Have you ever watched hand-pulled noodles being made? An enormous leaden lump of dough, pulled and stretched with the use of sheer brute strength, is then twirled, pulled and stretched again and again until an armful of fine, evenly sized noodles appears like magic, ready to be immediately boiled in a cauldron of steaming broth.
The Herculean muscular strength required for those first few pulls has always put me off trying it for myself, until I discovered a technique requiring much less…er…grunt. The ‘Lady Style’ method of hand-pulled noodles is practised by the ladies of Kashgar, and thanks to our wonderful guide, Waheed, it had been arranged that I would learn to make hand-pulled noodles in the home of a local family living in Kashgar’s Old City.
I love to learn a bit of cooking while I’m on holiday, but Kashgar doesn’t have anything to offer the non-Uighur-speaking non-local in the way of classes, so it was very lucky Waheed was able to enlist the help of local friends. Waheed, as it turned out, could arrange practically anything, from impossible-to-buy train tickets, to tea in a traditional Uighur teahouse, to trips to an out of the way cemetery that caught my inquisitive eye.
And so it was that one afternoon he arranged for us to meet Aygul, our host and reportedly an excellent cook, who greeted us at the door of her traditional house, hidden down a dusty laneway in the Old City. She was going to teach us to make laghman, Uighur hand-pulled noodles, made the way ladies make them at home.
The house was wonderful – built from honey-coloured bricks placed in decorative patterns. As you walked from the lane outside you passed through a colourful curtain into the double-story light-filled atrium. On the ground level were many of the functional rooms for washing and cooking, and upstairs the reception rooms for guests, the sleeping quarters, and a raised eating platform covered with carpets and furnished with a low table.
Aygul led us to the tiny narrow upstairs kitchen, which had a deep red dresser covered with brightly coloured paper doubling as a work bench. Next to it, a double burner hotplate occupied the corner and beside that stood a tall dresser filled with plates and bowls. There was a large pot filled with clean water in the corner, above which windows looked back out onto the house’s atrium.
Aygul got straight to work, making a simple wheat flour dough from three cups of wheat flour, a cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt, mixed and kneaded. Then she flattened the dough into a slab and sliced it into 12 inch lengths.
Each length was gently rolled, with hands slightly oiled, into lengths of dough the thickness of your little finger.
As the dough was rolled, Aygul coiled it inside a silver Uighur bread tin, covering each layer with a little oil and sealing it with a lid. It went back into the dresser at this stage to rest for an hour.
In the meantime, we prepared the sauce for the noodles, a simple meat and vegetable mixture using available local vegetables. 1 cup of diced potato, 1 cup of sliced peppers, I cup of sliced eggplant, 1/2 cup chopped mutton, half a cup of sliced onion, 1/2 cup of beans chopped into short lengths were fried in a wok with 2 tablespoons of oil. Once softened, two chopped ripe tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a little hot water were added and reduced into a thick vegetable sauce, and kept warm to one side while a large pot of salted water came to the boil and we finally got down to the business of pulling some noodles.
Taking the tin back out of the dresser, Aygul took thick coils of dough from the pan, one at a time, and stretched them between her two hands, twisting her fingers slightly as she pulled the dough into a small pile of noodles with the thickness of twine.
Well-practised, Aygul could chat away as she did this, and still the strands were even and unbroken in her hands.
Once she had made two small noodle piles, Aygul took both thick strands and wrapped them cleverly around her hands, like skeins of wool.
Then a stretch, a slap onto the board…..
And a second wide-armed stretch…..
And the noodles went straight into the boiling water for about three minutes, as Aygul let me take a turn twisting, coiling and pulling the next batch of noodles. Amazingly simple!
Once cooked the noodles were drained and spooned into a bowl topped with the vegetable sauce.
Aygul’s sister prepared our side-dishes of small bowls of unsweetened yoghurt, and cucumber with black vinegar.
We washed our hands using the beautiful silver washbasin and jug reserved for guests in every Uighur house, and then tucked in, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted eating platform of the house. The noodles had a perfect bite and consistency – firm yet yielding, smooth and slippery. The rustic mutton vegetable sauce had a rich tomato flavour and was surprisingly spicy thanks to the hot local peppers.
I suspect that the secret of Lady Style Pulled Noodles lies not so much in the techniques of stretching and pulling, as in starting with the perfect dough with exactly the right amount of salt. Too much salt, and the noodles will break easily when stretched, too little and they will lack bite. Waheed told me, as we ate, that his own mother makes these noodles every single day of the year. It will take me a long time to build up that kind of practice! I can’t wait to try making my own back in Shanghai.
Waheed can offer a guide service for Kashgar and its surrounds including camping and mountaineering adventures in the local mountains.
Contact him at email@example.com
Travels on the Silk Road