When zeera, or black cumin, hits hot oil, the scent that rises up is complex and rich. It hovers above the sizzling pan as a warm cloud, woody, crisp, with sweet clove and leather undertones. Bunium persicum or black cumin is a plant in the same wonderful family, the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, that gives us carrot, parsley, cumin, coriander, dill, caraway, fennel, parsnip, celery, and Queen anne’s lace among others. Its black slender crescents are similar to both caraway and cumin, but the flavor bears only a slight resemblance to either.
Lacking the intense animalic note of regular white cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and the musty darkness of caraway (Carum carvi), black cumin has an elegant flavor, possessing a hot sweetness and mineral chill. It has a natural affinity for meat, cruciferous vegetables, onions, garlic, and acidic vegetable-fruit like eggplant and tomato. It is able to refine their flavors, while retaining its own unique character. Black cumin in widely used in Afghani, Pakistani and North Indian cooking, but it is Uzbek cuisine that truly extols black cumin. The Uzbek palette of flavors is bold, yet streamlined, which makes their dishes very memorable. In perfumery, black cumin can be found in fragrances such as Idole de Lubin, Cerruti 1881 Black and Kiss Him by Kiss.
Lagman, a lamb and vegetable noodle dish, is one of several signature Uzbek dishes, along with plov (lavish rice and lamb pilaf,) samsa (tandoor baked savory pastries,) manty (steamed dumplings,) and kebabs. Uzbekistan, a Central Asian country, is a part of the historically rich region that was overrun by several empires, from the Persian Samanid and later Timurid dynasties, to the Russian monarchy, to the Soviet Union. The traces of each marked this land, leaving its imprints in its peoples, its traditions and its food. Lagman is a case in point. Brought to Central Asia by Chinese speaking Muslims, this dish shares many similarities with East Asian noodle soups. There are many varieties of lagman, ranging from the simple tomato and potato versions that I ate in Turkmenistan, to lo mein like stir fries, and to luxurious preparations in which noodles are pulled to be as thin as silk threads.
The version below is adapted from recipes of my friend Igor who lived and worked in Uzbekistan for many years as well as of Rafael, a Bukharian restauranteur, whose ability to weave spices together left me spellbound. Also, my own recollections of various lagman versions eaten while in Central Asia played a part in forming this recipe. Despite the presence of lamb and noodles, this one course meal is not at all heavy. Made vibrant by a variety of vegetables and lavishly garnished with fresh aromatic herbs, each mouthful of lagman is an explosion of flavor. Vadzha, as the soup base is called in Uzbek, can be made in advance, and like most stewed dishes, it benefits from an overnight rest. The noodles are cooked separately and are then combined with vadzha according to personal taste. Some people like to have more broth, some prefer their lagman on a drier side. Either way, it is a beautiful canvas against which to enjoy the voluptuous richness of black cumin.
Lagman, Uzbek Lamb and Noodle Soup with Black Cumin
1lg (500g) lamb, including a couple of bones, cut into hazelnut sized pieces
2 T vegetable oil
3 large onions cut into thin rounds
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced into thick julienne
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and cubes (or 1 cup canned tomatoes)
1 celery stalk, sliced into thick julienne
1 cup daikon/white Asian radish cut into 1″ cubes (or red radishes cut into quarters)
1 red sweet pepper, cut into 1″ strips
1 bunch of Chinese chives cut into 1″ pieces (can be substituted with leek, scallions, regular chives)
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced or mashed to paste
Optional: Chinese cabbage, zucchini, eggplant, turnip. You can combine vegetables in many ways, but I prefer to limit my selection to only one additional vegetable, in order to retain the clarity of flavor.
Spices: 1/2 teaspoon zeera/black cumin, 2-3 whole dried hot red peppers or to taste, 1-2 star anise, 2 bay leaves, black pepper, salt to taste.
Cilantro, parsley for garnish
Spaghetti, udon or other thick wheat noodles
The noodles for a classical lagman are not very different from Chinese pulled wheat noodles, which are spun by hand like white ropes of wool. They are chewy and thick, perfect for serving withrich meat and vegetable soups or stir frying like the more familiar Chinese lo mein. The noodles below were in fact made by me, and while the process is not difficult, it is somewhat time consuming. On most days, I simply pick up a package of Japanese udon noodles from the Asian grocery store and have lagman on my table in about 15 minutes (enough to reheat the soup base and cook the noodles.)
Black cumin can be found at any Indian grocery store, although it requires one to be a bit of a sleuth to locate it. Besides the fact that it can be mistakenly mislabeled as caraway, black cumin goes under the names of kala jeera (black cumin), not to be confused with kalonji (nigella, onion seeds,) or shahi jeera (royal cumin, denoting its special status.)
Vadzha: Heat oil in a heavy pot and sauté onion till golden. Add meat pieces, bones and brown them well. Now add black cumin, hot chilies and stir for a minute. Add carrots and let them soften. Stir in the tomatoes and cook them down for 5 minutes. Pour in 2-3 quarts of water, add star anise and bay leaf. Simmer for 40 minutes, removing scum as necessary. Then add daikon, celery and salt. Ten minutes later add red pepper strips. When daikon softens, add Chinese cabbage, zucchini and eggplant, if using them. Finally, add Chinese chives, garlic and lots of minced cilantro, parsley. Correct spicing with salt, pepper and chili powder and remove from the heat.
Cook noodles till al dente in boiling salted water, keeping in mind that they will continue to cook once submerged in hot soup. Serve with vadzha and garnish with extra cilantro, parsley or both.
At Rafael’s restaurant, lagman was served with hot chili paste (crushed dried red chili and garlic roasted in oil) as well as piquant vinegar, which is made by steeping grape vinegar with garlic, cilantro, hot chili peppers, black pepper, coriander seeds and zeera/black cumin. Start with these proportions and vary according to your tastes: 1 cup of vinegar, 2 cloves of garlic, 3 springs of cilantro, 1-2 hot chili peppers, 1/4 teaspoon each of black pepper and coriander seeds, and 1/8 teaspoon of cumin. I’ve used white wine vinegar, which unlocked the flavor of the spices and herbs and blended them in a warm, rich bouquet. Flavored vinegar can be stored for at least a year if kept away from light and heat.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin