Pasta has such a strong connection to Italy that we (in the Western mould) tend to forget other cultures have similar traditions, not least the Asian Far East. Popular legend states that it was the 13th-century Venetian explorer Marco Polo who brought noodles back from his 24 year sojourn in China, connecting the two traditions. However, this is a spurious story that may have originated with a 1920s or 30s Spaghetti advertisement. That also brings to mind the famous 1957 BBC spoof documentary for April Fools of the Spaghetti harvest from trees in Switzerland, told with absolute believability that had many initially convinced. Both, however, bits of misinformation.
In fact, pasta was known in ancient Greece and Rome, specificially the wide, flat lasagne noodle. But, according to some food historians, it was the Arabs in the 5th century AD who devised strips of dried pasta as convenient foodstuffs for long journeys, bringing it more into a form (around the Mediterranean) that we know today.
The Eastern tradition of noodles is just as ancient, if not older than that of the West. The first written record for noodles (typically made of wheat) is in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). However, archaeological evidence suggests an even older date – back 4000 years. Excavated remains of these earliest noodles were found to have been made of flour ground from millet. Today, the most common noodles in China are made from wheat or rice flour or from mung bean starch.
Laghman Lamb & Pepper Sauce with Rice Noodles
This is my simplified adaptation of a northern Chinese Uighur sauce from Beyond the Great Wall by Jeffery Alford and Naomi Duguid. This sauce would also not be out of place in the Mediterranean – except for the cooking method in a wok and the last minute sprinkling of rice vinegar.
- 250g lean lamb
- 2 Tablespoon vegetable or peanut oil
- 2 shallots
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 green bell pepper
- 1 red bell pepper
- 400g tin of plum tomatoes
- black rice vinegar (see note below)
- 200g rice noodles – such as those used for Pad Thai
Cut the lamb into small pieces as you would do for a stir fry. Chop the shallots finely and mince the garlic. Set both the meat and the shallots/garlic aside. Remove the core from the peppers and cut into strips.
Heat the oil on high in a wok. At the same time set some well-salted water on to boil in a large pasta pot.
Fry the shallots and garlic, stirring for about a minute. Add the lamb and cook until browned – approximately 5 minutes. Toss in the pepper strips, stir and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the plum tomatoes and their juices, breaking up the tomatoes as you stir. Check for seasoning and add salt if required. Turn the heat down, cover the wok and let the sauce cook for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, soak or cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet.
Drain the noodles. Uncover the wok, put the noodles directly into the sauce, gently stir to coat. But note that, because of the smooth surface of the rice noodles, the sauce does not cling in the same way as noodles made with wheat flour. Serve immediately in bowls and sprinkle with black rice vinegar.
Black rice vinegar, a complex aged vinegar, is difficult to find in many supermarkets or is considered an expensive indulgence for a rarely used condiment. However, a number of helpful substitutes have been posted on the internet that can be made with more readily available ingredients you may already have in your kitchen: 1 part rice vinegar (white will do, but preferably brown) and 1 part balsamic vinegar (of a decent vintage, but not too aged or it is too sweet).
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