James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Lagman Vs. Laksa: Who Will Win the Noodle Championship?

Photo by: Kim Sergey

Lagman Vs. Laksa: Who Will Win the Noodle Championship?

Lagman in Tashkent

Igor spoke more English than our usual Uzbek hosts, though he shared their tendency to overfeed us.

It was a fine Monday morning when he took us to his favorite kafesi for a bowl of lagman; he told us that it was the best in the city. But I had my doubts, because I come from Malaysia, and I believe we have the best noodle soups in the world.

When we arrived in an alley packed with florists and bakers, I could smell fresh bread wafting in the air. A young boy holding up a stack of lepyoshka, a Central Asian flatbread, walked across the room, which was filled with people tucking into bowls of red soup.

We had tried a lot of different lagman in the region, from dingy establishments near the vokzal—the main bus station in small towns—to homemade noodles prepared by grandmothers who insisted on us having a second round. But Lola Kafesi had a reputation among the locals. Igor said that even during the financial crisis in 2008, its tables were always full.

We ordered three bowls of hot lagman, two pieces of lepyoshka, and a pot of green tea with lemon for three people. There is no such thing as carb overload here, and people always suggest you wipe your bowls clean with the bread. The noodles arrived, and I could see that the soup contents had a variety of herbs, red peppers, cubes of beef, and the layer of oil so common in dishes in Central Asia.

“Time to eat!” exclaimed our host. “Every time I host someone from Couchsurfing, I take them here and they are never disappointed.”

Couchsurfing is quasi-illegal in Uzbekistan, because tourists need to register with their hostels and hotels whenever they stay in a city for more than three days. The registration process causes a lot of confusion and anxiety for travelers and their hosts. Igor hosted us for two nights. We were supposed to leave Tashkent afterwards, but we ended up staying in the city for a few more nights. I had no trouble crossing the border into Kazakhstan, but my friend did. So, he tried another border, where they let him through. The rules are a little hazy.

I slurped on the soup, and felt a sense of relief that it was not as oily as other ones I’ve tried. A bite of the tender beef brought a smile to my face. It was no laksa, but the broth was full of flavor and the combination of chewy noodles, soft vegetables, and beef made the dish a pleasure to devour.

The clientele was mostly middle-aged men who came here with their friends, sharing some lagman, bread, and tea. I could not see a single tourist; they usually join tour groups who take them to restaurants on their planned itineraries. If it weren’t for Igor, who took a risk by hosting us and taking us to this local spot, we would never have known about it.

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