Some of my best memories from my Beijing Days were eating yangrou chuanr (lamb kebabs on sticks) and drinking beer on plastic tables and chairs on hot summer nights. They were sensational, as well as dirt cheap……now that I think of it, it may not have been the most sanitary thing, but I never got sick from eating them. The only times I every got sick in Beijing were after eating in fancy banquet restaurants. These kebabs and the combination of spices come from Western China, from XinJiang. Xinjiang is not only China’s largest province, it’s largest ethnic group are the Uighurs (although they are fast being surpassed by the Han Chinese). They are Muslim, and their food is very Central Asian. It’s completely different to Han Chinese flavors. In 1995, my first time in China, I happened across a literal hole in the wall restaurant with a few tables run by a Uyghur family who had striking facial features. They had a mixture of Indo-European and Asian features. I was completely fascinated and I wanted to learn more about them. They occupied an area of the world with Russia to its north, India to its south, China to its east and Central Asia and Iran to its west. The area was a crossroads to many different groups of people for thousands of years. Some Uighurs are completely Indo-European in looks and others are more Asiatic. I started reading about explorers and adventurers who passed through Xinjiang and Central Asia more than a hundred years ago. That got me reading all about “The Great Game,” the first cold war between Great Britain and Russia. It’s an area of the world I still find fascinating. Top on my bucket list is a trip to Kashgar and the rest of the old silk road. Anyway, that’s another story. Back to the Uyghur hole in the wall, I tried their food and loved it. The spices and flavors seemed very familiar to me. In those days, there weren’t very many Western restaurants in Beijing and since I was a student, I couldn’t afford to eat at those places. Therefore, when I wanted tomato based sauces or even noodles with sauces that resembled italian flavors, I went to this hole in the wall place. After a night of dancing and drinking, I would often have five-ten skewers of paprika and cumin spiced lamb kebabs grilled on the side of the road by a Uyghur man.
These kebab skewers inspired my paprika and cumin lamb dish. I season the lamb with plenty of paprika and cumin and use fresh chopped tomatoes and garlic as the stew base. I have it all simmer for about 45 minutes, until the lamb is no longer tough. I serve the lamb with couscous sprinkled with nuts and raisins. Roasted eggplant slices with Garlicky yoghurt are also an excellent accompaniment to the lamb. Of course, you wouldn’t be served couscous in Xinjiang, but I like the ease and texture of the couscous with the browned raisins and almond slivers. I really must attempt making a typical Uyghur rice dish called Polo one day. It’s simply delicious and is made with carrots, raisins, mutton, and plenty of mutton fat. I’ve included my lamb stew, couscous and eggplant recipes below. It feeds about 6-8 people.
Lamb with paprika and cumin
- 3 tbsp. olive oil
- 4 pounds of lamb leg steaks, trimmed of fat and cut into two or three sections each
- 1 1/2 tbsp. cumin
- 1 tbsp. paprika
- 1/2 tsp. salt and pepper
- cloves from one head of garlic, peeled
- 4 medium tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1/2 cup water
Couscous with nuts and raisins:
- 2 cups couscous prepared as instructed
- 1 tbsp. oil
- 1/2 cup raw almond slivers
- 1/2 cups of raisins
Roasted eggplant with garlicky yoghurt topping
- 2 regular eggplants, sliced 3/4 inch thick
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 1/2 cup of olive oil
- 1 cup Greek yoghurt
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- pinch of Aleppo pepper
First prepare the lamb. Trim the lamb steaks of fat and cut into 2-3 pieces per steak. Place all the lamb pieces in a large bowl and season with cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. Make sure the spices are evenly mixed throughout.
Next, for the eggplant dish, wash and slice the eggplants and soak in a large bowl of water with salt for about 30 minutes.
Back to the lamb dish, puncture the tomatoes and place in a bowl with just boiled water. After 5 minutes, drain the hot water and replace it with cold water. Now the tomato skins will be very easy to peel off. Peel off the skin and chop. set aside.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large braiser, add olive oil and heat under medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the lamb and brown on both sides, about five minutes per side. While the lamb is cooking, break apart one head of garlic and peal the individual cloves. Leave the cloves whole.
Once the lamb has browned, add the garlic cloves, chopped tomatoes and water to the braiser. Mix well, cover and bring to a simmer. Once the stew starts bubbling, lower the heat to medium-low and cook for about 45 minutes.
While the lamb is simmering, dry the eggplant slices and lay them flat on a cooking sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes per side, or until both sides are golden.
Meanwhile, make the garlicky yoghurt topping. In a medium bowl, combine the Greek Yoghurt and garlic. Mix well. Once the eggplant is ready, place them on a platter. Add dollops of yoghurt on top and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper…..so pretty.
Make the couscous last. Prepare about two cups of couscous as per instructions. It only takes about five minutes from start to finish. While the couscous is soaking in water, add oil to frying pan and brown the almond slivers first and set aside. Next add the raisins to the pan and cook until plump and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Place the couscous in a large platter and sprinkle with the almonds and raisins.