Why It Works
- Marinating the lamb in a savory mixture of spices, aromatics, oyster sauce, and Shaoxing wine seasons it thoroughly.
- Par-frying the lamb in batches ensures it's cooked perfectly.
- Adding the spice mixture toward the end allows you to tailor the seasoning, and spice level, to your taste.
Toothpick lamb checks every box for the perfect aperitif or drinking snack. Fried to a perfect chewiness and dusted with ground chiles and cumin, the tender pieces of marinated, par-fried, then stir-fried lamb are threaded on short wooden toothpicks and served by the dozen as pop 'em-style bites; they're salty, a little sweet, super easy to eat, and complement both cold and bitter beverages.
Despite toothpick lamb soaring to popularity at Sichuan restaurants across the US, the history of its evolution from the more typical lamb skewers remains slightly fuzzy. Most sources agree the dish has clear Middle Eastern influences, given its use of cumin, and likely migrated into Chinese cuisine through what is now the western region of Xinjiang. In fact, as far back as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) there are drawings of lamb or mutton skewers carved into old tombs.
I asked Chef Tom Lei, from Spy C Cuisine in New York City, about the dish, and he told me that in the Chinese history book Shang Xia Wu Qian Nian ("Up Down 5,000 Years"), lamb skewers are described as a dish that was served in the royal courts of the Qing Dynasty. He hypothesizes that when cooking pots became more commonplace, and thus frying things in oil became more convenient, that cooks may have moved away from placing lamb on long skewers to be grilled over hot coals. It's unclear when toothpicks entered the equation, but the laborious process of spearing every piece of lamb with a toothpick certainly made it much easier (and a lot of fun!) to eat.
Toothpicks weren't the only major change: the arrival of chile peppers in China in the 15th century was a major paradigm shift in Chinese cuisine. Prior to their introduction, lamb skewers were predominantly flavored with onion, to counterbalance the gamey flavor of lamb, and Sichuan peppercorn, for a tingly spice. Once chile peppers, or "foreign peppers," as they were named, were introduced from from North America by European merchants, they spread quickly across the country to Sichuan, Hunan, Shandong, Xi’an, and other areas, and they also became an indispensable part of toothpick lamb’s flavor profile.
Lei opts to use er jing tiao chile pepper in his toothpick lamb preparations, which was the way he was taught to prepare the dish 21 years ago; he hasn't changed the recipe since since. “The Chinese see fidelity and tradition as paramount; it’s important for our elders to pass things down to us, the next generation, and for us to preserve them,” he says. When I ask him if he’s willing to share this recipe for the Serious Eats crowd, Lei is eager to keep spreading the knowledge of his culinary ancestors: “No need to credit me,” he says generously, “it’s my job to gift this to as many people as possible.”
Making Toothpick Lamb in a Three-Step Process
The recipe sounds deceptively simple: a quick marinade, a par-fry, and a stir-fry. But, naturally, it is all about the details. First, you marinate the lamb with salt, sugar, onion, cumin, chile pepper, Sichuan peppercorn, and oil to flavor and tenderize it. “It’s important to use oil in the marinade to prevent the meat from drying out when it’s cooking, because all meats will emit some water," Lei says. "The oil acts as a shield against this.” Lei uses lamb leg for his dish, and spears up all the pieces on toothpicks, then passes them through hot oil until all the pieces are evenly cooked before stir-frying them in a hot wok while sprinkling on extra chile powder.
The temperature of the frying oil and the cook time affect the final result significantly. “For something very tender on the inside, you want to use a lower heat like 330°F [165°C] and cook it longer,” he advises, “but for a crispier [texture], use higher heat like 360°F [182°C] and cook it faster." For a dry-fried texture, which uses lower frying temps and longer cooking times to dehydrate the meat and concentrate flavor, chef Lei recommends cooking between 290°F and 325°F (143°C-162°C).
Variations on the marinade and the approach to frying have produced a rich landscape of different toothpick lamb dishes. Chef Tony Xu of Chengdu Taste in Los Angeles is credited with making toothpick lamb a staple on the West Coast. His secret marinade contains tomato, and he uses Australian lamb shoulder as his base. The meat is first fried at 330°F, then stir-fried with a mix of chile peppers and cilantro. “We haven’t changed the recipe since 2013, and we still go through 80 pounds a day,” Xu says.
After many weeks of reading about, listening to, and frying up a lot of lamb, I could see why these two chefs were so fond of this particular dish. During my final taste test with a (slightly) less spicy version, I admired my little graveyard of toothpicks and WeChatted my mom to see what she thought of the updated spice mix that’s dusted all over glistening pieces of lamb, which I'd asked her and my father to try. “It tastes just like at our favorite restaurant!” she exclaimed. “Your dad loves it.”
- For the Marinated Lamb:
- 4 medium cloves garlic (about 20g), smashed
- 2 scallions (about 40g total), ends trimmed and roughly chopped
- 1 1/2-inch knob (10g) fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced crosswise
- 1 tablespoon (15g) neutral oil, such as peanut or vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons (10g) Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon (4g) kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1 teaspoon (5g) granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon (5g) oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon (4g) five-spice powder
- 1 teaspoon (4g) whole cumin seed
- 1 1/2 pounds (680g) boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- For the Spice Mixture:
- 10 whole dried er jing tiao chiles (about 10g total) (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (5g) whole red Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon (5g) toasted whole sesame seeds
- 1 tablespoon (12g) whole cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons (8g) kosher salt; for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
- To Cook and Finish:
- 2 quarts (2L) plus 1/4 cup (55g) neutral oil, such as peanut or vegetable oil, divided, plus more for seasoning the wok
- 8 whole dried er jing tiao chiles (about 6g total), roughly chopped
- 3 medium cloves garlic (1/2 ounce; 15g), smashed
- 1/4 cup (40g) roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
For the Marinated Lamb: In a large mixing bowl, stir together garlic, scallions, ginger, oil, Shaoxing wine, salt, sugar, oyster sauce, five-spice powder, and cumin seed. Add lamb and toss to coat well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 and up to 8 hours.
For the Spice Mixture: In a spice grinder, combine chiles, Sichuan peppercorns, sesame seeds, cumin, salt, and sugar. Grind to a fine powder, then transfer to a small bowl; you should have about 1/3 cup. Set aside.
To Fry and Finish: Skewer each lamb piece onto a wooden toothpick, making sure each piece is fully threaded onto the toothpick, discarding aromatic ingredients as you go (it's fine if a few bits of scallion remain).
Meanwhile, in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat about the 2 quarts oil to 330°F (165°C); it should fill the Dutch oven by about 2 inches. Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. Working in 3 to 4 batches to avoid crowding the pot, deep fry lamb, adjusting heat to maintain a frying temperature of 330°F, until well-browned on the outside, approximately 3 minutes per batch. Using a spider strainer, transfer lamb to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining lamb.
Heat a wok or large cast iron skillet over high heat until lightly smoking. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons oil, carefully swirling to coat inner surface, then remove from heat and carefully wipe out oil with a paper towel. Return wok or skillet to high heat, add remaining 1/4 cup oil, and heat until shimmering. Add chiles and garlic and stir-fry, tossing and stirring constantly, until very fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add lamb and cilantro and stir-fry until lamb is fully heated through and well combined with the aromatics, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle with about 1 tablespoon of the spice mix, and toss to combine. Repeat, one tablespoon at a time, until well seasoned. The dish should have a slow burn, numbing and sweet, but its intensity can be adjusted to taste. Serve immediately.
Dutch oven or heavy pot, frying thermometer, wok, spice grinder, spider strainer, wooden toothpicks.
Er jing tiao chiles are one of the most commonly used types in Sichuan cooking, prized for their balanced heat and fruity flavor. You can buy them at specialty retailers like Fly By Jing and Mala Market, or at Chinese supermarkets, such as 99 Ranch.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The lamb can be marinated up to 8 hours before frying, but otherwise the dish is best made right away.
The spice mixture can be stored in an airtight container for later use. It is best used within a month.