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Yangrou Chuan (Mutton Skewer 羊肉串)

What is it?
Arguably China’s most popular street food, yangrou chuan (lamb skewer) is the quintessential Beijing favourite. The snack, originated from Xinjiang (an autonomous region in the northwest of China), sees bite-sized pieces of meat (nestled between pieces of fat) coated with salt, plenty of cumin seeds and pepper powder, before being placed on a charcoal grill to cook. In recent years, chicken, fish and beef kebabs have also become popular. Vegetables, too, are prepared in similar cooking method.

Why is it famous?
Archaeologists unearthed a stone carving of kebabs in a tomb dated from the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) in Wulibao, a village around what is Shandong province today. Studies have found that the characters in the two carvings are Han Chinese while the grilled skewers are believed to be beef and lamb, which suggests this simple cooking process has a long history in China.

Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group in Xinjiang –where goats are abundant – are experts at cooking mutton. Since most Uighurs are Muslim, pork, by far China’s favourite protein, is naturally off the menu. Meanwhile, cumin (ziran in Chinese) is an integral part of Uighur cooking, giving dishes a nutty, musty and peppery flavour.

In addition to lamb skewers, the lamb pilaf is also hugely popular. Similar to Spanish paella, vendors in Xinjiang sell lamb pilaf cooked outdoors in a large pan. It’s always made in large portions, with handfuls of mutton, chopped carrots and diced onion (with lots of cumin, of course). The key is to use fat chunks of mutton. The more fat there is, the more flavourful the dish.

Where to eat it?
Don’t be fooled by the name: Guanshi Roasted Chicken Wings Bar is famous not just for the chicken wings. The restaurant offers all types of skewers, including mutton and even beef tendon balls. Address: 1 Wanghua Road, intersecting with Guangshun South Street (near Wanghua Road Primary School), Beijing; Tel: 86-10-6470-1064.

Yangji Barbeque is another popular skewer joint. Address: 202 Drum Tower East Street, across from Baochao Hutong, Beijing; Tel: 86-137-0120-5855.


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