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.
Selecting the Right Cut of Lamb
To start, you need to pick out the right cut of meat, since not all are kebab-friendly.
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.
Making the Spice Mix
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.
Assembling and Grilling the Skewers
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.
To grill them, I start by putting the skewers over indirect heat until mostly cooked through, which takes about four minutes per side.
Then I move them to direct heat for about one minute, just long enough to get a good sear.
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.
1 tablespoon red chile flakes
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, meat cut into 1-inch pieces (see notes)
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
Submerge the bamboo skewers in a container of cold water and let them soak for at least 2 hours or even overnight.
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.
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.
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.
Grill skewers, covered, over indirect heat until lamb is nearly cooked through, about 4 minutes per side.
Move skewers over direct heat, sprinkle with the reserved spice mix, and cook until well seared on both sides, about 1 minute total.
Remove skewers from the grill and serve right away.
Grill, bamboo skewers, mortar and pestle or spice grinder
- Type of fire: two-zone indirect
- Grill heat: medium-high
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)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 8g||10%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||11%|
|Total Carbohydrate 2g||1%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||2%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||3%|
|*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.|