Beijing street food: Uyghur style kebabs (Yangrou Chuanr) and Tiger Salad (Laohu Cai)

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Friends of mine at an outdoor kebab restaurant in Beijing

Beijing summer nights for me meant that it was street food season. The nights were warm, and it felt good to be outside after a long Beijing winter. Some restaurants would do brisk business by putting plastic tables and chairs outside on sidewalks and serving Uyghur style mutton kebabs, known as yangrou chuanr, with other snacks such as boiled peanuts, edamame, and an assortment of cold salads and dishes. These foods would go so well with numerous bottles of Qingdao beer. Some of these kebab places were very makeshift and would be there one day and gone the next. If you want to read more about Uyghurs and where they come from, you can read my other post, cumin and paprika lamb.

The first time I tried yangrou chuanr, I was introduced to it by a friend very late one night outside a club across the street from Beijing University’s West gate. This must have been about 15 years ago! A Uyghur man with a small bbq stood outside grilling mutton kebabs and fanning the divine smoke into my direction. The smells were mouth-watering, so mouth-watering that I was willing to risk hepatitis or anything else to try it. I instantly became a big fan! I would watch as the man continuously sprinkled his heavenly spice mix onto the mutton skewers. It was a simple spice mix of crushed cumin seeds, crushed red pepper and salt. There was plenty of fat on the skewers, which made them glisten lusciously and added to their deliciousness.  I could barely wait until my order was ready. Wolfing down yangrou chuanr kebabs after a night of dancing became a ritual.

Yangrou chuanr was also a staple in most Uyghur restaurants. I would order plenty of skewers for everyone and eat them with a simple tomato and cucumber salad, fried rice cooked in mutton fat, carrots, and raisins, and a noodle dish called lamian pian, handmade square-cut noodles in a tomato and garlic sauce.

The few summers before I left Beijing in 2007, I had a favorite outdoor restaurant I would go to about once a week. It was very close to my apartment in the Sanlitun area. The place not only made delicious yangrou chuanr, it served a great array of cold dishes and salads. One cold dish in particular was an absolute favorite of mine, called Laohu Cai, or tiger salad. The texture and flavor of this salad just hit the spot for me. The salad contained pressed and shredded tofu sheets, cilantro, green pepper, and green onions. It was both crunchy from the greens and chewy from the tofu, both sour and sweet. I had to learn how to make it.

Now that it’s summer,  I wanted to try my best and see if I could recapture those flavors at home. I was so happy that I was able to recreate the flavors quite well. It doesn’t always go well with other Chinese dishes I’ve attempted at home. Some lacked authentic flavor. Here, however, the results were wonderful!

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Uyghur kebabs (Yangrou Chuanr)

Luckily, all the ingredients for these kebabs can be sound at your local supermarket. For the lamb, it’s best to get leg of lamb cuts, as this will be the most tender part. There’s a Persian supermarket next to my house, and they sell offer many different cuts of lamb for much cheaper than my local supermarket. If you have an ethnic market near you, I would try buying the lamb from there instead.

Here is what you’ll need:

  • 2 1/2 pounds of lamb meat with fat, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 2 tbsp. whole cumin seed
  • 2 tbsp. crushed chile flakes
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil for brushing

Grab a bunch of wooden skewers and soak them for at least 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a mortar and pestle, combine the cumin seed, crushed chile flakes, and salt and crush until the cumin seeds break apart, but not finely ground. It doesn’t have to be perfect. As long as the cumin seeks get broken down a little bit, the flavor will come out.

Cut the lamb into 1 inch cubes. The chunks don’t need to be perfectly uniform. Try not to trim the fat off, as it makes the skewers juicier. Start putting the lamb chunks through the skewers. Make sure to not overload the skewers, you will have something to hold on to when your grilling.  Brush oil all over the kebabs and sprinkle half of the spice mix all over them. Leave the other half of the spice mix for when you’re grilling. You’ll want to be continuously sprinkling the spices over them like I used to see the street vendors do.

TIme to grill. When the grill is hot, place the kebab skewers on direct heat. Let them cook for about 5 minutes on each side.  Use the rest of the spice mixture here. Sprinkle liberally as the kebabs cook. Once cooked through, eat right away.

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Tiger Salad (Laohu Cai)

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This salad is fairly easy to put together, but you’ll need to visit an Asian market to find the pressed tofu sheets. If you don’t live next to an Asian market, you can order the tofu from Posharpstore.com. Alternatively, you can omit the tofu altogether as some versions do, or add a smoked tofu instead. Smoked tofu is found in places like Whole Foods Market or other natural markets. Chingkiang Vinegar is also hard to find in a conventional supermarket. If you don’t have an Asian market near you,  It can be ordered from both Amazon.com and Posharpstore.com.  Alternatively, you can use an Asian rice vinegar, but it won’t have as much depth of flavor.

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Here is what you’ll need:

  • 5-6 green onions, white and light green parts only, cut in diagonal strips
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 green pepper, thinly sliced into strips
  • 2 sheets pressed tofu, cut into 1/8 inch slices
  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. Chinkiang Vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt or add to taste
  • pinch of white pepper

Add the green onions, cilantro, green pepper, and pressed tofu to a bowl. In a separate small bowl, mix together the rest of the above ingredients until the sugar dissolved. Pour into the bowl with the veggies, mix well and serve.

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