanzhou” “hui” and “uyghur”. i can only say with certainly we called them “hui” — while “lanzhou” seems key to most of the descriptions, i’ve really only picked that up recently here on the interwebz. cannot say with certainly it was in the signage of our particular places, that shanghai pic notwithstanding.

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