My Chinese teacher once told me that all Beijing expats start out by learning the same three words: nihao, pijiu, and yangrou chuanr - hello, beer, and lamb chuanr. Those three words are the essentials, because that's all you need to know to get a great dinner anywhere in the city, just find the nearest chuanr stand.
Chuanr (pronounced like "chwar") are skewers of food seasoned with cumin and chili powder, then cooked over a propane or charcoal grill. They're the most common street food in Beijing, though they're originally from the Xinjiang area in the Northwest.
Grilled lamb is the most classic form, but chuanr can be made out of anything: chicken chunks, chicken wings, chicken hearts, beef, pork, steamed buns, etc. Chicken wings make particularly wonderful chuanr, and I highly recommend trying them.
There are probably as many ways of making chuanr as there are people making them. Everyone has their particular tastes; for example, I like to brush a little Shaoxing wine onto my chuanr before cooking them. Not everybody loves chuanr so spicy that flames shoot from their eyes, so the chili powder can be increased or decreased according to taste.
I like to make my chuanr seasoning in large batches, because once you've acquired the taste for it, it can go on pretty much everything; it makes a wonderful flatbread, and I've even had it on a Xinjiang lamb pizza.
Chuanr are spicy, delicious, and highly addictive. I remember saying, "I'll just try one," and the next thing I knew I was camped out next to a sizzling grill in 100-degree weather, a bouquet of skewers in one hand and a cold beer in the other. There are certainly other ways to eat them, but that's probably the best.
Makes about 20 skewers
1 1/2 - 2 pounds lamb breast
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine or dry sherry (optional)
3 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoons Chinese chili powder
2 teaspoons powdered garlic
2 teaspoons powdered fennel
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Carve the lamb breast meat off the bones and cut them into small chunks of approximately 1" by 1/2" by 1/2", leaving the fat attached. Spear the lamb on bamboo grilling skewers, so the layers alternate between fat and meat. If you choose to use Shaoxing wine, brush it over all the meat and let the skewers rest for 15 minutes.
While the skewers are resting, preheat a gas or charcoal grill to high heat.
Make the chuanr seasoning by stirring together the cumin seeds, chili powder, powdered garlic, powdered fennel, and kosher salt.
Shake the chuanr seasoning liberally over the skewers, coating the meat thoroughly.
Put the skewers on the grill, cook for four minutes, then turn them. The fat will start to melt and become semi-translucent. Continue grilling until the meat is cooked through, about 8-10 minutes total.
Remove the skewers from the grill and distribute. Chuanr are best served by the handful, with beer.
(Images: Elizabeth Licata)