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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆烤串, chuar)
- 1 pound (450 grams) lamb meat (lean fat ratio 7:3) (*See footnote 1)
- 1/2 onion , sliced
- 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds (Optional)
- 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
- 1/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn powder (Optional)
- Combine oil, soy sauce, cornstarch, cumin powder, chili powder, and salt in a small bowl. Mix well.
- 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.
- Thread lamb cubes closely onto skewers, alternating between lean meat and fat cubes (*see footnote 2).
- 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.
- Build a modified two zone fire, and leave some space without any coal.
- 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.
- Serve immediately. Or move to the side of the grill without coal to keep warm.
- Just like I mentioned in the post, you can serve beef alternatively or additionally if some of your guests do not eat lamb.
- 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.