Well, there’s really no easy way to put this. So I might as well just come right out and say it.

I don’t know how to cook Chinese food.

Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous coming from a Hong Kong native who ate pretty much nothing else but Chinese food for her entire childhood. Naturally, you would think that Chinese cooking would come as second nature to me. But alas, nothing could be further from the truth. (Chinese eating, however, is another matter altogether and on that front, I believe I do my culture proud.)

I remember the first time I asked my mom to teach me how to cook something Chinese, way back in the day when I considered popping frozen mini-pizzas into the microwave as cooking. I honestly don’t even remember what she was making at the time. You see, what stuck in my memory are exchanges like the following:

Me: Mom, how much soy sauce did you just add in?
Mom: Oh you know, just enough.
Me: … um, how many teaspoons is that?
Mom: Oh I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. There’s no need to measure.

Let me tell you, when you’re new to cooking, nothing is more frustrating than figuring out what to write down in your notebook (aka future recipe treasure trove from whence magical dishes shall be recreated!) when all your mother will tell you is that you need to “add just enough soy sauce.” Right then and there, I became convinced that Chinese cooking was some crazy voodoo magic, possibly involving incense sticks and incantations but definitely not involving actual measurements. So instead, I turned to cuisines with actual recipes(!) published in actual cookbooks(!) and began learning to cook from there, all the while quietly avoiding the topic of Chinese cooking and hoping no one will notice.

That is, until my favorite cookbook-writing duo came out with a book focused on Chinese cuisine, specifically the cuisines of the minority populations of China. As wary as I was about Chinese cooking, I can never resist one of their cookbooks, so our cookbook collection got another book bigger. Thanks to this new addition, I’m slowly learning to overcome my fear of Chinese cooking. And these days, you can even find me guilty of foregoing measurements in favor of instinct. Because if ever there’s a cuisine flexible enough for creative/lazy measurements, it seems it would be ours.

You know what they say: Like mother, like daughter.

Adapted from recipes in the gorgeous cookbook Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Apparently, Laghman is a province in Afghanistan but here, it simply refers to the Uyghur name for “la mian” or handmade noodles. Since I wasn’t about to attempt crazy noodle-pulling stunts, I opted to make noodle shells, so this is not exactly a traditional “laghman.”

Egg Noodle Shells:
about 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus some extra for dusting
0.5 tsp salt
1 large egg
about 0.5 cup lukewarm water

Laghman Sauce:
0.5 lb boneless lamb
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2-3 cloves minced garlic
2 large bell peppers (red, orange, yellow, or combination), cored, seeded, sliced into strips
1.5 lb ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tsp salt
parsley, chopped for garnish
black rice vinegar for serving (see photo)

Prepping the noodles: In a food processor, pulse together flour and salt briefly to mix. Add the egg and pulse again to incorporate. Now, with the blade running, slowly trickle in water until the dough gathers into a ball. The dough will be slightly wet and sticky. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead the dough until very smooth, dusting the board and your hands with flour as needed to keep from sticking. The final dough should be stiff and strong. Wrap in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for at least 30 min. Prepare a baking sheet by dusting it with flour and set aside.

Once the dough has rested, cut it into 8 pieces. Using your palms, roll each piece out into a long cylinder about 8-10 inches long. Dust with plenty of flour and cut the cylinder into small chunks – you should get about 10-12 pieces per cylinder. Toss the dough pieces with more flour to keep them from sticking. Now you’re ready to make the shells. Flour your palms and gently roll a piece of dough between them into a ball. Put the ball on your left palm, and with your right thumb, press down on the center while sliding your thumb a bit to create a curly, shell shape (see photo). Place your newly-made shell on the floured baking sheet and continue with the rest of the dough pieces.

Bring a large pot of water to boil so you’re ready to cook the noodles. Leave the tray of noodles to dry a bit while you work on the sauce.

Making the sauce: Cut the lamb into small pieces. Make sure you have all your other ingredients ready and within easy reach since the stir-frying will go quickly.

Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the oil and swirl it around a bit. Once the oil is hot, add onion, garlic, lamb and stir-fry until the meat changes color and the onion has softened and turned translucent (about 4-5 min). Add the peppers and stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and salt and mix well. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the peppers are soft (but not mushy) and the whole thing looks quite saucy and is simmering.

Finishing the dish: While the sauce is simmering, salt the pot of boiling water and carefully add in the noodles. Cook until al dente, which should take about 5 min since the noodles are freshly made.

Drain the noodles and divide them between four bowls. Ladle in plenty of sauce over the noodles. Garnish with some chopped parsley. Serve with black rice vinegar, which can be added to taste.

(Makes 4 servings)