Occasional stories, food and travel inspiration

Occasional stories, food and travel inspiration

Addictive, Mouth-Numbing Xinjiang Chilli Lamb Skewers

I miss Shanghai. It’s a big, brash, frontier city where buildings go up seemingly overnight, hundreds of new restaurants open every week and you can buy virtually anything at 9pm at night. Want a foot massage in your apartment? Someone can be there in 10 minutes. Need a haircut? You’ll also enjoy a vigorous arm and  shoulder massage and a complimentary ear cleaning. OK, that last service takes a bit of getting used to…

My husband and I lived in Shanghai for three years, from 2004-6. We moved there on his job, with a Danish engineering company, but I found an amazing job there, too, helping Australians do business with China.

Shanghai is a work-hard, play-hard kind of city for foreign expatriates, especially if you don’t have any children, as we didn’t then. The opportunities were everywhere and the possibilities endless, so everyone worked long hours, often under intense pressure. Many people travelled constantly around the Asia Pacific region, as Mr Hungry Australian did; at its most ridiculous, he was travelling 80% of the time, making only ‘guest appearances’ in Shanghai.

When he was travelling, I would rarely bother cooking. If I didn’t have an evening function on, I’d eat out or buy takeaway on my way home from work. One of my favourite takeaway suppers was six lamb skewers, a hot salad and a serve of rice from our favourite Xinjiang restaurant.

Xinjiang lamb skewers are marinated with cumin and liberally sprinkled with chilli, garlic and Szechuan peppercorns. They’re incredibly fragrant and very, very moreish. Like cloves, Szechuan peppercorns have an anaesthetic effect so your lips and mouth will go slightly and pleasantly numb as you eat, which only adds to the charm of these lamb skewers.

While Xinjiang restaurants can be found throughout China, there are not that many Xinjiang restaurants outside China. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never come across Uyghur food before. Or if you have, ignored it in favour of the more familiar Cantonese, Szechuan or Hunan style of Chinese food.

But if you like spicy food, this is one heck of an introduction.


800 grams lamb shoulder
2 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons cumin
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons ground ginger, or one 3cm piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon chilli flakes (for medium-hot heat skewers)
1 teaspoon Szechuan peppercorns
1.5 -2 teaspoons sea salt flakes
Freshly ground black pepper


Go to your butcher for the lamb shoulder. I specify the shoulder because you want the fattiest part of the lamb.

Trim the sinews but keep the fat. You can trim it from the meat if you prefer but keep the fat as you will thread these randomly onto the meat skewers for extra flavour. When you’re handling the raw fat, it may not look very appetizing but believe me, it’s unbelievably tasty once it’s grilled.

Cut the meat into 3cm chunks, trying to keep them all about the same size so they cook at around the same rate. Then put all the lamb into a mixing bowl and add oil.

Meanwhile, prepare your spice marinade by putting all the remaining ingredients into a mortar.

Smash the ingredients with the pestle until they are completely pulverised. This is very satisfying.

Spoon the marinade into the mixing bowl and mix thoroughly into the meat.

Cover and refrigerate, leaving it for at least a couple of hours or overnight.

Soak skewers in water for at least half an hour to help prevent them burning when you cook the lamb. (Mr Hungry Australian also put foil under the skewers on the BBQ so they wouldn’t burn, which I personally thought was unnecessary but let it go as he likes being in control of the BBQ. Boys and their toys, eh?).

Thread the lamb onto the skewers, using around four pieces of meat for each stick.

Grill or barbecue the lamb skewers until cooked to your liking. If you like your lamb pink try 4 minutes on each side. If you prefer your meat well done, try 6 minutes on each side. Make sure you test a skewer  to see if it’s done to your liking – cooking times obviously vary enormously on BBQs.

Serve with a hot salad and pita bread or potato salad.

PS This last photo is a bit flat because I shot it outside in the late afternoon shade. I wanted to do it again, setting it up properly with better lighting, but hungry guests and young children were waiting to be fed. So I resisted. Sometimes you just have to put the camera down and eat.

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