Lagman Uzbek Lamb and Noodle Soup Recipe

Lagman

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

Serves 5-6

Ingredients:
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

Notes

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.)

Lagman noodles 2

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.)

Cooking Instructions

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.

Lagman vinegar


Photography © Bois de Jasmin

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20 Comments

  • Mike D: I enjoy reading these flavor articles, V. You manage to convey all of these aromas, tastes, scents so well.
    BTW, can you use beef instead of lamb? My wife finds lamb too gamey. July 28, 2009 at 11:17am Reply

  • columbine: i have no idea how many spices i have in my cupboard, but many…when i spend time mixing and cooking spices, i feel like a witch making some magic elixirs. my favourite for this is making Daal, the recipe i found incorporates a wealth of spices and seeds, barks etc (that’s when my spice space in the kitchen doubled i think). it’s quite complex because some spices require to be crushed or toasted or fried in oil and any combination of the three and during the whole process, spices release their aroma in turn, it’s intoxicating. i think we quite agree, perfume and cooking both have a fascination scent appeal :- )
    PS: i recognise the motif on your soup bowl (cherry blossom flowers i think on a pale blue-green), i have the same July 28, 2009 at 11:52am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Mike, I am glad to hear that you enjoy them!
    Yes, you can certainly use beef. Lamb is the Uzbek meat of choice, but beef works well too. July 28, 2009 at 11:55am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Columbine, yes, those bowls are part of a Japanese ceramic set, but I only have these large bowls, which I use for serving pasta as well. You might see them often. I want this same design in pure white, but I have not been able to find it.

    Dal is a perfect canvas for spices, and there are so many varieties of these lentil dishes all over India that I think I can eat them daily and not get tired of them. July 28, 2009 at 12:07pm Reply

  • Kathryn: I have a very happy memory of tasting my first, and so far only, lagman with Igor and Yelena in Bukharan restaurant in Queens. It was delicious. I found it hard to imagine that it could be any better, but I remember Yelena saying that the lagman we ate was not quite as good as Igor’s. I am thrilled to see this recipe! July 28, 2009 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Yelena: I can’t believe that you made your own noodles. The lagman looks delicious- we are also lately using the star anise and are thrilled with the results. Also, we have brought back herbs and spices (and 12 lbs. of rice) that were premixed for us for specific dishes (plov, lagman, shurpa, frsh salads) by an Uzbeki spice vendor back in Russia. The results have been interesting! The rice is a revelation in and of itself. We will have to search out the black cumin for the next batch of lagman Thanks as always for the additional inspiration. July 29, 2009 at 11:07am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Kathryn, Igor’s Uzbek food is amazing. His love for the country and his respect for its traditions are also very inspiring.
    Lagman is not a difficult dish to make, and even the ingredients are not particularly exotic. It is just up to the cook to weave his/her own magic with the combination of spices and flavors. July 29, 2009 at 12:26pm Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Yelena, oh, I am so envious of your spice blends! I would have to smell them the next time we see each other. 🙂 I had so little time in Kiev this year that I could not visit the Uzbek spice merchants. Next time, I suppose….

    The noodles were not difficult to make. You just make a simple water, egg and flour dough with some baking soda, oil it and stretch it. Just a bit messy to have this oily strands on the counter and definitely time consuming. Still, the results are worth it. Rafael’s wife suggested that I make a large batch, parboil it and then freeze it in individual portions. I might do this, but udon noodles make such a good substitute. July 29, 2009 at 12:31pm Reply

  • marina: Istekla slyunoj! 🙂 July 29, 2009 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Marina, it is one of my favorites! July 30, 2009 at 11:49am Reply

  • Flora: Oh, yum! That looks wonderful!

    Is zeera or black cumin actually Nigella seed? I had bread made with that spice that an Ethiopian friend of mine made – it was wonderful, infusing the dough with a rich, savory and almost meaty essence, yet with a bit of phantom heat in the background that lingered after the bread was eaten. My friend did not know what the English word for this spice was, but I later found out it may have been Nigella, the flower and seed heads of which are quite beautiful and are commonly called “Love-in-a-mist” as they appear to float above the plant itself. August 4, 2009 at 2:01am Reply

  • Boisdejasmin: Flora, I love bread with nigella seeds. In California I used to buy the most delicious naan from an Afghani bakery (they sold it by foot, it was that long!) The nigella seed topping was my favorite part.

    As for black cumin, no, it is not nigella. As I put above, it goes under the names of kala jeera, shah jeera, not to be confused with kalonji (nigella, onion seeds.)” Any Indian-Pakistani grocery store would have it. August 4, 2009 at 8:34am Reply

  • Funnie: Lagman is not really Uzbek dish, it is actully Uighu dish, but I am sure in Uzbekistan it is quite popular.. It is delish! January 5, 2012 at 5:31pm Reply

  • Dave: I have a friend in Russia who keeps telling me that Uzbek soup is unrivaled in the world. I would never doubt a Russian’s taste in soup. I made this verbatim from your recipe, and I would have to agree with her. Ух ты! Очень вкусный суп! My first one ever, and I’m hooked! Thanks! June 22, 2012 at 9:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so glad that you liked it! Lagman is one of my favorite soups. Uighur cuisine within Uzbekistan is well known and well regarded (Uighur people came from China, hence some of the East Asian elements in their cooking). I will share more interesting recipes. June 23, 2012 at 3:26am Reply

  • sylvain leblanc: i know uzbek food verry good am canadien i married uzbek women she cook good and they love cook it show you should try there food and soup yes taste verry good January 26, 2013 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Garland: Do you have an exact recipe for the piquant vinegar sauce. Is it the same as Lozijon? September 13, 2014 at 9:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Everyone makes it based on their own tastes, but you can start with these proportions and vary according to what you like: 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. September 14, 2014 at 6:34am Reply

      • Garland: Thank you for commenting back so quickly. 🙂 September 14, 2014 at 6:18pm Reply

  • gulnura: Lagman is not Uzbek food. It is Dunghan food. November 27, 2015 at 3:47am Reply

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