Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuan) Recipe

Spicy lamb skewers piled on a platter.
Photographs: Shao Z.

Why It Works

  • Coarsely grinding the spices ensures they don't become pasty when wet.
  • Lamb shoulder chops offer the perfect balance of fat and meat for juicy, tender, flavorful skewers.

I can't resist meat on a stick. There is just something about seeing skewered chunks of meat slowly cooking over an open fire that pulls me in. Every country has its own version of the kebab, but in Beijing, China, you're likely to find lamb rubbed with chile peppers and cumin. Called yang rou chuan, these spicy lamb skewers are one of the city's most popular street foods. And they should be just as popular at home.

Like most meat on a stick, yang rou chuan is portable, flavorful, cooks in minutes, and is incredibly easy to make—all good reasons to consider it for your next cookout.

To start, you need to pick out the right cut of meat, since not all are kebab-friendly.

Two lamb shoulder chops resting on a cutting board alongside some cubed lamb shoulder.

For example, you don't want a cut of lamb that's too lean, like the loin. I prefer to use the shoulder chop since it's relatively inexpensive and has a good ratio of meat to fat—and just to be clear, when I cut up the chops for skewering, I leave all the fat on. Fat equals juiciness and flavor.

Next comes the spice rub. A combination of cumin and chile flakes gives yang rou chuan their distinctive flavor and heat. Those are often the only two seasonings, aside from salt, but for this recipe I wanted to add a few supporting ingredients for an extra boost—I went with granulated garlic (which is different from garlic powder), fennel seeds, and a splash of Shaoxing wine.

To grind the spices, I prefer to use a mortar and pestle, since it ensures you won't over-grind them into a powder that turns pasty when wet. You can use an electric spice grinder, but I'd recommend checking every few pulses to make sure it's still a little bit coarse.

Close up of coarsely ground spices resting in a hand.

Once you have your lamb cut and your spices pounded, toss them together until the meat is thoroughly coated. I reserve a little of the spice mixture to add at the end of grilling, just for an additional flavor boost.

Then I thread the meat onto skewers.

Several seasoned, uncooked lamb skewers resting in a plastic container.

To grill them, I start by putting the skewers over indirect heat until mostly cooked through, which takes about four minutes per side.

Nine lamb skewers cooking over indirect heat on a charcoal grill.

Then I move them to direct heat for about one minute, just long enough to get a good sear.

Using tongs to turn cooking lamb skewers on a grill.

I sprinkle the reserved spice mixture all over them at this point, which adds a layer of freshness over all the toasted spices.

There's no need for a sauce or a dip with these skewers: They're more than flavorful enough, as-is. The only thing that could make them better is an ice cold beer.

Holding four cooked lamb skewers with a grill in the background.

Recipe Facts

4.8

(6)

Active: 30 mins
Total: 60 mins
Serves: 6 to 8 servings
Makes: 10 skewers

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Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon red chile flakes

  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seed

  • 2 teaspoons whole fennel seed

  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 teaspoons granulated garlic

  • 2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, meat cut into 1-inch pieces (see note)

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil

  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine

Directions

  1. Submerge the bamboo skewers in a container of cold water and let them soak for at least 2 hours or even overnight.

  2. In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, coarsely grind chile flakes, cumin, and fennel. Add granulated garlic and kosher salt and briefly grind to break salt into smaller pieces and thoroughly combine ingredients.

    Grinding spices with a mortar and pestle.
  3. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the spice mix in a small bowl. Add lamb to a large bowl and toss thoroughly with the remaining spice mix, oil, and Shaoxing wine. Thread lamb onto skewers, making sure meat is bunched tightly together and leaving no parts of the skewer exposed except for a 3-inch handle at the bottom, and the pointy tip at the top.

    Using gloved hands to coat a mixing bowl of cubed lamb with the spice blend.
  4. Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.

  5. Grill skewers, covered, over indirect heat until lamb is nearly cooked through, about 4 minutes per side.

    Placing nine spiced lamb skewers on a charcoal grill.
  6. Move skewers over direct heat, sprinkle with the reserved spice mix, and cook until well seared on both sides, about 1 minute total.

    Using tongs to turn cooking lamb skewers on the grill.
  7. Remove skewers from the grill and serve right away.

Special equipment

Grill, bamboo skewers, mortar and pestle or spice grinder

Notes

For the most flavorful, tender, and juicy skewers, don't trim off any of the fat from the shoulder chops. Pre-soaking the bamboo skewers for at least two hours or even overnight before using is an important step to prevent them from burning during grilling.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
175 Calories
8g Fat
2g Carbs
23g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6 to 8
Amount per serving
Calories 175
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 8g 10%
Saturated Fat 2g 11%
Cholesterol 73mg 24%
Sodium 238mg 10%
Total Carbohydrate 2g 1%
Dietary Fiber 1g 2%
Total Sugars 0g
Protein 23g
Vitamin C 1mg 3%
Calcium 28mg 2%
Iron 3mg 15%
Potassium 370mg 8%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)