The arrival of Shan’s Mum in Beijing from her home in Urumqi in Xinjiang Autonomous Region has brought back memories of our visit last Summer to that intriguing area. I will be writing of some of our experiences there over coming days.
In Urumqi and throughout the region the influence of the Uighur people, who are Turkic speaking Sunni Muslims, is very evident. Lamb dominates the local diet and the nomadic history of other Turkic minorities who live in the area – the Kazakhs and the Kirgiz for instance – is also evident in the food which has echoes of east and west. Their noodles and dumpling link them with the wheat flour – mian – eaters of northern China, with its resonances of Italian pasta. Their spice stalls sell all my Chinese favourites like Sichuan pepper and star anise but also cardamon, cinnamon, cumin, saffron and other aromatic flavours more commonly associated with Central Asia and the middle east and there are raisins and other dried fruits in abundance
They love their tea but their nomadic heritage is evident in their fondness for yoghurt and other dairy foods. These dietary preferences have influenced the Han Chinese too. Shan’s Mum’s breakfast tipple is milky, salted tea. Their vegetables include carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, peppers. Their golden naan bread makes you feel you have stumbled into a Persia of another era. This is a melting pot of cuisines with its own unique characteristics.
That first day we spent there we had lunch in a Uighur restaurant beside the “This and That Satisfactory Chain Supermarket” – lamb kebabs with sesame seeds – chuan’r – a biryani rice dish with lamb and a dish of lamb with pasta like Shan’s Xinjiang spaghetti with lamb. We washed it down with a yoghurt drink and, of course, tea.
The Uighurs also like to make cauldrons of soup and pile in chunks of lamb and lots of chopped vegetable so long, slow,cooking features in their cuisine.
Now that winter has set in here in Ireland, I have also started making a heart-warming stew one day each week. The recipe below is not a Xinjiang recipe. It’s my own attempt at a lamb variation of Shananigan’s wagyu stew which is a “red-braised” dish of Sichuan or Hunan origin. However the use of lamb, cumin, cardamon and cinnamon and the addition of root vegetables evoke some of the flavours I associate with that first day in Urumqi.
Shananigans’ red braised lamb stew – hong shao yang rou – 红烧羊肉
Serves 4 – 6
- 1.2 kg lamb pieces
- About 4 tbs of groundnut or sunflower oil
- About 1/2 of a jar of Lee Kum Kee chilli bean sauce (toban djan)*
- About 3/4 litre chicken stock
- 1 small onion, peeled and cut into wedges
- 2 spring onions cut into 3 sections
- A chunk of unpeeled fresh ginger – about 4 cms – cut into thick slices
- 1 piece of cassia bark (optional)
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 1 star anise
- 4 tbs Shaoxing wine
- 2 tsps dark soy sauce
- 1 tsp Sichuan pepper
- 4 – 6 cardamon pods
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 – 3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
- 2 – 3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
- 1/2 daikon radish/ Chinese turnip, peeled and cut into chunks (optional)
- Coriander leaves to garnish
- Boiled rice or mashed potatoes
- Shan’s bashed cucumber – Pai Huang Gua – see recipe in earlier post
Preparation and cooking:
- Cut the lamb into large cubes. Place in a saucepan. Cover with boiling water and blanch for a minute or two, skimming off the mucky froth that rises to the surface Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon and leave aside in a colander to cool and lose any excess liquid. (( love this Chinese technique which removes the bloody juices and improves the flavour of the dish.)
- Heat the oil in a large, deep saucepan or wok over a medium heat. Add the chilli bean sauce to the oil and stir, over medium heat, for about 30 seconds until the sauce and oil have combined. Add in the onion, spring onions, ginger, cassia bark, cinnamon, star anise and stir fry until you release the heady aromas of the spices and the onion begins to soften.
- Then turn up the heat and add in the lamb, stirring constantly until all the beef is coated with the rich red sauce. Swirl in the soy sauce and the Shaoxing wine and stir to mix, then add sufficient of the reserved cooking liquid to barely cover the meat. Reserve any remaining stock.
- Add the Sichuan pepper, cardamon, cumin and bay leaves.
- Bring to the boil, then transfer immediately to a slow cooker and cook on “low” for about 6 hours. (If you are stuck for time give it a blast on high in the slow-cooker for an hour or so and then reduce to low for about 3- 4 hours).
- About an hour before the end of cooking time, par boil some chunks of carrots and parsnips for about 10 minutes, blanch the daikon radish chunks if using. Strain and add to the stew while steaming hot, keeping the time you have the lid off the slow cooker to a minimum. You may need to add a little more stock at this stage to make sure the meat and vegetables remain covered.
- Before serving, skim off any oil that has risen to the surface and check the seasoning, balancing the flavours if necessary with soy sauce and Shaoxing wine.
- Serve garnished with fresh coriander.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, simply cook on the hob on a low simmer for about 2 – 3 hours. In this case you will need to cover the lamb more generously with the cooking liquid (up to about 1 litre) and keep an eye on it to make sure the lamb is covered with water at all times and doesn’t dry out.