OLD BEIJING LAMB SKEWER
THERE are many virtues about Beijing, and as far as I’m concerned, they are all true. The widely studied, highly evolved lung-capacity of its residence to withstand extremely volatile air molecules is among the most celebrated. The profound unity and rewardless participation in the national sport of competitive spitting, for god and country, is none but true patriotism. Then, perhaps the most famous although not as extraordinary as the former points, that it’s true, these fine citizens do know how to roast a damn duck.
Like actually actually.
But the most extraordinary things are those that go unadvertised. The best-kept secret, the silent do-er in this fine metropolis is tucked away in every unknown streets and corners, and I mean every streets and corners. It’s the most note-worthy and representative of Beijing street-food scene, and as far as I’m concerned, it is this word – 串.
It’s the most brilliant, most comprehensible character ever invented. It looks exactly what it means – skewers.
Mostly, lamb skewers.
” 串 “
Everyone loves this stuff, and for a good reason. This is after all, the kingdom of the north, and they are not “meeeh~” about their lambs. Infiltrated into every nooks and crannies of the city, there are casual restaurants called “skewer bar” literally everywhere that opens late into the night, or as some people prefer, hole-in-a-wall alley setups that are unfortunately associated with too many scary urban legends that you should probably hear before you try. In fact, “fake lamb skewer” is quite an epidemic here. What’s “fake lamb”? Happy to answer at comment-area for it isn’t cafeteria-friendly. I’ll say that trust-lobbying joints would hang up signs that read “Guaranteed real lambs. Ten free skewers if fake”. Interestingly… I don’t know what that actually ensures… Ten more fake lamb-skewers?
But you probably have guessed, that it isn’t the reason why I’ve been making old Beijing-style lamb skewer at home. I mean, I dine like I am Lord of the Flies. I am making them at home because the deliciousness level out there can vary from, most of the time, good, to sometimes, great. But you know… I’d like to have them mind-blowing. With the accumulated experience I’ve had in the vast skewer-scape of Beijing, I’ve landed on an adaptation for all you unfortunate souls who don’t live here. They are fantastic with a charcoal grill, but even with an oven, the result can turn out beautifully.
If you do not live in the city of many virtues, regrettably, you can still enjoy the very essence of it this summer. Which is, trust me, exactly the way you would prefer.
Makes: 11 ~ 13 skewers
The biggest distinction, the true secret of Beijing-style lamb skewers lies in the anatomy of the skewers, which is, the alternating of lean meat and fat. Every piece of lean meat is accompanied by a piece of lamb fat, which sometimes feels like a 50/50 ratio, making the skewers extremely succulent and flavourful. But in this recipe, the ratio between meat and fat is 2 to 1 (feel free to bring up the ratio of fat if you want).
In most cases, the skewers aren’t marinated before grilling (all the flavouring comes from the spice-mixture that’s applied), but I think marination gives the meat a deeper, more thorough seasoning. You’ll see 1/4 tsp of baking soda in the marinate listed as “optional”. Baking soda breaks down the tissue of tough cuts of meat and makes them soft and tender. It’s a technique used in a lot of Chinese restaurants in treatment of sliced beef. Some people prefer it, while some don’t. You can see for yourself. Then since we’re talking about seasoning, garlic powder isn’t a typical seasoning in China but I really love the flavour it brings.
You can almost always order grilled garlic chives to go with the meat skewers in Beijing, because they pair beautifully. But here I’ve turned it into a pesto-like sauce which I think is an even more versatile application. Then last but not least, you bet all the best lamb skewers in Beijing is flavoured with MSG. That’s true authenticity if you want to stick to it (just add 1 1/2 tsp to the spice mixture).
- Lamb skewer:
- 13 oz (370 grams) of lamb meat
- 6.3 oz (180 grams) of lamb fat
- 1 tbsp of ground cumin
- 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 tsp of fine rock salt, or sea salt
- 1 tsp of ground white pepper
- 1/2 tsp of chili flakes
- 1/4 tsp of baking soda, optional
- Spice mixture:
- 3 tbsp of whole cumin
- 2 tbsp of chili flakes
- 1 tbsp of garlic powder
- 1 tsp of fine rock salt, or sea salt
- Garlic chive pesto:
- 7 oz (200 grams) of garlic chives
- 2 tbsp of vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup (26 grams) of toasted walnuts
- 1/4 cup (54 grams) of olive oil, plus more to adjust
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tsp of ground white pepper
- 1/3 tsp of fine rock salt, or sea salt
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
To make the garlic chive pesto (can be made the day ahead): Preheat the top-broiler on high (or your grill).
Wash off any dirt/soil on the roots of the garlic chives, and shake off as much water as you can. Evenly toss them with 2 tbsp of vegetable oil, then lay them flat over a baking sheet, preferably in a single layer. Place it about 2″ (5 cm) under the broiler, and grill until the first side is slightly charred. Turn them over and grill the other side as well. Transfer the grilled garlic chives into a blender, with toasted walnuts, olive oil, garlic, ground white pepper, rock salt or sea salt, and lemon juice. Blend until the mixture is smoothly pureed. Add more olive oil to adjust consistency if needed.
Transfer to an air-tight container, and cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil to prevent oxidizing. Keep in the fridge until needed.
To make the lamb skewer: Cut the lamb-meat into tiny bite-size pieces, and the lamb-fat into 1/2 of that size. Toss them in the marinate until very evenly distributed (especially if you were using baking soda). Let marinate for at least 2 hours, to overnight (this can be done the day before).
Preheat the top-broiler on high (or your grill). Roughly crush whole cumins in a mortar (or chop with knife), then mix evenly with chili flakes, garlic powder and rock salt or sea salt. Set aside.
Starting and ending with a small piece of lamb-fat, skewer the lambs alternating in meat and fat. Arrange the skewers over a baking-rack, set over a baking-sheet. Place the skewers 1″ (2.5 cm) right below the broiler. Grill until the first side is browned, then turn them over and brown the other side. It’s important to have enough heat to brown the meat without over-cooking. Each side shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes. If you can’t get enough char on the meat before it over-cooks, torching it on the side always works (lame oven? please please please get a real blow-torch like this one).
Once cooked, remove them from the oven, then brush each skewers with the fat that’s rendered and collected in the baking-sheet. Boldly cover each skewer generously with the spice-mixture, and return under the broiler just until the spices start to sizzle. Turn the skewers over and repeat (DO NOT burn the spices or it’ll be bitter). Re-season with more rock salt or sea salt if needed.
Serve with the garlic chive pesto immediately.
MunchiesJuly 1, 2014 at 11:35 PM
Which cut of lamb meat do u recommend for the skewers?
mandy@ladyandpupsJuly 1, 2014 at 11:55 PM
MUNCHIES, I used something like a lamb loin, but you can use anything without tendon. As much as lamb fat goes, anything goes.
Sini | my blue&white kitchenJuly 1, 2014 at 11:56 PM
I visited Beijing a few years ago and the food truly was noteworthy! I didn’t have the chance to try lamb skewers (haha, that character is spot on!), but I’m lucky to have your blog to compensate for that missed experience.
Bill @thewoksoflifeJuly 2, 2014 at 12:21 AM
Very creative pesto idea and those lamb skewers look awesome. Nice job!
FrancesJuly 2, 2014 at 3:45 AM
Ok, I’ll be brave and ask, what is fake lamb???
mandy@ladyandpupsJuly 2, 2014 at 1:17 PM
FRANCES: Oh you brave soul… ready? It’s stray cat’s meat soaked in goat urine to make it taste like lamb…. !!!
FrancesJuly 3, 2014 at 9:54 PM
Am flabbergasted. Open-mouthed gaping. If I ever travel east, I will need a list of safe street foods. Meanwhile, I will stick with your version.
Farah @ The Cooking JarJuly 2, 2014 at 4:28 AM
Beautifully done lamb skewers although I’d probably leave out the fat. That spice mix for final basting sounds amazing.
Belinda@themoonblushbakerJuly 2, 2014 at 8:45 AM
The addition of skewered lamb fat is genius. In Australia fat is actually quite lean, so this would really solve the problem of my dry lamb dinners. Also garlic chive pesto? well worth the breath afterwards!
kxviiieJuly 2, 2014 at 11:01 AM
Usually rat meat as it is cheaper to raise as per a nytimes article
Adrian @ The Food GaysJuly 2, 2014 at 12:05 PM
love the idea of adding fat. these look insanely good.
Millie l Add A LittleJuly 2, 2014 at 1:18 PM
Love this Mandy! Looks super delicious – I want it on my barbecue!
DavidJuly 2, 2014 at 6:39 PM
Freaking XINJIANG food! It is the bomb. Whenever the gang and I would imbibe in a little too much Tsingtao and baijiu, it was straight to the Xinjiang cart for lamb kebabs! These were the comically huge ones, like ~50cm. These sound pretty authentic. Thanks Mandy.
mandy@ladyandpupsJuly 2, 2014 at 6:58 PM
DAVID: Hahaa you’re right! These skewers are about 2x the size of what you get here. Hey, less “skew-ing” for me… Sounds like you’ve had your share of Beijing night-life. Baijiu…. jeeez…. that’s deadly
DavidJuly 3, 2014 at 10:17 AM
Yes ma’am. But I didn’t live in the “Bei”, I was in Haikou, Hainan Province, the land of chicken rice, curry, and beaches.
chloeJuly 4, 2014 at 11:40 AM
reminds me of the time i was an exchange student in beijing. these skewers were SO CHEAP. i ate a lot of the chicken ones though. ma2 la4 tang4 was another favourite, on a cold winter’s day with some tsingtao…. best memories ever
do you think this marinade would work well with chicken or beef? good lamb (i.e. lamb which your recipe and the busting out of the blender to make the pesto deserves) costs an arm and leg where i’m from!
mandy@ladyandpupsJuly 4, 2014 at 4:02 PM
CHLOE: Yeah I think chicken and beef would work great, too. In fact, this is kind of a “universal” seasoning they use on all types of skewer here. Beef short-ribs and some beef fat…. oh….
chloeJuly 4, 2014 at 5:11 PM
Yes, I recall it was “universal”. I also recalled after posting my earlier comment that I have some Szechuan peppercorns in my store cupboard! I think I will grind them up and put in a bit to kick up the seasoning!
JadeJuly 6, 2014 at 6:13 PM
Girl I hear you, yes malatang with Tsingtao, match in heaven. I made a copycat version the other night using pre-made spices I found in Chinese groceries store here, tasted just the same!
ThomasJuly 12, 2014 at 2:12 AM
This looks fantastic. It really takes me back to the days of sitting on a stool in some filthy alley, enjoying a pile of these, a bowl of maodou, some toasted mantou, and a big bottle of beer. That still defines summer for me, even though I left Beijing two years ago. This brings back some great memories and will allow me to recreate those through food. Thanks for sharing this.
MaggieJuly 12, 2014 at 11:31 AM
Those chuar photos look amazing! I never thought I could cook such beautiful skewer at home. I tried some sort of skewer one time in the oven and failed miserably. I really don’t like the idea of using baking soda, which I consider unhealthy. But without it, the lamb meat will turn up tough sometimes. Next time I will look for a tender cut of lamb.
The pesto idea is genius! Great work!
julieAugust 11, 2014 at 8:40 AM
Ah, lamb chuan’r definitely tastes like Beijing to me! :) Beautiful photos, and love the idea of chive pesto! Found your gorgeous blog via Saveur and only wishing I’d discovered it sooner!
RebeccaAugust 17, 2014 at 7:27 AM
Love love LOVE me some street meats! Can’t wait to try. xo @displacedtaitai
juliaSeptember 29, 2014 at 9:00 PM
We made these two nights ago and they were outstanding. Definitely will be made again, thank yoy!!
ShannaOctober 1, 2014 at 5:12 PM
Damn this looks great! What kind of protein and veggies would you serve with it?
AvNovember 22, 2014 at 10:21 PM
You forgot the half liter of yanjing!
bristol plastererApril 12, 2015 at 7:21 PM
Lovely, i love a lamb kebabs. Thanks for sharing this recipe.