Uighurs comprise the majority of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, numbering approximately 9 million people out of a population of nearly 20 million. Most live in the oases that rim the Taklamakan Desert – towns and cities such as Aksu, Korla, Kashgar, Turfan and Hotan – as well as in the capital, Urumqi. Noodles are a staple food for many of the peoples of Xinjiang. Uighurs in particular are famous throughout China and beyond for their extraordinary flung noodles. A smooth, well-kneaded wheat flour dough is shaped into a short rope, which is then taken, one end in each hand, and flung a little like a skipping rope, so that the weight of the dough stretches it longer. The thinner rope is then doubled and the flinging repeated. So it goes, until the noodle maker has many thinner strands of stretched dough in his hands. It is a fascinating process that takes practice, and although we have tried and tried, we confess that we have not yet mastered the technique.
The Uighurs have a simpler noodle, too – the most basic of all the noodles we know. Small pieces of dough are torn off, kneaded well and dropped into boiling water or broth. They look a little like gnocchi and are slightly resistant to the bite, yet tender. They make a great introduction to the world of handmade noodles. We usually top them with a version of laghman, the traditional Uighur sauce of tomatoes, peppers and lamb.
Xinjiang is also home to several other Muslim Turkic groups who each have their own (and sometimes easier) techniques for making the noodles we taste here. Along the Kazakh border in the Altai Mountains at the northern tip of Xinjiang, we found Kazakhs and Tuvans, living with their herds of horses, cattle, goats and camels. The Kazakhs there make hand-stretched noodles, while the Tuvan noodles we encountered are more like European noodles: rolled-out dough cut into strips. In both traditions the noodles are cooked in a flavoured broth or stew to make a one-dish meal – the noodle equivalent of plov (pilaf). We have seen Kazakh women in yurts and houses deftly hand-stretch noodles, dropping them into a boiling broth as they work. The noodles, richly flavored by the broth, are then served on a large platter. Traditionally they are topped with bones, meat and some chopped onion, with a small bowl of broth on the side. The Kazakhs then eat the dish with their hands, that most sensual of eating implements.
More on noodles, including recipes, is available when you buy Steppe 4.