Friday, June 26, 2015

Uyghur Lamb Kebabs

Cooking can open doors, even to places where you may never physically take a step.  Cooking can also open eyes, allowing one to learn about the cuisine and traditions of other cultures and peoples.  The educational aspect of cooking is what I love and what often propels my cooking.

A few weeks back, I came across a recipe for Uyghur Lamb Kebabs.  I am generally aware of the Uyghur people.  They are a Turkic nationality spread across central Asia, but principally concentrated in Xinjiang, one of the westernmost provinces of China.  The Uyghur share little in common with the (Han) Chinese. The Uyghur use a modified Arabic alphabet and they are predominantly Sunni Muslim. These facts more closely align the Uyghur people with the Turkic peoples of the neighboring 'Stans, like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Long before it became Xinjiang or part of China, the area inhabited by the Uyghur people was a Khanganate and, later, a series of other kingdoms and khanates.  (That story is better left for a history blog.)  Although they lived in the desert, that desert sat in the middle of the Silk Road.  The Uyghur peoples, perhaps with the help of the Persians, were able to able to transform parts of the harsh land into oases with a series of irrigation systems.  These oases allowed for the cultivation of wheat, vegetables and fruit.  It also allowed for the raising of livestock, such as chicken, lamb and mutton.

Those meats, and even camel (bactrian only), are featured in Uyghur dishes. Cooks often use spices such as cumin and red peppers, as well as other flavorings like raisins and animal fats.  Other interesting aspects to the cuisine include the use of certain spices, such as cumin, and local ingredients like pomegranates.  

Uyghur Lamb Kebabs is a street dish that features some of the intriguing aspects of this cuisine.  The lamb is marinated in a mixture of onion, garlic and pomegranate juice.  The latter ingredient adds a little tartness to the flavor of the lamb.  While the ideal way to cook these kebabs would be over a charcoal grill, that lack of such a grill should not stop you.  The kebabs are still very delicious when prepared using a gas grill or even a broiler.   The final touch is a cumin salt, which, according to the source for this recipe, is the way these kebabs are finished in Xinjiang.  

In the end, this is a delicious recipe ... and I am not saying that because I am a big fan of kebabs.  The use of pomegranate juice presents an interesting twist to the preparation of the dish.  The slight dusting of cumin salt helps to add complexity to the flavor of this dish.  This is one that I will definitely keep on list of recurring recipes, even though the price of pomegranate juice can be expensive.  

Serves 4

1 pound of boneless leg of lamb or shoulder, cut into 
     approximately 1 inch squares, with some fat kept on
1/2 yellow onion
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1/4 cup pomegranate juice
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
Cumin salt (1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt and 1 teaspoon of ground cumin)

1.  Prepare the lamb. Process the onion into a paste in a food processor.  Add the pomegranate juice, garlic, oil salt and pepper to the onion paste and mix together.  Add the chunks of lamb in a bowl and cover with the marinade.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator at least 2 hours to marinate.

2.  Grill the lamb.  Soak wooden skewers for about 30 minutes.  Thread the pieces of lamb onto wooden skewers, leaving enough space between them so the meat browns..  Heat the grill on medium high.  Grill for about 2 minutes on the first side then turn, cooking for 7-8 minutes more, turning the skewers so that they get an even color.

3. Finish the dish.  Combine the salt and cumin together.  Once the kebabs are cooked, sprinkle the cumin salt immediately on the kebabs as they come off the grill.  Serve with rice and flatbread.


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