Soup Stories: Lagman
Author & Photographer: Elaine Zhang
I tasted lagman for the first time last June, at a teahouse in Dushanbe, Tajikistan as the evening sky softened over an early dinner and the blanket of summer heat stirred with a mild breeze. A modest heap of noodles in a plain white bowl, surrounded by a hearty broth and sprinkled with fresh herbs - simple and comforting, just what I’d expect from a noodle soup. However, this was only my first glimpse of lagman, a dish with as many variations as spices on a shelf and culinary influences that stretch thousands of miles.
Lagman in Kyrgyz, leghmen in Uyghur, lag’mon in Uzbek are most likely derived from the Chinese lamian (“pulled noodle”) or lengmian (“cold noodle”). Possibly originating among the Hui Chinese, this simple yet adaptable dish is the “most common ordinary food” eaten by the Uyghurs (a group which bridges China and Central Asia in a geographic sense) and a staple of Central Asian cuisines. It’s plain, but packs a punch: Hand-pulled noodles, thick or thin, are cut from unleavened wheat dough and boiled in salt water. Stir-fried toppings can range from tomato paste to chickpeas to pickled bell peppers, as long as beef or mutton builds a strong base. This culminates in a hefty stew, cooked for thirty to forty minutes before being poured over the noodles. Lagman can be doled out individually, shared among many, or customized buffet-style, its straightforward nature lending itself to a creative touch.
For an optimistic pescatarian flitting from teahouse to streetside restaurant along the roads of Tajikistan, lagman was a dependable friend - soothing, fortifying, and easily made meatless. Admittedly, mine differed from the traditional. I was initially disconcerted by the broth - so oily, so vivid. Before long, however, I learned to brighten fatty flavors with the freshness of the cucumbers and tomatoes that grace every Tajik table, to slurp my noodles as if heaven itself could hear, and to soak up the last traces of soup with a shameless amount of bread. “Eat spicy things in the summer to sweat it all out,” my parents once advised. Tender noodles danced with sharp spices, and bite after bite of lagman in the pillowy heat of the noon sun felt surprisingly perfect - familiar yet unexpected, like a distant home or a remembered dream.
Lagman can be made with a thick sauce instead of broth, chickpeas instead of peppers, cold rather than hot. Sometimes it’s a soup and sometimes it isn’t, but it is always a dish that spans borders and memories, a bowl of possibility.
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