Monday, February 6, 2012

Muslim style boneless lamb

Tenderest lamb imaginable
Of the three major influences on Beijing's cuisine -- Manchuria, Shandong, and Muslim -- perhaps the most remarkable one is the last. China in no way is an Islamic nation, nor has any of its emperors or presidents ever been a Muslim. But the foods of Central Asia were carried into the northern regions of China over a thousand years ago, and they took root in a land that has enthusiastically welcomed their flavors and aesthetics. 

True, many Chinese converted to Islam over the years, and the northwest and western regions still are home to a great many Muslims. But something happened to the spices and meats and breads that wound their way along the northern Silk Road and finally into the nation's capital: the foods became unmistakably Chinese.

Take this lamb recipe, for example. The meat is simmered for hours until little more than a harsh look makes it fall apart in your hands. And yet it is not at all dry: in fact, this might be the tastiest and juiciest lamb you've ever tried. It is on a par with the most delectable lamb dishes China offers.

But it is more than that: exotic spices that were imported into China -- cinnamon and fennel -- nestle up to Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, ginger, and green onions to scent even the innermost regions of the meat. Soy sauce and North China's beloved sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang) season the sauce, but in keeping with halal rules there is no rice wine. 

The meat is perfectly delicious as is, but to bring it up one more level, it is fried in roasted sesame oil, which not only flavors the exterior, but also crisps up the edges and offers some of that inimitable Chinese counterpoint of tastes and textures.

This is served simply with some tender Spring Wraps to enfold the meat, along with a sprinkling of either shredded green onions or cilantro, plus the Fried Sweet Wheat Paste, which has a recipe down below, and the Mustardy Cabbage Mounds in the previous post make the perfect accompaniment. You can, of course, use plain sweet wheat paste instead of heating it up, but there is a rawness in the stuff that comes out of a jar, and this responds happily to a quick frying with some sesame oil, sugar, and a sprinkle of soy sauce to balance out the flavors.  

Leftover meat can be used, along with some of the cooking stock, as a terrific topping for plain wheat noodles. Top with some blanched greens and you have an utterly delicious meal practically as an afterthought!

Peppercorns and lamb
Muslim style boneless lamb -- 鍋燒羊肉  Guoshao yangrou
Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish and around 16 people as part of a multicourse meal


Approximately 3½ pounds boneless organic, free-range lamb (leg or shoulder; see Tips)
1 leek or 5 green onions, trimmed and cleaned (see Tips)
10 slices fresh ginger
3 whole star anise
½ cup regular, good quality soy sauce
2 tablespoons sweet wheat paste
2 inches stick cinnamon
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole fennel seeds
Filtered water to cover
1 cup fresh roasted sesame oil

Fried Sweet Wheat Paste Sauce (recipe follows)
Shredded green onions and/or cilantro sprigs
Double the Spring Wraps recipe if you are serving the entire amount

1. Rinse the meat and pat it dry. If your butcher has not bundled the lamb in a net, use kitchen twine to tie it up, which will keep the meat from disintegrating during the long simmering.

2. Place the meat in a pot, cover with tap water, and bring the water to a boil. Simmer the meat for about 10 minutes, at which point scum will have risen to the surface. Dump out the water and rinse both the meat and the pot. Wipe all of the scum off with a paper towel and return the meat to the pot.

3. Add the leek or green onions in one piece to the pot (they are easier to remove this way), as well as the ginger, star anise, soy sauce, sweet wheat paste, cinnamon, Sichuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds. Add enough filtered water to cover the lamb. Bring the pot to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Slowly cook the lamb uncovered for 4 hours, or until extremely tender. Cool in the stock. Remove the lamb from the stock and let it drain; see Tips. (You may prepare the lamb ahead of time up to this point and refrigerate the meat; the stock can be used for other things, as suggested above, and the fat can be easily removed once it is chilled.)

4. Remove the net or twine. Cut the meat in half with the grain so that you have two large slabs. (Fry only as much of the meat as you want to serve immediately.) Heat the sesame oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it starts to smoke and carefully add one half of the meat. Fry it on both sides until crispy. Cut it against the grain into strips and serve with the Spring Wraps, shredded green onions and/or cilantro sprigs, and Fried Sweet Wheat Paste Sauce. To eat, smear some of the sauce down the middle of a wrap, add a strip of the lamb, and tuck in some of the green onions; roll them up together and eat with your hands.

Dark & delicious
Fried Sweet Wheat Paste Sauce炸甜麵醬 Zha tianmianjiang
Makes about ½ cup

3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil
½ cup sweet wheat paste (tianmianjiang)
2 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons regular soy sauce, or to taste

1. Pour the sesame oil into a wok and warm it up over medium heat until it is very liquid. Stir in the sweet wheat paste until the oil is incorporated. Taste and add as much sugar and soy sauce as needed. Cool to room temperature.

2. Scrape the sauce into either a container or small dishes for individual service. (This can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator or at room temperature.) Sprinkle with the sesame seeds as garnish, if desired.


Use any tasty cut of boneless lamb; it should be fatty for the most flavor, and it can be full of connective tissue and tendons (as in the leg), since these will become soft and tender by the time the meat is fully cooked.

Some butchers will provide a net for boneless cuts like this. If yours doesn’t, simply tie kitchen twine around the lamb as for a roast (i.e., tightly around the meat at 1-inch intervals).

If you are using a leek, keep the root end on, split it down the center, and then rinse the leek under running water to remove all of the sand and dirt. Shake the leek dry and add it to the pot without cutting it up further; this makes its later removal much easier.

The brands of sweet wheat paste vary, so use your own judgment when seasoning the sauce. It should not be overly sweet, but rather have a lovely balance of sweet and savory. 

Top and bottom photo credit: Jen Y. Cheng

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