Out on the far west edge of China is a region they call Xinjiang ("the new borderlands"), which also has the old and much more romantic English name of Chinese Turkestan. A title like that summons up images of caravans on the ancient Silk Road that used to connect Xi'an in the east with Venice in the west, passing through fabled oases like Samarkand as spices and silks wound their way across the harshest terrain on the planet.
When we finally got enough money together to make our long-delayed trip to China, the first place on my list was China's wild west. It was the one place I was as yet unfamiliar with, but the Silk Road had haunted my memories ever since my youth, when I had read and then dreamed about bazaars and shifting sands, wanting to smell the aroma of whole lambs roasting over open fires.
|Cumin, chili pepper, & garlic|
Take, for example, this wondrous skewered lamb dish from Xinjiang. It is something that speaks of an Uzbek mother somewhere upstream further west along the Silk Road. And yet, where Uzbekis might prepare this with lemon juice, onions, cilantro, coriander seeds, salt, and garlic, in Xinjiang all of these flavors are discarded (save for the salt and garlic so beloved by Chinese of every stripe) in favor of a simple dry rub of ground chili peppers and powdered cumin. As a result, this meat dish is ineffably Chinese and yet completely halal.
|Dry rub as the Gobi|
This recipe is so easy that I am always tempted to make a couple of pounds of the meat tossed with the dry rub for fast dinners later on in the week. It freezes well this way, too, and only needs to be defrosted before threading it onto the skewers.
You can vary the spices as you like, adding more chili pepper if you really enjoy hot foods, or tossing in some minced ginger. The cumin is what really makes this dish especially tasty, and for this I like to use freshly ground cumin seeds, which are much more aromatic than the fusty powder sitting on the back of your shelf behind an ancient jar of ground cloves.
Serve these kebabs with steamed rice or Xinjiang-style pilaf (coming soon), or with any number of flatbreads. I especially love these tasty nuggets wrapped up in a freshly-made thin griddle bread (also coming soon) with no more than a few sprigs of cilantro for contrast and a very unkosher cold beer to wash it all down.
Xinjiang style lamb kebabs
Xīnjiāng yángròu chuàn 新疆羊肉串
Xīnjiāng yángròu chuàn 新疆羊肉串
Serves 4 as an entree
1 pound boneless lamb shoulder (see Tips)
4 to 6 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons coarsely ground chili pepper
2 teaspoons sea salt
1. Start this recipe at least 6 hours before you wish to serve it. Use 8 small or 4 large metal or bamboo skewers for the kebabs; I like long, forked bamboo skewers (see Tips), as the pair of tines helps hold the meat easily, and the sharp ends make threading the meat relatively easily. If you are using bamboo skewers, soak them in warm water for a few hours before you cook the meat.
2. Rinse the meat and pat it dry with a paper towel. Trim off and discard any silver skin or tendons, but leave on the fat. Cut the meat in long, thin strips against the grain; the length of the strips doesn't matter, but the meat should be about ¼-inch thick. Place the strips in a resealable plastic bag or a plastic container.
4. Prepare either a ridged grill pan for indoor cooking or an outdoor barbecue for grilling. Thread the meat onto the skewers, but don’t compact the meat too tightly so that it cooks evenly. Cook the meat on a grill pan or barbecue over medium heat. Allow one side to slightly char before turning the skewer over. The lamb is done when the second side is also lightly charred. Let the meat rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
I like lamb shoulders because the meat is flavorful and tender without costing much. Also, if the butcher bones it first, this makes life a whole lot simpler. If you buy a whole shoulder, you can divide it into smaller portions and freeze whatever you are not using within the next couple of days.
Organic lamb really shines in this dish, as it is all about the quality of the meat.
|Pretty bamboo skewers|
For my money, the best skewers are double-tined bamboo. First of all, they are relatively cheap but still can be used a few times before discarding. The ends are needle sharp, which makes threading the meat a breeze, and the two tines allow the meat to not only be skewered, but also wrapped around the bamboo as needed. Very convenient. Just be sure to soak them well so that they don't burn up.