Lamb used to not be a meat I thought about cooking with. It can be on the expensive side and I thought I’d just rather eat beef or order rack of lamb at a restaurant rather than cook it. Then I traveled to Xinjiang Province in the northwest corner of China—a land populated by the Uighur people (pronounced wee-gur). They are of Turkic descent and carry with them culinary traditions rooted in ancient Middle Eastern techniques. Man, do they now how to serve up lamb!
Being predominantly a Muslim culture, Uighur food is halal, meaning it's prepared according to Islamic law and never includes pork. Wandering around the ancient streets of Kashgar, a remote city in western Xinjiang near the border of Pakistan, I remember the wonderful spicy smell of lamb kebabs grilling everywhere we walked. . . making my stomach rumble. Smoke billowed up from long narrow shoebox-shaped grills on the roadside. We'd stop and point at what we wanted and the cook would add a chunk of fat on the lamb skewer for good luck. He'd rub the meat down with a mixture of cumin, coriander, and Asian chile powder and grill it up to order.
Sure other lamb dishes were served roadside in Kashgar like lamb's head stew (ugh!) and laghman noodles (so good!), but it ware the kebabs that I craved the most. Xinjiang kebabs are so delicous that they've become popular all over China. In our recipe, we don't include the chunk of pure fat--the fat might bring good luck but it also packs on the calories!
The kebabs' spicy cumin flavor makes a big splash at backyard barbecues. We like to serve them with a side of thick Greek yogurt and a simple onion salad. You can dip the meat into the yogurt before eating it to add a little sweet and sour flavor. I'm getting hungry just typing this post. If you have trouble finding lamb meat or your grocery store only has really expensive cuts, try searcing google for a butcher in your area. I found one in Brooklyn this way that I always go to now when I need lamb.
On Sundays in Kashgar, farmers from the countryside bring lambs into town to sell at the largest outdoor bazaar in Asia.
This is what the livestock area of the bazaar looks like. Everything from lambs, goats, horses, and cows to camels are sold here.
The city of Kashgar and much of Xingjiang Province is right in the middle of the Taklamakan desert (a name that translates as "you go and and you never come out"). The sheep that are raised here are a special breed that have some serious junk in the trunk. They have huge fat deposits on their behinds that supposedly act like camel humps and keep them hydrated in the dry desert climate.
MAKES ABOUT 18 SKEWERS
1 large egg
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 pounds boneless lamb or beef, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Asian chili powder
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1. Beat the egg with the cornstarch in a large bowl. Toss in the lamb so that all the cubes are coated, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. Prepare a medium fire in a charcoal or gas grill and oil the grill grates. Dry-roast the cumin and coriander seeds in a skillet over medium heat just until you smell the spices‚Äô aroma; be careful not to let them burn. Then immediately remove the skillet from the heat and let cool. In a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder, grind the seeds into a coarse powder.
3. Mix the powder with the salt and chili powder until well combined.
4. Thread 5 cubes of lamb onto each skewer and rub the spice mixture all over the meat. Brush the tops of the skewers with the oil. Grill the skewers until they are crusty and brown on the outside and medium-rare on the inside. Serve the kebabs with a side of yogurt for dipping.