Monday, December 31, 2012

Xinjiang style lamb kebabs

Kebabs are popular all across Central Asia, from Turkey in the west and up through North China. The differences in preparation are relatively minimal, depending upon the type and cut of meat, as well as the seasonings.

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
This is Central Asia seen through a Chinese prism, a region where Cossacks, Mongolians, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Hui Muslims have as much claim to membership in China's glorious spectrum of cuisines as the Hans, their cultures intermingling with glorious abandon as spices from one region creep into and improve another, where cooking methods evolve as new generations grow up with the blood of many tribes mingling in their veins.

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
The traditional recipe for this kebab calls for oil to be mixed in with the meat. But I use the unsung and under-appreciated shoulder here (as in most of my lamb dishes) and have found that the fat already on this delightful part of the animal is just the right amount to both baste the meat as it cooks and provide a buttery flavor. Also, if you are cooking indoors, the extra oil often will cause billows of smoke, so try it without the oil first and see if you like it.

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.

Happy 2013!

Served on griddle breads

Xinjiang style lamb kebabs 
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.

Marinating lamb
3. Mix the garlic, cumin, chili pepper, and salt together, and then use this as a dry rub for the meat. Toss the seasonings with the meat and lightly massage it into each piece so that the lamb is well seasoned. Close the bag or container and refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to around 5 days, depending upon your fridge (again, the prepped meat also freezes well).

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
Like many spices, cumin is best when it is freshly ground. I buy whole seeds and then grind around ¼ cup of the spice to have on hand for my far west binges, as this way it stays fresh and fragrant.

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.


  1. This looks really great. Thanks for posting. I often ate at a hole in the wall Xinjiang barbecue Lamb place in Shanghai and the taste really blew me away. Im definitely going to give this a go.

    1. Thanks! Let me know if this lives up to your memories... it sure did for me.

  2. Hi

    I made this recipe of yours (as well as the pao cai recipe). Both are awesome and thanks so much for your blog.

    This tasted like the traditional Uyghur style I have eaten at restaurants.

    However I think I like the modified version often found as street food and at restaurants. I think they leave out the garlic (or reduce the amount greatly) and maybe add a little sugar to balance out the saltiness. Not sure. Do you have any idea about what I am talking about =/ ?

    1. Part of the fun of cooking is adjusting the seasoning so that it fits your palate. Go for it! :)

    2. Zombie, this also what I'm looking for so very badly! Thanks for the idea with the sugar, will try that!

  3. Being much more skilled than I, I was hoping you would have an idea as to how to adjust the seasoning haha :)

    1. It all depends on what you like, as we each have our preferences. If you were to eliminate the garlic, I would suggest that you amp up the other seasonings, perhaps using some soy sauce instead of the salt. For example, as you like sweetness here, perhaps use "sweet soy sauce" (Lee Kum Kee brand is good) instead of regular soy sauce to baste the lamb during the last few minutes. Do not grill a sweet marinade for too long, as the sugar will burn and turn bitter.