Spicy Cumin Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuan) Recipe

A Beijing street food straight from your own grill.

Skewers of spicy cumin lamb (yang rou chuan) on an oval platter.

Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

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.

May 2015

Recipe Facts

4.8

(6)

Prep: 10 mins
Cook: 35 mins
Active: 30 mins
Total: 45 mins
Serves: 6 to 8 servings
Makes: 10 skewers

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Ingredients

  • 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

Directions

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

    Bamboo skewers soaking in water inside of a square glass dish.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  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.

    A stone mortar and pestle, with the mortar containing the pounded and ground spice mixture.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  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.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows a glass bowl containing the meat which has been tossed with seasoning. The bottom image shows the meat being threaded onto wooden skewers, which are then placed on a rimmed baking sheet.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  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.

    A round black charcoal grill, showing the ash-gray coals on the left side of the bottom grate, creating one zone for direct heat and one for indirect heat.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

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

    A two-image collage. The top image shows the skewers of meat placed on the indirect heat side of the grill. The bottom image shows the skewers, now-flipped, so that you can see that the meat has begun to cook.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  6. Move skewers over direct heat, sprinkle with the reserved spice mix, and cook until well seared on both sides, about 1 minute total.

    A two-image collage. The top image shows the skewers, now on the direct heat side of the grill, being flipped with metal tongs. The bottom image shows the skewers with the meat now visibly seared and fully cooked.

    Serious Eats / Julia Hartbeck

  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.)