Making Chinese lamb skewers at home is totally approachable. The ingredients are simple and the process is straightforward. Give it a try!
A very popular street food
If making a list of popular Chinese street foods, today’s recipe, Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuan’r, 羊肉串儿) would definitely make it to the top 10. Seasoned with cumin and chili, grilled over hot charcoal, they’re juicy, tasty and extremely satisfying.
Lamb skewers have always been popular in Northwest China where I grew up. The region has a large Chinese Muslim community and lamb is greatly appreciated. Over the years, this humble street food has made its way to almost every corner of the country.
It’s simple to make
I would probably never make this dish myself if I still lived in China (It’s cheap and easily accessible). But living abroad has given me a real craving for it. I was surprised by how simple it was the first time I tried it.
Apart from lamb, you only need four ingredients:
- Salt and onion for marinating
- Cumin and chili powder for seasoning
Before we get into the details of cooking tips, here are a few important factors that will contribute to success:
- Fresh, good quality lamb is the key
- Marinate to ensure a tender texture
- Charcoal produces the best result
- Add spices at the right time to avoid burning
Which cut of lamb
In China, most street vendors use a combination of lean and fatty lamb for skewers. For example, a skewer could include 6 lean pieces and 2-3 fatty pieces. After grilling, the fat shrinks dramatically and becomes crispy. It makes the skewers incredibly delicious.
For shooting this recipe, I used lamb leg cut. After separating the fat and the lean meat, I cut them into small cubes (1.5-2 cm/about ½ inch) then mixed them on the skewers.
You don’t have to follow the same method but I recommend you make sure to include some fat, e.g. use a well-marbled cut. This is not a dish you’d eat every day so I think it’s ok to indulge yourself once in a while. Agree?
Marinate before cooking
Marinating the lamb beforehand is simple but essential. This procedure calls for two common ingredients and serves two purposes:
- Sliced onion. It helps to reduce the gamey flavour of the lamb and to lend a hint of oniony taste.
- Salt. It’s for tenderising the meat, as well as for basic seasoning.
It’s important that you allow at least 40 mins to marinate. Food scientist Dr Stuart Farrimond has explained in his book “The Science of Cooking” that during this time “Salt starts to tenderize meat by ‘denaturing’ the surface proteins” thus the meat becomes softer and remains tender after cooking.
It’s fine to leave the meat to marinate on the kitchen counter (away from direct sunshine). If you plan to use it much later, store it in the fridge. It’s not recommended to marinate longer than 24 hours. According to Dr Farrimond, if marinated for too long the salt will “start to cure the outside of the meat” causing the outer layer of the meat to have a mushy texture.
Tools that I use
To imitate the set-up of Chinese street vendors, I use the following tools to make lamb skewers:
A rectangle charcoal grill
Not only does charcoal create more intense heat than a gas grill, it also helps to produce a richer flavour (Fat drips down over the hot charcoal creating a flavourful smoke that rises back to the meat).
The rectangle shape allows you to create zones: e.g. one zone with adequate coals for grilling and another zone with a little coal to keep cooked skewers warm.
Flat, stainless-steel skewers
The ones I use measure about 30 cm/14 in length. They’re flat, rather than round, so the meat cubes don’t spin easily when you flip.
If using wooden/bamboo skewers, you’ll need to soak them in water for at least 30 mins before grilling. Otherwise, they burn or catch fire easily.
Place charcoal inside the grill. Ideally, it should be about 10 cm/4 in away from the cooking grid. Light up the charcoal then wait for the flame to die down (It takes at least 20 mins).
Once the coals develop a coating of white ash and glow inside, it’s time to cook. Place the skewers over the grid. Flip as often as necessary to evenly sear the meat.
Then sprinkle chili powder and cumin powder over (Be generous!). It’s important that you don’t add spices earlier than instructed as prolonged cooking may burn them and cause a bitter taste.
A note on chili powder: I use chili powder in many dishes (e.g. for homemade chili oil) and often receive questions about how to choose. Chili powder made with any type of dried chili pepper would work (preferably it doesn’t contain any other spices). Choose what suits your level of heat tolerance.
For this recipe, I used a mixture of Korean and Indian chili powder that I found in my local stores. The former delivers an impressive red colour, while the latter offers an intense heat which I really appreciate.
Divide the skewers into two parts and hold them with each hand. Dab and rub one lot over another allowing the oil generated from the fat to flow onto the lean meat.
Once the lamb browns evenly and no more pinkness can be seen on the surface, the skewers are ready to be served. Enjoy them without delay as they taste the best when hot.
The alternative oven method
If you don’t have an outdoor barbecue grill, you may cook these lamb skewers in an oven with a grilling/broiling function. In this case,
- Use a baking tray (sheet pan) fitted with a wire rack so that it can collect any drip from the fat.
- Keep the tray inside the oven while preheating. Then put the skewers over when it’s hot (in a single layer).
- Observe closely during the entire process. Flip frequently to avoid burning.
Beef works too
Although not an option on a typical menu of Chinese skewers, beef can be grilled the same way using the same set of seasonings.
For a tender and tasty result, look for beef cuts that have less connective tissue but more marble-looking fat. Here are some of the options: fillet mignon, T-bone, sirloin, flank, etc.
Other delicious lamb dishes
Looking for more ideas to cook lamb? Here are some recipes you might like:
Chinese Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuan’r, 羊肉串儿)
- 700 g lamb (ideally containing 25% fat), about 1.5 lb
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon chili powder, or to taste
- 1 tablespoon cumin powder
- Cut the lamb into cubes (1½-2 cm / ½ in). Put into a bowl. Mix with onion and salt. Leave to marinate for at least 40 mins.
- Light up charcoal in your grill. While waiting for the flame to subside, thread the lamb onto the skewers. Evenly distribute the lean pieces and fatty ones (discard the onion).
- When the charcoal glows and there’s no more visible flame, place the skewers over the cooking grid. Flip frequently to sear the meat evenly.
- Once the meat turns pale, sprinkle chili powder and cumin powder all over.
- Divide the skewers into two parts and hold them with each hand. Dab and rub one lot over another. This will help the oil generated from the fat to flow onto the lean meat.
- Continue cooking until the meat browns evenly and there’s no pinkness on the surface (do not overcook). Remove from the heat and serve immediately.