Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. “Do you hear that?” asked Sean Roberts, an expert on Uighur culture and politics and our dining companion for the day. “They’re making the lagman.”
As if inspired by the image of a pizza-maker spinning dough on his finger like a basketball and tossing it in the air, lagman-makers have a similar choreography that includes a deep swing, a flip and a smack of the thick braid of noodles. But unlike pizza dough, lagman have escaped mass production; they are handmade by definition. A bowl of lagman noodles – which are as fat and chewy as udon at certain points and as thin as spaghetti at others – is full of surprises. The generous topping of sautéed finely chopped lamb and fresh red and green peppers that came with the suyru lagman (guyru lagman comes with a more chunky variety of the same ragout) was a delicious and spicy change of pace from the milder Turkish palate.
“This is a good lagman. I’m sweating,” said Roberts.
The location of these thwapping noodles was Zeytinburnu, an Istanbul neighborhood that seems almost as far off the beaten path as the Silk Road oasis of Kashgar. The last stop on the tramway, it’s a busy little district with a pleasant, centrally located pedestrian boulevard lined with that particular style of concrete blocks present throughout all Turkish cities. At street level on the main drag, the area appears to revolve around the trade in leather jackets, much like the shopping streets of Laleli and Aksaray. But look a little closer and you’ll notice banners in Arabic script, blue and white star-and-crescent flags in upper-level windows, or an old-timer with a long stringy beard strolling down the main street in a black velvet skullcap embroidered with Uighur motifs. These are the signs of the Uighur of Zeytinburnu, a community of people from a place in Western China known as East Turkistan.
Often idealized as the proto-Turks, the Uighur have enjoyed a privileged status in Turkey since the 1950s and their community in Zeytinburnu has steadily grown since then. Though it’s increasingly difficult to leave China and enter Turkey these days, newcomers – like the cook at Türkistan Restaurant, who took our order with a bashful smile and not a word of Turkish – still arrive regularly.
At Türkistan Restaurant, we sampled large, Uighur-style mantı (dumplings); somsa, a savory pastry stuffed with lamb; and, of course, lagman. The food was all very good, but it was the scene that captured our attention. We were reminded of tight-knit communities in Queens or the West Bank of New Orleans, where restaurants play a key role in cultural preservation. Pan-Turkic newspapers were stacked on a table, the soft lilt of the Uighur language filtered through the venue, and teenagers gathered around a huge flat-screen to watch a Uighur crooner’s concert DVD.
In Istanbul, foreign communities rarely settle and thrive the way the Uighur have, so foreign restaurants rarely feel – or taste – authentic. But in Zeytinburnu, rest assured, there is a Uighur at the next table keeping the cook honest. The lagman will be as fresh and tasty as it is in Kashgar. And the noodles will always be audibly handmade.