Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆烤串, chuar)

The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way that Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

Living in Austin Texas, we have the privilege of enjoying high quality BBQ. If we crave some meat for lunch, we simply drive five minutes to a food truck and spend 15 dollars on a box of smoky beef brisket, sausage, and ribs, with mac and cheese and potato salad as sides. That meal is more than enough for two.

What I’ve missed has been Xinjiang style grilled lamb, an iconic street snack in Northern China. When summer comes, locals crowd the streets of Beijing. They sit outdoors, wearing t-shirts and flip flops, snacking on lamb skewers and drinking cold beer. People call them “old Beijing skewers” nowadays. But the food originated in Xinjiang, the largest Chinese administrative division, where the majority of people are ethnically Uighur and religiously Muslim.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

What are Xinjiang lamb skewers

Lamb skewers, or chuar (串儿), are similar to Middle Eastern style lamb kebabs, but vary in the size of the cut and the way they’re seasoned. The most common type you’ll find in Beijing are the smaller skewers. For a dinner for two, it’s not strange that they’d start by ordering a dozen skewers, then finish with another 30 to feel satisfied. The skewers are always cooked in small batches and served right off the grill. We want our skewers smoking hot, so hot you can still hear the oil sizzling on the meat.

Made with 4 to 5 pieces of lamb, the skewers are only about 5 inches long, and the meat is no bigger than the thickness of your thumb. Vendors marinate the meat with salt, both whole and ground cumin, white pepper, chili powder, and Sichuan peppercorns. To make the cheap lamb kabobs extra juicy, they place small chunks of fat between each piece of meat. The fat mostly melts away on the grill, leaving caramelized crispy bits that burst in your mouth with savory juice.

Street vendors use the simplest grill, a 20-inch by 7-inch rectangular box made of thin sheet metal to hold the charcoal. It doesn’t even have a grate on it, let alone a lid. The grill is just narrow enough to hold the bamboo skewers with the meat fully exposed to the charcoal.

A vendor can skillfully hold 10 skewers in each hand in a fan arrangement, flipping every few minutes, and occasionally sprinkling another layer of cumin and chili powder onto them. The fat melts and drips down onto the charcoal, sputtering and smoking. The aroma from the roasted spices and browning meat mixes with the hot summer air.

Man, it was good!

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

How to cook Xinjiang lamb skewers in your backyard

To recreate the real-deal Chinese grilling experience, I purchased a 32-inch party grill from Amazon. It is exactly the type that street vendors use back in China. Of course you can cook this dish on your Weber grill. But the benefits of this smaller rectangle grill are:

  • You can use a small amount of charcoal to generate very high heat.
  • You can cook many skewers at the same time.
  • The meat will be charred properly with direct heat, due to its short distance to the charcoal.

I won’t go too deep into how to use the Chinese grill here. I will publish a new post on how to host a Chinese grilling party later this week.

Which cut to choose

There are two options.

1. Choose a very lean cut with a small chunk of lamb fat.

This is the method that Chinese street vendors use. And it’s the most economic way to do it. The lamb fat will mostly melt away during grilling and become crispy brown bits. The combination of grilled lamb meat with fat tastes even better than crispy bacon.

I found it’s difficult to find lamb fat in the US (we have the opposite problem in China, too much fat…), because supermarket butchers tend to trim the lamb very well. If you use lamb leg meat, then you can trim the fat cap off and use it. Or you can get stew meat for the lean part. Then ask the butcher if they have any excess fat left. They usually do.

2. Choose a well marbled cut.

I have tried to use country style lamb ribs (you can see these in my pictures). I trimmed the meat from the bones and diced them into small chunks. This cut is well marbled and contains quite a bit of fat. However it costs more money and takes extra time to prepare.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

Prepare the skewers the proper way

1. Cut the lean meat into small, evenly sized squares, and cut the fat into smaller, thinner pieces.

It’s important to get all the pieces just cooked through at the same time, so the meat remains tender and juicy. The proper size of the meat should be about 1-cm (1/2-inch) thick if you’re using bamboo skewers. I found it faster to cut the meat into a strip (1*1*2-cm / 0.5*0.5*1-inch) and thread the meat onto the skewer lengthwise.

I was using a much larger stainless steel skewer here, so I cut the meat into 1.5-cm (2/3-inch) pieces. Try to keep each piece under 2 cm (1 inch), so the skewers will be juicier and more flavorful.

2. Put a piece of fat between lean pieces when preparing the skewers.

This is the key part of making the best lamb skewers. If the raw skewers look a bit too fatty to you, it means you’re doing it properly.

The fat prevents the lean part from drying out. The majority of the fat will melt away during the cooking and the pieces of fat will turn to super crispy bits in the end. Same idea with crispy bacon. Plus, the dripping fat will cause some flames over the charcoal, which sear the surface of meat immediately. A bit of flame is our friend in this case.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.3. Always marinate the meat.

Some online recipes suggest seasoning the lamb and cooking it straight away. But marinating is the key to creating the best lamb kebabs, according to Uyghur vendors. I’ve tried both ways and found that doing this extra step is totally worth the trouble. The marinade creates a juicier lamb and eliminates the gamey flavor.

Always try to marinate the meat for a couple of hours in advance, so the seasoning will penetrate deeper. If you don’t have enough time, you can still marinate the skewers for 30 minutes right before cooking.

Cook the skewers just like a street vendor

1. Do use a charcoal grill.

Even if you don’t have a Chinese grill, you’ll need a charcoal grill to generate the high heat needed to sear the meat properly. Not to mention that you’ll also get the heavenly smokiness. The smaller the grill, the better.

2. Build a modified two-zone fire

You should have three zones. A third of the grill should be covered with plenty of coals to sear the meat. You should also have a large area with a single layer of coals for slower cooking. Leave a small space without any coal, to place finished skewers and keep them warm.

3. Season the skewers with PLENTY of cumin and chili powder during grilling

Cumin powder loses its fragrance when heated up too much. To season the skewers properly, sprinkle plenty of cumin powder, cumin seeds, and chili powder (skip chili powder if you don’t eat spicy food). By plenty, I mean you should dump cumin powder from the jar until it almost covers both sides of the lamb. Half of the spice will drip away with the fat. So you get just the right amount of seasoning in the end.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.4. Flip frequently and move between zones

You’ll be surprised at how fast the skewers cook when using the Chinese grill. It might take 5 minutes to sear the skewers on an average sized grill, but it only takes a minute or two in this case. You should flip the skewers constantly. The fat will melt and cause flames, which char the surface immediately. Move the skewers to the side with less coal. It will take a few minutes to finish cooking.

What if some guests don’t eat lamb?

The good news is that you can cook beef skewers using the same recipe. I often prepare beef skewers if I’m hosting an event or a class, just in chase some of my guests do not eat lamb. To make beef skewers, use the same method to choose, prep and cook the meat. One of my favorite cuts is boneless short ribs from Costco. It’s half the price of fancy cuts and has beautiful marbling.

When we host a Chinese grilling party, the star is always the lamb skewers. The other additional items for your party can be: pork chop buns, honey soy glazed wings, and hoisin asparagus.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewer (新疆烤串, chuar) - The real-deal recipe that helps you cook exactly the way Chinese street vendors do. Learn the best practices of choosing cuts, making the marinade, and grilling over charcoal.

Love Xinjiang food? Me too! I have a collection of Xinjiang recipes, including the famous Ding Ding Chao Mian, lamb samosas (kao bao zi), and lamb pilaf. They are delicious weekend projects for you to challenge yourself with 🙂

5.0 from 11 reviews
Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆烤串, chuar)
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Chinese
Serves: About 12 skewers
Ingredients
  • 450 grams (1 pound) lamb meat (lean fat ratio 7:3) (*See footnote 1)
  • 1/2 onion, sliced
  • (Optional) 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
Marinade
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce (or soy sauce, or tamari for gluten-free)
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder and extra for grilling
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder and extra for grilling
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • (Optional) 1/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn powder
Instructions
  1. Combine oil, soy sauce, cornstarch, cumin powder, chili powder, and salt in a small bowl. Mix well.
  2. Trim fat from the lamb meat if necessary. Cut lean part into 1.5-cm (0.5-inch) cubes. Cut fat into thin pieces half the size of the lean pieces.
  3. Thread lamb cubes closely onto skewers, alternating between lean meat and fat cubes (*see footnote 2).
    Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Cooking Process
  4. Spread onion inside a 1-gallon ziploc bag. Place lamb skewers on top of the onion. Pour the marinade over the lamb. Massage the bag so the lamb is covered evenly with the marinade. Seal both sides of the bag and place upside down, the onions facing up. Let marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.
    Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Cooking Process Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Cooking Process
  5. Build a modified two zone fire, and leave some space without any coal.
  6. Transfer the lamb skewers onto the grilling grate, one finger’s width apart. Flip frequently until the lamb turns dark brown on all surfaces. Move to indirect fire. Generously sprinkle a layer cumin powder, then chili powder (or you can skip the chili powder if you don’t want the lamb to be too spicy). Flip, then sprinkle another layer of cumin powder. Sprinkle whole cumin seeds onto the lamb for extra flavor, if using. Grill until the meat is cooked through.
    Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Cooking Process Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Cooking Process
  7. Serve immediately. Or move to the side of the grill without coal to keep warm.
Notes
(1) Just like I mentioned in the post, you can serve beef alternatively or additionally if some of your guests do not eat lamb.

(2) If you really don’t like lamb fat, you can put one piece of fat for every two to three pieces of lean meat. Again, the fat will shrink a lot because a lot of it will render and drip off during roasting. The fat left on the skewer will be crispy and add a nice flavor to the meat.

The nutrition facts are calculated based on 1 of the 12 servings generated by this recipe.

Xinjiang Lamb Skewers Nutrition Facts

Disclosure

Omnivore's Cookbook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
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Meet Maggie

Hi I'm Maggie Zhu! Welcome to my site about modern Chinese cooking - including street food, family recipes, and restaurant dishes. I take a less labor-intensive approach while maintaining the taste and look of the dish. I am originally from Beijing, and now cook from my Austin, Texas kitchen.

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38 thoughts on “Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆烤串, chuar)

  1. Shinee

    Maggie, these lamb skewers look so good! I love it. Every summer, when I visit Mongolia, my dad takes me out to the nature to make very similar skewers with mutton.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Thanks Shinee! Your comment means a lot to me, because I know you had THE authentic skewers in Mongolia and have tasted the best ones. The mutton meat sounds much much better than the lamb leg. I wish I could hunt down some mutton meat from the online store, so I can try out the real deal taste! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Helen @ Scrummy Lane

    This is just like the ‘souvlaki’ skewers that are everywhere here in Greece, Maggie – lamb skewers must be especially wonderful, though. I love your tip about adding little bits of fat. I learnt recently that you shouldn’t necessarily skimp on the fat when cooking meat! More fat = more deliciousness, usually!
    The flavours on these sound just wonderful, too!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      You are totally right! Why the word souvlaki didn’t come to my mind earlier? I went to Greece a few months ago and had some lamb souvlaki there. The one I had in Greece was made from ground lamb, and they were so good! Yep, the idea of this recipe is quite similar (I think one big difference is Greek souvlaki uses olive oil, so the meat will have slightly different flavor).
      Also, totally agree on adding fat when cooking meat. You can easily remove the fat after cooking, but it keeps the meat tender and moist during the cooking!

      Reply
  3. [email protected] Eats

    Maggie! This is INCREDIBLE! Firstly, that photo knocked me around – it’s a stunner, I honestly thought I was looking at a Gourmet Traveller photo! And secondly – this recipe – SO interesting for a Chinese recipe, it is quasi Middle Easter with those spices used. And lamb is not a protein I think of for Chinese food but I remember that it is quite common in the norther parts. This is brilliant! I’m making it SOON! And PS we are in sync. I made satay chicken skewers yesterday! My photo was not good so I’m trying again today. I am tempted to copy your gorgeous styling! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I’m so flattered Nagi, and pls feel free to copy the styling! We all learn from each other, aren’t we? 🙂
      It’s true that lamb is not the main protein in southern China, but it’s quite common in northern and mid-west part of China (we add it in soup, stew and serve it grilled). Considering there is more than 20 millions Muslims in China, and lamb is one of the most important items in their daily meals, you won’t be surprised that you can see lamb dishes quite often here. Plus, lamb is also an important ingredient for Chinese imperial cuisine (esp. Qing dynasty style). You’ll be amazed by the great variety of lamb dishes in this type of restaurants here. Don’t forget to stop by and visit Beijing when planning your next gourmet trip 😉

      Reply
  4. Sarah

    This is one of my favorite dishes! When I was younger growing up in China, we would get these off the street side vendors and they’d be so delicious! The cumin powder on these looks amazing. And beautiful photos!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Thanks Rachel! I’m so glad someone out there understands the deliciousness of lamb fat! More lamb recipes is coming to celebrate the year! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Bam's Kitchen

    I love this dish Maggie and you have made brown food look delicious! How did you do that?!! Lamb and cumin is such a wonderful pairing. The little addition of the Sichuan gives it a nice kick. Having a little BBQ on the balcony with your delicious uyghur style lamb skewers and some Tsingtao beers sounds like a great plan. Your cute little blue dishes are adorable. Sharing, of course!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I’m so glad you like the photos Bobbi! Actually, my little secret of shooting brown food is to add color. I refrained from the temptation to scatter green onion (or cilantro) on the skewers (it just won’t taste right), so instead, I bumped up the contrast in the post process. Sounds like cheating right? But I love the method because it’s fast and work like magic 😉

      Reply
  6. Jeff

    Thanks for the recipe. Came out great. I tweaked it a little since I didn’t have time to skewer them.

    No skewers, microplaned a couple cloves of garlic into the marinade, used odd cuts of shoulder meat (I found it cheaper than the leg), separated fat from the lean meat (and marinaded them separately). Cut the meat pieces slightly bigger. Sauteed on medium high, fat first till rendered, then removed the fat bits and tossed in the lamb meat until browned and then tossed in some fresh chopped green onions in the residual heat.

    I appreciate your attention to detail in all of your recipe break downs. Great step by steps and photos!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Jef, thanks for letting me know your cooking result! Your method sounds great! I can imagine the cooking process and I bet the dish will be very delicious. I really like the idea of rendering the fat first and then removing the fat bits. I know a lot of people don’t really like these greasy parts.
      I’d love to try this out next time, because just like you said, I don’t always have time to skewer them too! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Reply
  7. Kevin | Keviniscooking

    Love your grill setup. I don’t have charcoal, just gas and it does give a different flavor. The fat tip is great, so true. Gotta keep that lean lamb moist while grilling and the charred edges look fantastic Maggie! So good!

    Reply
  8. Tricia @ Saving room for dessert

    Maggie this is a wonderful, informative, drool-worthy post and I can’t wait to try this at home! We have a small grill we hardly use but I am getting it out as soon as possible. You make me want to travel to China and try all the street food. I can almost smell it cooking now 🙂

    Reply
  9. Robyn @ Simply Fresh Dinners

    I could eat this all the time. I’m a big fan of lamb but for some reason don’t think to buy it very often. I need to change that because the lamb at the farms is superb. Your population is so diverse in China in it’s languages, cultures and religions – fascinating!

    Reply
  10. Marbles

    I just finished eating this. I waited all week to try this, and it was totally worth it. I think I will add more Sichuan next time.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed the recipe Marbles! The Sichuan peppercorns are not a main seasoning in this dish, but I admit that I love to add a lot too 🙂
      Thank you for taking time to leave a comment. Have a great week!

      Reply
  11. Arslan

    I’m ethnically Mongolian and from Xinjiang and these skewers are amazing. To make it more authentic, the meat should be sliced thinner like 1/2 inch thickness and “threaded” onto the skewers. This makes cooking much faster. Also, try this same recipe with liver and it will blow your mind.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Arslan, I’m from Beijing and these lamb skewers are our favorite! My current metal skewers are too large for 1/2-inch cut. And I had trouble grilling with the bamboo skewers, because they catch fire too fast. I need to practice more! Next time I’ll try chicken heart and liver. I can imagine, the liver will taste SO GOOD! 🙂

      Reply
  12. Walt Palmer

    I made these using venison (White-tail deer). Since venison is a very lean meat, I put a 3/4″ square of bacon between each cube of venison on the skewer. I marinated the bacon along with the venison and onions in a big bowl for several hours before threading the meat onto the skewers. Granted, it’s not a traditional Xinjiang or Uighur version of the recipe with venison and bacon, but I just wanted to let deer hunters know that this is another delicious way to cook venison. My family and guests raved about it. Be sure to keep it rare, as always with venison!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Walt, I’m so glad to hear you like the recipe and thanks for taking time to leave such a thorough comment! The venison and bacon idea sounds so delicious. Xinjiang cuisine uses this flavor profile on many dishes, so I’d say your version is very authentic 😉 The cumin flavor especially works well on game meat. I’d love to try the recipe with venison next time when I can find some 🙂

      Reply
  13. Gary

    Just what I was looking for. I lived in Beijing for 9 years, and outside NY Chinatown, you just can’t find these authentically done. Now I just have to find that leg of lamb. Oh, I would point out from your intro that Uygurs are now the minority in Xinjiang at ~42%.

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Gary, I really wish the Chinese lamb skewers will get more popular in the US, because they are SO GOOD!
      In fact you can use other cut, even lamb stew meat. My husband used it to make these skewers last time and they turned out well. Although it won’t by my top choice. I think that small piece of crispy lamb fat is crucial!
      Noted about the super low Uygurs ratio in Xinjiang… Although I’ll keep the blog post because it’s slightly more than Han (40.6%).

      Reply
  14. Gary

    So, I finally got around to making these. I only deviated a bit just putting the meat in the bag with the marinade and onions overnight, rather than on the skewers. I made the skewers the next day, and they grilled really fast. With just a simple round grill, I had to move the chuanr around as they grilled instead of having zones (but I’m going to order the one on Amazon now). It was really delicious and very much what I remember from my years in Beijing. Another note I didn’t see here, if you use wooden skewers, especially the small ones, it’s a good idea to let them soak in water for 24 hours before being used. That helps to prevent them from burning up before the meat is cooked. Thanks for the recipe!

    Reply
    1. Maggie Post author

      Hi Gary, thanks so much for taking time to leave a comment, and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the dish!
      Your method is totally legit. Actually it works better than marinating on a skewer, since the meat will be fully covered in the marinade and thus impart with more flavors. The only down side I found is, the marinade makes the meat quite slippery and a bit difficult to skewer. That’s why I used the shortcut to skewer them first…
      As for the grill, I found the smaller Asian grill is much more efficient when dealing with smaller cuts. It sears the meat perfectly without needing a lot of coals. I can’t wait to hear your feedback once you tried the smaller grill.
      And thanks for sharing the tip about soaking the skewers! I never trust myself with them because I always burn them into ash lol I’ll try the soaking like you suggested, no shortcut.
      Have a great week ahead Gary!

      Reply