Fragrant lamb skewers marinated in chilli, cumin and Szechuan peppercorns. Completely addictive.
By Christina Soong-Kroeger
I miss Shanghai. It’s a big, brash, frontier city where buildings go up seemingly overnight, hundreds of new restaurants open every week and you can buy virtually anything at 9pm at night. Want a foot massage in your apartment? Someone can be there in 10 minutes. Need a haircut? You’ll also enjoy a vigorous arm and shoulder massage and a complimentary ear cleaning. OK, that last service takes a bit of getting used to…
My husband and I lived in Shanghai for three years, from 2004-6. We moved there on his job, with a Danish engineering company, but I found an amazing job there, too, helping Australians do business with China.
Shanghai is a work-hard, play-hard kind of city for foreign expatriates. The opportunities were everywhere and the possibilities endless, so everyone worked long hours, often under intense pressure. Many people travelled constantly around the Asia Pacific region, as Mr Hungry Australian did; at its most ridiculous, he was travelling 80% of the time, making only ‘guest appearances’ in Shanghai.
When he was travelling, I would rarely bother cooking. If I didn’t have an evening function on, I’d eat out or buy takeaway on my way home from work. One of my favourite takeaway suppers was six lamb skewers, a hot salad and a serve of rice from our favourite Xinjiang restaurant.
Xinjiang lamb skewers are marinated with cumin and liberally sprinkled with chilli, garlic and Szechuan peppercorns. They’re incredibly fragrant and very, very moreish. Like cloves, Szechuan peppercorns have an anaesthetic effect so your lips and mouth will go slightly and pleasantly numb as you eat, which only adds to the charm of these lamb skewers.
While Xinjiang restaurants can be found throughout China, there are not that many Xinjiang restaurants outside China. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never come across Uyghur food before. Or if you have, ignored it in favour of the more familiar Cantonese, Szechuan or Hunan style of Chinese food.
But if you like spicy food, this is one heck of an introduction.Print
Addictive, Mouth-Numbing Xinjiang Chilli Lamb Skewers
Fragrant lamb skewers marinated in chilli, cumin and Szechuan peppercorns. Completely addictive!
- Author: Christina Soong-Kroeger
- Prep Time: 25 mins
- Cook Time: 12 mins
- Total Time: 37 minutes
- Yield: 4-6 1x
- 800 grams lamb shoulder
- 2 tablespoons (30 mls) peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons (27 grams) cumin
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 teaspoons (9 grams) ground ginger, or one 3cm piece fresh ginger, peeled
- 1 tablespoon (14 grams) chilli flakes (for medium-hot heat skewers)
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) Szechuan peppercorns
- 1.5 –2 teaspoons (7–9 grams) sea salt flakes
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Go to your butcher for the lamb shoulder. I specify the shoulder because you want the fattiest part of the lamb.
- Trim the sinews but keep the fat. You can trim it from the meat if you prefer but keep the fat as you will thread these randomly onto the meat skewers for extra flavour. When you’re handling the raw fat, it may not look very appetizing but believe me, it’s unbelievably tasty once it’s grilled.
- Cut the meat into 3cm chunks, trying to keep them all about the same size so they cook at around the same rate. Then put all the lamb into a mixing bowl and add oil.
- Meanwhile, prepare your spice marinade by putting all the remaining ingredients into a mortar.
- Smash the ingredients with the pestle until they are completely pulverised.
- Spoon the marinade into the mixing bowl and mix thoroughly into the meat.
- Cover and refrigerate, leaving it for at least a couple of hours or overnight.
- Soak skewers in water for at least half an hour to help prevent them burning when you cook the lamb.
- Thread the lamb onto the skewers, using around four pieces of meat for each stick.
- Grill or barbecue the lamb skewers until cooked to your liking. If you like your lamb pink try 4 minutes on each side. If you prefer your meat well done, try 6 minutes on each side. Make sure you test a skewer to see if it’s done to your liking – cooking times obviously vary enormously on BBQs.
- Serve with a hot salad and pita bread or potato salad.
Christina publishes The Hungry Australian - a collection of recipes, reviews and stories about food - and is a regular contributor to Sumptuous. Her writing has appeared in the China Daily and That’s Shanghai while her photography regularly appears on Foodgawker, Tasteologie and Photograzing. After eating her way around Shanghai, London, Hong Kong, Leeds and Melbourne, she now calls Adelaide, South Australia, home again.
Finally, I found this recipe which sounds authentic! They should just taste like the ones you can find on the street of China cooked by the uyghur people. Many other recipes sound overly complicated, but this one uses authentic marinate ingredient! Can’t wait to try it!
Hi Jenny. I tried to make these just like the real thing that I enjoyed in Shanghai. So please let me know how you get on – I hope you like them!!
Sorry. Perhaps this is Shanghainese style or something. Uyghur style is just cumin, salt, chilli and a bit of starch. There is optional minced onion.
No szechuan peppercorn, garlic and ginger.
I would also like to add that additional cumin and chilli are sprinkled on towards the end. This is done as a lot of the cumin added at the beginning tends to to have already lost it’s volatile oils by this time.
Thanks for your feedback, Al. This is how I ate them in China – some restaurants used Szechuan peppercorns, garlic and ginger. I think they have a lot more flavour this way.
Good tip about the cumin and chilli – yes, the person cooking them would usually sprinkle additional cumin and chilli on them as they cooked.
This is just what I need. When visiting my wife’s hometown in Sichuan province, I really love this lamb skewers! Love the cumin and chili taste and fragrance. Can’t wait to secretly whipped up this recipe and surprise her! Thanks Christina!
Most welcome, Sugi. Hope you enjoy them!
This sounds awesome. Could you perhaps tell what place you used to get the skewers from in Shanghai? Id love to try them, since i do not have the time to cook..
Thanks a lot!
Hi Likes Food
Um I never actually cooked them in Shanghai because they were so readily available. I only cooked them when I returned to Australia and was missing them. Sorry I can’t help.
I love this recipe. I found it when I was searching the web for variations on Uighur lamb and it caught my eye as I’m addicted to Sichuan pepper.
My son is married to a Chinese girl from Urumqi in Xinjiang and they live in Beijing, Her Mum isn’t Uighur but she loves lamb and she always adds Sichuan pepper to it. I ate chuan’r like this many time when I was in Xinjiang last year and I’ve lamb cutlets marinating in the mix at the moment to cook on a Big Green Egg Barbecue here in Ireland tomorrow. I
will be sharing the recipe with my daughter in Sydney. I will let you know how I get on. Thanks for the inspiration and enjoy being back in Oz.
Thanks for the reply, I was actually aiming for the restaurant in SH where you’d get the “six lamb skewers, a hot salad and a serve of rice“?
But I’m totally going to try your recipe when I get the chance!
Fantastic to hear about your own experiences and your lamb cutlets for the Big Green Egg Barbeque! Thanks so much for commenting and I hope you enjoy cooking them
We’ve been living in Beijing for 8+ years now and just recently discovered the place that has THE best chuar we’ve tasted so far. I desperately want to be able recreate these chuar if we’re ever back in the U.S… am tempted to offer the chuar guy a large sum of money to share his secret with us! So thanks for this web post that pointed me in the right direction. I think Al is right. Seems like just those ingredients he mentioned, though I didn’t know about the starch, so that is a good tip to know! But another thing, for our wedding favors a few years back we gave little ingredient packets of these spices for people to “recreate” our favorite Beijing snack so we asked this one large hot pot restaurant that also sold yummy chuar if they could tell us where to get the spices. They were so generous that they just gave us big bags of what I later discovered were chili flakes, whole cumin, AND whole fennel…. so am wondering if fennel is a traditional Uyghur ingredient or not??
HI Aimee, I’m so jealous! What a brilliant idea for wedding favours. I didn’t know about the whole fennel but I’m going to do some experimenting in the kitchen and see how I go. Thanks for sharing your chuar stories :D
Hi Likes Food,
Sorry, that restaurant we used to to was was torn down to make way for a new apartment block. Very Shanghai! But I reckon you could go to any Xinjiang restaurant and order the skewers, a hot salad (cucumber, tomato, onion and chilli) and a serve of rice. Enjoy!
Thanks for the recipe!!Would try it out asap. I’ve been travelled to China last Sept and seriously I’ve been addicted with this. Now I really missed it so much, couldn’t find any restaurant here in Malaysia. Still looking for Szechuan peppercorns….
I totally understand – they are totally addictive, aren’t they?
Hope you enjoy them.