Our Silk Road Search for Spice

They say variety is the spice of life, but when I was a kid I could hardly handle mild salsa. I grew up in California where there are plenty of culinary opportunities, so I can’t blame it on my childhood. I just didn’t like heat of any kind in my food.

My dad was the most adventurous of us, but that’s not saying much because his food sensibilities stretched only to mild taco sauce. So I was surprised to hear that my parents recently visited a Thai restaurant and liked it.

“But wasn’t it spicy?” I asked.

“No,” they assured me. “It was good.” Spicy food, of course, being the polar opposite of good food. It made sense to me.

Until recently.

Our slow journey toward spice began about five years ago when we moved to Central Asia. The old Silk Road traces its way through this part of the world and there is a wonderful and confusing mix of peoples and foods spread throughout the region.

One of our favorite Central Asian foods is laghman, a meat and vegetable soup with long, hand-pulled noodles. It is the flagship dish of the Uighur people, who live mostly in China and who aren’t afraid of spice. A few months into our life in Central Asia, the mother of one of our students made us real Uighur laghman, and we’ve been searching for that taste ever since. Despite the spice level, it was just flat out good.

We then suffered through a couple years of sub-standard, bland laghman before we happened upon a restaurant that served wonderful stuff. We poked through our soups, examining the ingredients. “There must be a way to make this at home,” we said to each other. Encouraged, I went home and googled for laghman recipes. My attempt wasn’t quite up to Uighur standards, but it was an improvement. It turns out that it’s actually quite difficult to get enough heat into the soup.

I never mastered laghman, but I certainly became less afraid of spice. I even found myself making cajun chicken the other day. Normally I would avoid such dangerous-sounding foods, but I had to cook something, and as a friend of mine said, “Desperation is the mother of giving it a try.” To my suprise, I liked it.

As our aversion to heat has thawed, we’ve become more adventurous in our search for the perfect laghman, with some missteps. Recently we found ourselves in “Paradise,” a restaurant boasting excellent laghman. But as we bit into our soup, our eyes began to water, our kids began hacking and coughing, and we realized we may have crossed the line.

“Do you like your noodles?” we asked our kids.

“Yes!” they said between hacks as they bounced up and down.

Even if our kids were determined to like their noodles, it was a bit too much for me.

But we hatched a new plan, this time following a Lonely Planet recommendation for a Dungan restaurant. In addition to being another Central Asian people group, the Dungan are also excellent laghman makers apparently.We were never to find out because the restaurant didn’t offer laghman.

But it did offer food with three spice levels: very hot, extra hot and super hot. Even our spice-loving children couldn’t handle it. Our oldest two bravely ate what little they could and I promised ice cream later as an apology. Our one-year-old ate like crazy for a few seconds, only stop, stick out his tongue and begin wiping it off with the palm of his hand. I can’t vouch for that method myself, but all the spice-haters out there can add their comments about their preferred strategy for ridding your mouth of heat.

I don’t think we’ll retreat all the way back to mild salsa, but I am a bit gunshy now. In the meantime, the perfect laghman remains elusive.

Photo above: a plate of laghman

The search continues! Read about our recent laghman “Discovery.

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