While studying chemical engineering as an exchange student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, I would often look to the music collection at the campus library as a respite to the heat and frenetic pace of Hong Kong. It was through this collection that I discovered Kitaro’s Silk Road recordings and became enamored with China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This region which borders Afghanistan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia Pakistan, and Tajikistan is home to a large population of Muslim Uighurs whose cuisine reflects a mix of Central Asian influences that make it want of my favorite cuisines. Uighur food is gaining in popularity and small street stalls are popping up all over China’s largest cities serving lamb skewers or chuar. During summer evenings in Beijing, smoke from the charcoal grill of my local street stall would filter up to my apartment and at less than $.50 per skewer, they were always an irresistible treat. Luckily, they are super easy to prepare. I have shared my own version for lamb skewers, but this works equally well with chicken or beef. I like to toss the meat in all the seasonings ahead of time to allow the spices to really adhere to the meat, but if you are running short on time, it’s not absolutely necessary.
Xinjiang-style Lamb Skewers
2 lbs. boneless lamb (I like to use leg of lamb)
2 -3 Tbs whole cumin
1 Tbs sea-salt
1-2 Tbs whole coriander
1-2 Tbs minced garlic
1 Tbs chili flakes
1. Slice the lamb into small bite-size cubes. I prefer cubes on the smaller side since I feel this allows for more of the surface to char while being grilled. Be sure not to trim off all of the fat. You want some of the fat on the skewers to keep the meat from drying out. In fact, when I asked my local street stall owner, he insisted that 1/4 of the meat should be fat. Much of the fat melts away during cooking and when the liquid fat drips on to hot charcoal it smokes and adds a lot of flavor to the meat. So please, don’t trim all of the fat off. If using chicken, I prefer to use boneless chicken thighs which also have a higher fat content and stay moist on the grill.
2. Lightly pound the cumin, salt, and coriander in a mortar and pestle to break down the spices a bit. This will release some of the flavors, however, you don’t want to completely pulverize the spices. You want to insure that you have some whole pieces of spices. They will form a delicious crust on the meat. Mix the remaining spices with the lamb and toss to coat. I sometimes add a little bit of olive oil if the meat looks dry or is really lean.
3. Threat the meat on to bamboo skewers. Be sure not to leave gaps and try to make the skewers even so that the meat all cooks at the same rate. It helps if you soak the skewers for an hour beforehand so that they don’t burn on the grill.
4. Grill over medium to high heat. Depending on the size of the skewers and the heat of the grill, this can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes.
Enjoy! I like to serve these with some steamed rice, yogurt, and salted tomato slices.