- Car seat… Check
- Travel cot… Check
- Buggy… Check
- Random impulse buy of two outfits for 3 – 6 month baby boy from Next… Check
- Purchase of four books of Adam’s Amazing Adventures by Benji Bennett to read Dermot to sleep… Check
- Shan’s Irish entry visa… Check
- Shane’s Beijing resident’s permit and visa to return to China… Check
- Lively 3 month old grandson… now in possession of Chinese exit visa and Irish passport and watching his bags being packed to travel to Ireland for the first time this day week… CHECK!!
A big “thank you” to my Twitter friends who helped me borrow the equipment needed. We will be poised and ready to welcome the three of them home next Saturday. We can hardly contain our excitement.
Meanwhile it’s strange the way food can evoke memories and cumin combined with lamb is a case in point.
Cumin is grown in Xinjiang province, the vast north western province of China where Shan comes from, and where the Muslim Uighur street vendors use it whenever they cook their trade-mark lamb kebabs on portable barbecues. For me the distinctive aroma of cumin and lamb combined will be forever associated with our first trip to visit Shan’s family.
The other night I was playing around with a lamb version of Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe in her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook for beef with cumin when the scent of the cumin, mingled with sizzling red onion and lamb and flecked with ginger, garlic and chilli, plunged me back into a backstreet in Shan’s home town in Urumqi, Xinjiang province one hot, dry night early last July.
That day we had visited Tianchi – Heaven’s Lake which is perched at an elevation of 2,000 metres above the gobi desert plains below and lies 112 km east of Urumqi. A place apart, Tianchi deserves its Chinese AAAAA– level scenic spot status and its brochure description “like a shy girl deeply encircled by mountains you can even not find another one like it in the heavens and the world.” It also deserves, and will get, a blog post all of its own. Tianchi freezes over in the winter so it is only accessible in the summer months and is fed by the snows as the ice melts.
We had trekked for more than 2 hours up 2,500 steps and over a distance of about 7 kilometres to finally come over the crest of the mountain to the vista of the beautiful lake with its backdrop of snow-capped mountains. I had marvelled at the stamina of Shan, who was in the early stages of her pregnancy at that stage, and her little 5 year old niece Xuen Xuen who had matched us step for step.
It was 9.30 pm by the time we arrived back to the outskirts of Urumqi. Our driver asked, through Shan, what we felt like eating for dinner and having worked up an appetite on mountain air we said anything served with a cold beer (Shane and I had the simultaneous thought that we supposed a burger and chips would be out of the question!).
Our driver took us at our word and whisked us into Urumqi city centre through the rush hour traffic. On a bustling summer evening, this city of 4 million people was growing on me, revealing its own haphazard charm. Suddenly we were on a back street, just metres from the heart of the city, with run down apartment blocks on one side and a ramshackle building on the other which housed a pop-up restaurant on the ground floor spilling over on to the street and serving only kebabs (“chuan’r”) and beer.
This was one of those places you would never find without insider knowledge, or if you stumbled upon it it’s most likely that you wouldn’t risk eating there. It doesn’t have a name but it was our driver’s local and, during the summer, the eating and drinking goes on there until the early hours on plastic tables strung along the side of the street. The young couple who run it come down from further north near the Mongolian border for the summer months and build up their reserves from the takings to survive the harsh, bitterly cold winters.
Our driver brought us inside to pick our chuan’r and they were dusted with a spice mix of cumin and chilli, cooked on barbecues outside and brought on platters to our table with large bottles of beer – water and tea were not available.
The selection of chuan’r for our table of 10 included: duck pieces, whole small lake fish, squid, crab sticks, chicken wings, chicken stomach, chicken pieces with soft bone, blood (a kind of black pudding), courgettes, green beans, leeks, aubergines, potatoes bread and of course lamb, all dusted with spices. The vegetables and bread were sliced thin like crisps and cooked over the barbecue.
This was delicious food, zingy fresh, all char-grilled without oil and an experience of street food we would never have had without local insight. As the sun finally set and the scent of cumin and chilli wafted across to us on the night air, the Chinese chattered on around us and the cold, weak beer lulled us into that particular sense of peaceful wellbeing that only healthy exercise followed by a good meal can produce.
At the end the owner simply counted up the sticks – long ones for meat, medium ones for fish and short ones for vegetable and calculate the total bill at 2 or 3 RMB per stick. The bill for the lot, for 10 people including beer came to around €35.
Before we left, the owners insisted on having their photos taken with us as the first westerners ever to eat there while the other locals wanted to know all about us. Ireland is now very popular in that part of the city of Urumqi and in a small village near the Mongolian border.
Lamb with Cumin – zi ran yang rou
- 400 g lean lamb
- 3 cm piece of fresh ginger
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 red onion
- 2 fresh red chillies
- 2 tsp dried chilli flakes (or more to taste)
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 spring onions (green part only)
- 400 ml groundnut oil
- 1 tsp sesame oil
For the marinade:
- 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 1 tbs potato flour
- 1 tbs water
- Cut the lamb across the grain into thin slices.
- Mix the marinade ingredients, add to the lamb and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Finely chop the ginger, garlic and red onion; finely chop the red chillies discarding the seeds.
- Thinly slice the spring onion.
- Heat the oil in a seasoned wok to about 140 degrees C. Add the lamb and stir gently. As soon as the pieces separate, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, drain well and set aside.
- Pour off all but 3 tbs of the oil. Heat the wok to medium, add the ginger, garlic and red onion and stir-fry briefly to soften.
- Increase the heat to high and add the fresh chillies, chilli flakes and cumin and stir-fry briefly until the fragrance is released.
- Return the lamb to the wok and stir well over high heat, seasoning with salt to taste.
- When all the ingredients are sizzling and well mixed, add the spring onions and toss briefly. Then remove from the heat, stir in the sesame oil and serve.