July 7th, 2011 Sections: Cuisine, Food and Drink

Once, I went out for dinner the other with one of our guides.  We went to a cafe that served traditional cuisine and on the menu were dishes like smasa, manti and Laghman.  I chose the Laghman, but he pulled a face and chose something else.  When the waiter had gone, I asked the guide why he had grimaced so and he explained that he had had his fill of Laghman.  Virtually everywhere I go with tourists, they serve up Laghman.

I’m not sure I agree with him.  In my experience, there are a wide variety of other local dishes that are also served, although I have to admit that Laghman is a popular dish and is often served up.  Fortunately, I like Laghman and, so far, I haven’t become tired of its allure.

Perhaps one reason for this is that there are a wide variety of different types of Laghman.

Kyrgyzstan stood on the crossroads of the Silk Road, and the caravan routes which crossed the territory carried not only goods for trade, but also brought examples of various cultures: Turkish, Persian, Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Russian, and European and these mingled with the culture and traditions of Central Asia. As a result Kyrgyz cuisine has absorbed elements from all of the cultures with which it came into contact, and although many dishes that you will find are common throughout Central Asia, it is still possible to find examples that have preserved their original, national identity. In many areas, such as Bishkek, Russian cuisine is common, but it is now possible to find examples from all over the world, including the all embracing “European”, Indian, Korean, Turkish and Chinese. Outside the cities local dishes, (such as Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Dungan) are more common.

It is said that the food in Central Asia falls into three different types: the subsistence diet of the once nomadic peoples such as the Kyrgyz (mainly meat, milk products and bread); the diet of settled Turkish peoples (the Uzbeks and Uighurs) including pilaffs, kebabs, noodles and pasta, stews and elaborate pastries and breads; and dishes which come from the South (Iran, India, Pakistan and China) with more seasoning and herbs.

In many ashkana’s (tea houses or cafés) and restaurants the chefs are men. Women cooks are more commonly encountered in those establishments serving Russian or European cuisines. Russian dishes such as Shchi or Borsh can be found in many places but staple items are Central Asian dishes such as mantysamsaplovshashlyk and laghman.

One of the most popular dishes throughout Kyrgyzstan is Laghman, which was originally a Dungan dish from the Eastern provinces of China.  The name “laghman” derives from the “Lyohn Mian”, (which was pronounced Lyag Man by the Uighurs).

It comprises of thick, handmade, noodles from flour and water mixed with melted butter, eggs and a little milk plus a pinch of salt. Dough for the noodles is mixed and kneaded – rolled into a “loaf”, and then left – covered with a damp cloth, for an hour – after which it is moistened with a little warm salted water, kneaded once more until the moister is absorbed. The loaf is then split into walnut sized potions which are then “spun” into the noodles. Taking a portion in two hands – the hands are drawn apart stretching the dough into a log thin strip – which is swung like a skipping rope, encouraging the dough to stretch into long, thin stands, about a meter long. The noodles are then boiled in a pan of water – and when soft, they are thrown into a pan of cold water (to prevent them sticking together).

The dish can be served in different ways either:

  • covered with a bouillon and a thick stew, the sauce, on top of it, or
  • bare noodles in a large bowl for each guest, who then serve themselves as much sauce as they like from a central dish.

The sauce is made from a variety of ingredients: meat (beef, lamb or mutton), oil, cabbage, green radish, carrot, onions, tomatoes, garlic, sweet peppers and spices. The meat and vegetables are chopped into fine pieces. When the sauce is ready, the noodles are reheated in boiling water and then placed in the bottom of large bowls with the meat sauce poured over them. The sauce should have a liquid consistency.

The noodles are quite long so need to be twisted around the fork – or cut with the edge of a spoon. It may also be inevitable that having eaten all the meat and vegetables a certain amount of liquid will remain in the bowl. A spicy condiment (laza) is often added to the dish … it is quite hot and can catch the Western visitor unawares – so caution is advised.


Ingredients: 1/2 kg meat (beef, or mutton); noodles (traditionally homemade as described above although spaghetti or lingui noodles can be used); 1/2 cup of vegetable oil; 1 marinated (pickled) pepper; 2 big onions; 2 medium sized carrots; 2 cloves of garlic; 3 big green radishes; 1/2 teaspoon red pepper; 2-3 tomatoes (or 3 tablespoons of tomato paste); water.

For variations you can add different vegetables, such as cabbage and / or egg-plant (aubergine) according to taste.

Method: Chop the meat into very small pieces and sauté with butter and the red pepper in a kazan (or heavy-bottomed pot). After about 5-7 minutes add 1/3 cup of cold water. Bring it to a boil and then add the onions, carrots, garlic, green radishes, and tomatoes. Steam in low heat for 30 minutes. Turn up the heat and stir for about 5 minutes. Add cold water (depending on the number of people you are cooking for, approximately 1.5 to 2 cups per person) and bring to a boil again. Lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. In a separate pot boil the noodles.  To serve, put the noodles into individual bowls and cover with the sauce.


For the record: I recently posted a postcard about Dungan cuisine here.

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