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.
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.
Next, cut lamb into bite-size pieces and season it with the ground cumin and soy sauce.
Then cut your vegetables into pieces to prepare for stir-frying.
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.
Heat your wok and brown the lamb. Next add the garlic and onion and stir-fry briefly.
Finally, add the rest of the vegetables and stir-fry until everything is cooked through.
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.
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:
- 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
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced; 1 red onion, sliced
- 2 roma tomatoes, 1 orange pepper, 1 red pepper, 6 green chiles such as Thai or Serrano; all coarsely chopped
- 2-3 oz noodles per person, boiled until chewy (2-3 minutes for fresh noodles, per package directions for dried noodles)
- 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped; black vinegar for adding at the table
- 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.