I haven’t been writing much for the last while. Various minor and major illnesses among family and close friends have conspired to interfere with my concentration. But today is my birthday (and my Mum’s, yes we share the same date – happy birthday Mum!) so it’s time to to put the traumas of the first half of the year behind and turn to happier thoughts.
Claire and Mike have arrived home from Australia for a brief visit for his brother’s wedding in England and, with the glorious weather, I’ve been plotting what to have for a barbecue that would evoke memories of our visit to my daughter-in-law Shan’s home town of Urumqi last summer. Those of you who have been following the blog will know that Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the remote northwest of China – a vast, dry, mainly desert region that occupies a sixth of China’s territory and is bounded on its borders by Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikstan.
What struck me forcibly on that first visit was that, despite the superficial similarities with other Chinese cities, this is a place apart. Streets signs in an Arabaic-based script and the facial features and dress of many of the inhabitants, are constant reminders that the city has a large Uihgur population – a Turkic-speaking people of Turkish origin who are Sunni Muslims. Men dressed in conservative garb of long coats and knee-high boots and women swathed in shawls or wearing traditional dress evoke the mysteries of the old Silk Road.
The influence of the Uighur culture is strong. Lamb dominates the local diet and the nomadic history of many of the Turkic minorities – the Kazakhs and the Kirgiz – is evident in the food which has echoes of east and west. Their wide flat or pici like noodles, with their resonance of Italian pasta, link them with the wheat flour – mian – eaters of northern China.
Their spice stalls sell all my Chinese favourites like Sichuan pepper and star anise but also cumin, cardamon, saffron and other aromatic seasonings more commonly associated with Central Asia and the middle east. There are raisins, dates and other dried fruits in abundance. Their fresh fruits, nourished by the short, hot summers include the fattest grapes, cherries, apricots and pistachios I have ever seen.
The locals love their tea but their nomadic heritage is evident in their fondness for yoghurt and other dairy foods. 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.
On our first day we had lunch in a Uighur restaurant beside the “This and That Satisfactory Chain Supermarket” – lamb kebabs with sesame seeds (chuan’r) a biryani style rice dish with lamb similar to MaMa’sLamb Rice and lamb with pasta like Shan’s Xinjiang Spaghetti with Lamb. We washed it down with a yoghurt drink and tea.
I will forever associate the scent of lamb and cumin lingering in the air on hot dry evenings with Urumqi and I posted a stir-fried Lamb with Cumin recipe recently. Then last weekend Shane and Shan and attended a barbecue in a hutong on the outskirts of Beijing where they had traditional chuan’r kebabs so I set about trawling my recipe books to try and recreate them here. To my astonishment I found the perfect recipe in the Greekish section of Rozanne Steven’s marvellous Relish BBQ book which is my go-to cookbook this summer.
I can only conclude that once upon a time a lonely Greek goatherd came up with this way of cooking fresh goat meat over his campfire as he wandered the hills of his native islands and served it with fresh yoghurt from his herd. Over the years the traditional recipe travelled, with minor variations, across the world, carried by nomadic shepherds and goatherds through Turkey, Persia and along the old Silk Road to end up as a staple dish in North Western China.
Rozanne’s recipe was too perfect to mess with so I’ve only made one or two minor changes – for instance the Chinese use groundut rather than olive oil and sugar rather than honey. The addition of a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds is also typical of Urumqi. Rozanne serves her kebabs with delicious clumps of grilled grapes bursting their juices whereas in Xinjinag the grapes would usually be served at the end of the meal. I tried this out last weekend in Duncannon. Definitely a winner.
Rozanne’s book is available from her website and all good bookstores and is surely the most inspired cookbook for the summer we are having. If you haven’t got it already go out there and find it before the weekend. It’s packed with hundreds of great barbecue ideas and I mentioned some of them, including my favourite – Norman’s Butterflied Leg of Lamb – in this post.
Now as it’s my birthday I’m going to indulge myself by posting two recent photos of my lovely grandson Dermot now aged 5 1/2 months, one taken before and the other just after his first haircut. His other nai nai adhered to the Chinese tradition of cutting off the straggly baby hair in the hot summer months so that his new hair will grow stronger. Hmmm, I find this idea takes getting used to and I think Dermot might agree…. 🙂
What I wouldn’t give for a birthday hug from that little man today.
But it’s fantastic to have Claire, Mike and her friend Diane around to share the occasion for the first time in many years. Time to count blessings.
Lamb Chuan’r Urumqi Style
(with ever so slight variations from Rozanne Steven’s Greekish recipe for Marinated Goat Kebabs and Grilled Grapes)
- 1 kg diced lamb
- 2tbs ground nut oil
- Toasted sesame seeds to serve
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 50 ml groundnut oil
- Juice and zest of a lemon
- 3 tbs of finely chopped fresh oregano
- 1 ½ tbs finely chopped fresh mint
- 1 tbs finely chopped flat leaf parsley or coriander
- 1 ½ tbs ground cumin
- ½ tbs ground cinnamon
- 1 ½ tbs honey or soft brown sugar
- Salt and pepper
Greekish Minty Tzatziki:
- 250 g thick Greek yoghurt
- ½ large cucumber, peeled, seeded and shredded
- 1 glove garlic finely chopped
- Juice of ¼ lemon
- 1 tbs finely chopped fresh mint
- Salt and pepper
- Mix all the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add the lamb. Mix well and marinade for between 3 and 24 hours.
- To make the tzatziki, sprinkle the cucumber with salt and leave in colander to drain off excess moisture then pat dry with kitchen paper. Mix in a bowl with the other ingredients and chill for a few hours before serving.
- Skewer the lamb onto metal skewers, pushing together tightly.
- Spread out the skewers on a hot barbecue. Grill for about 5 minutes each side to seal well, then continue to grill the chuan’r until just cooked and tender (this will depend on the size of the cubes).
- Serve sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and with the tzatziki. Be careful handling the skewers as they can get very hot.