Kebab Seller Shares Secrets of Xinjiang Taste | Xinjiang: Far West China

Kebab Seller Shares Secrets of Xinjiang Taste

May 19, 2010 | 36 Comments

About this time last year I was invited by a good Uyghur friend to take part in one of Xinjiang’s most popular pastimes: the BBQ.  Having spent part of his life behind a Xinjiang kebab stand outside the province my friend shared with me the secrets that make the kebabs in Xinjiang that much better than those beyond the provincial borders.

Because I was born and raised in the great state of Texas, the term “BBQ” carries a baggage of memories that I had to completely redefine while living in Xinjiang.  The meat of choice would be lamb, not pork ribs, and unless you’ve had the privilege of traveling to Xinjiang you won’t understand just how delicious that can be.

Secret #1: The Type of Fire

My Uyghur friend teaches me the art of making kebabsWhen my wife and I arrived at our friends’ home early one Saturday we were each given specific tasks.  It was my job to head to the basement and grab the grill.  Expecting a large setup not unlike what I might find along the streets, I was surprised to encounter a grill no bigger than a half a meter.  “This will make the grilling faster” my friend explained.

Throughout our travels in China, my wife and I have seen kebabs cooked in all sorts of ways, my favorite being those I saw in Beijing cooked with a hair dryer.  A few kebabs were fried, some at the fast food restaurants were just heated on an electric stove, but my Uyghur friend explained that today we would be doing kebabs the “authentic way”.

…if you want a really good kebab you have to use wood…

Translation: We wouldn’t be burning the ever-abundant coal often used throughout China and northern Xinjiang – we would be using wood more popular in the south of the province.  Apparently this wood was a valuable commodity in our desert area and he had to pay a high price to get some for us.

“People use coal because it’s cheaper, but if you want a really good kebab, you have to use wood.”  Coal is also preferred because it cooks faster than wood he explained, but it would give the meat a better flavor.

The kebab grill burns the wood to useful embers

Secret #2: The Type of Meat

It makes sense that not all lamb meat is created equal, just like all steaks aren’t the same.  The women are preparing the kebabs for grillingApparently most kebab stands cut costs by using the less-desirable meat and cutting it into incredibly small pieces that grill quickly.

Prior to our arrival my Uyghur friend had already gone to the market to select the perfect slab of lamb with a balanced combination of meat and fat.  It had been cut into medium-sized chunks and was being marinated in a large bowl – something that most street vendors fail to do.

“My secret to the perfect kebab is the marinade” he told me, although he never revealed the exact ingredients to his marinade.  After only an hour in the bowl both our wives sat down to the task of preparing the skewers.  Meat – fat – meat – fat – meat – fat.

Most restaurants offer a variety of kebabs…

“Most restaurants offer a variety of kebabs” my friend said.  “It’s a mistake to buy the cheapest ones because those are usually made with the lesser meat.  The good kebabs are usually thick, prime and a bit more expensive.”  Try almost 2-3 times as expensive.  A regular kebab in Xinjiang usually costs about 1-3 RMB, but the better quality skewers run upwards of 6-8 RMB.

The 2015 Xinjiang travel guide is here!

Secret #3: Quality Matters, not Quantity

At first I thought it had something to do with our small grill, but my Uyghur friend refused to cook more than 8 kebabs at one time. A Uyghur grill kebabs during a BBQ He insisted that creating an even heat distribution was key to a perfect kebab.  “People who really know what they’re doing might be able to cook 20 or 30 at a time, but often they end up sacrificing taste for time.”

Our thick kebabs, skillfully prepared by our wives, sat on the grill for at least 10 minutes per group of eight.  Every couple of minutes they would be turned and sprinkled with generous portions of cumin and ground peppers.

I could tell my friend was a kebab master just by the way he handled the skewers.  Instead of turning them one-by-one he was able to grab the whole lot and turn them in one swoop.  It sounds (and looks) simple, but I can share from experience that amateurs will either drop one in the fire or end up having to turn them individually anyway after their failed attempt.

Secret #4: Always Request the Bread

Lamb meat is naturally greasy and there is no better use for that grease than on a piece of Uyghur bread.  “I always ask for the bread” my friend said.  Usually kebabs are served alone on a plate, but by requesting bread the grease from the kebabs will be used to soften and flavor the bread.

Every Uyghur restaurant in Xinjiang will either have bread on hand or have somebody run down to the nearest bread stand, which usually isn’t far.  Since kebab makers outside Xinjiang don’t have the same luxury most people miss out on this incredible food pairing.

Secret #5: Kebabs are Meant to be Eaten Outside

I believe it’s not just the food, it’s also the atmosphere.  While BBQing with our friends we laid out a blanket in the grass and enjoyed the breeze.  If I’m going to a restaurant I don’t even hesitate to request outdoor seating.

Because we only grilled 8 kebabs at a time, our meal was stretched out for hours as we leisurely conversed and downed cold beverages.  Even thinking about it today makes me want to pull out my grill but I have no doubt that any kebabs I made just wouldn’t compare to those of my Uyghur friend.

I’m convinced that even though Uyghurs may not have invented lamb kebabs, they have perfected the art of cooking them.

About Josh Summers

Josh is a writer, musician and entrepreneur who currently resides in Urumqi, capital of China's western province of Xinjiang. He has been traveling and writing about this region since 2006 and has no plans to stop in the near future.

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  1. I have rarely seen the wood fired kebab. The thick suffocating stench of burning coal chunks has become synonymous with kebab stands for me. It is sacrilage to use kebab machines like these:

    http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&q=%E8%82%89%E4%B8%B2%E6%9C%BA%E5%99%A8&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi

    And might I suggest a fine dogh or kawas to pair with your succulent kebab and naan for the ultimate Uyghur summer meal?

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    Josh on May 19th, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Yea, the wood ends up being way more expensive than the coal, so most street vendors tend to just go cheap. It’s a shame because I have to say those wood-fired kebabs were truly the best I’ve ever tasted.

    Thankfully I’ve never seen one of those kebab machines…I think that might actually be worse than the hair dryer I saw in Beijing.

    As for the kawas…I couldn’t agree more! Bring me a glass!

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    Marat on May 21st, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Hi, Josh. I’m from Kyrgyzstan which neighbors Xinjiang. We actually have the same style kebabs (we call “shashlyk”) and bread (we call “lepyoshka”). There are different kinds of wood and coal used for grilling. some wood holds heat better, some burn out quickly. Coal can be “stone” (extracted at mines) and “wooden” which is preferred since “stone” coal is harmful for health.

    There is Turkish style kebab here (we have some Turkish presence) but it’s a bit different in cooking. And finally we have a tradition of grilling the whole lamb in brick stoves (tandyr). Something like this
    http://www.manas.afcent.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123203932

    Josh on May 21st, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks for your comment. I’m sure the Kyrgyzstan kebabs are tasty as well and I’d be interested to find out if there are any differences between the two. Since you’re here I’d love to ask you something – my friend told me that it wasn’t just any wood he was using to cook these kebabs, it was a special wood.

    The curly branches looked familiar to me but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Do you happen to do know the name?

    Marat on May 21st, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Our kebabs look the same and are cooked exactly you describe. Maybe you’ll have a chance to visit Kyrgyzstan to check it out ;)

    Yes, true kebab makers don’t use ordinary wood. They use saxaul or Haloxylon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxaul). It produces heat longer and more evenly and less smoke.

  2. That was a whole lot of fat on those kebabs, what are the statistics for heart disease in Xinjiang?

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    Josh on May 20th, 2010 at 6:12 am

    I said they tasted great, not that they were healthy! :)

    I haven’t come across any statistics like that in Xinjiang, but I will say that people don’t eat this every day. I would liken it to a burger in America…which is probably just as greasy!

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  3. Great, Josh. We used to have a former Xinjianger and a kebab stand not far away. Gone, alas.

    I found it amusing that there was a Google ad for “tips for a tiny tummy” at the end of my RSS email. Fitting.

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  4. YUM!!! i want to be there – you’ve described it perfectly, as if we were there with you. thanks! now, just to smell and taste them…

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  5. You’ve got me drooling. I really miss the Xinjiang restaurants. When I move to my new apartment we’ll have a grill so I can start making these myself. Just have to find a decent butcher shop to buy lamb (surprisingly difficult to find in my neighborhood).

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    Josh on May 21st, 2010 at 2:50 am

    Tell me about it! Getting a good slab of lamb around Texas has proven to be a difficult task. I’m hoping not impossible…but definitely hard.

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  6. These sound amazing! Unlike the kebabs that I witness being cooked (read charred to death) at a restaurant just around the corner from my apartment here in Korea. The guy definitely needs lessons in the art of cooking kebabs!

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    Josh on May 24th, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    I never would have guessed that you can find lamb kebabs in Korea :) Thanks for your comment and tell your kebab seller to take a short trip to Xinjiang sometime…he’ll learn real fast or he’ll get boo-ed out of the province.

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  7. Nice article. But what about the spices? Usually three bowls nearby the grill. One must be cumin – from the taste.

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    Josh on May 27th, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Most kebab stands that I’ve seen only have two spice bowls and you’re right about the first spice – cumin. They use a lot of it. The other spice is usually a ground red pepper, although if you can’t stand the hot you can ask them to refrain from using it.

    The use of MSG is common all over China and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was used here, but I know it’s not necessary for a good taste.

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    Jeff on June 1st, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Another style is to roast the meat or fish and then have the patron roll it themself on a flat tray of premixed spices. Those places are usually serving out of a window with the tray on the ledge.
    You have a great site.

    Josh on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Hey Jeff, thanks for the compliment. I’ve never actually seen the window with a tray thing. I’d love to see pictures or hear you personal experience with it.

  8. I meant to ask what the other spice is. Hope it’s not msg!

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    Jeff on June 1st, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Good news. Reliable source says it’s salt. Makes sense. Also added that the ground pepper is sometimes a combination of red and black. Chicken hearts make a great kebab as does something I take to be squid.

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    Josh on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:30 am

    Thanks for the additional information. I’ve seen a few “kebab” restaurants that only serve kebabs and they have a whole slew of things that they grill, including not only hearts and squid but also fish, liver, vegetables, etc. Really good stuff.

    troy on August 31st, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Jeff,

    Nothing wrong with MSG. You have glutamate taste buds on your tongue (the are 5 tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, & glutamate/umami). Glutamate adds lots of flavor to things and is naturally in meat, cheese, mushrooms, seaweed, etc. Asians understand this, and either add chicken stock, fish stock, seaweed stock or MSG to things.

    The “MSG is bad” thing was made up in america in the 1960s. But every study since has proved it wrong.

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  9. Just did a tour of Xinjiang, Uzbekistan and Turkey (also visited Kyrgyzstan but didn’t taste any kebabs there), I have to say the best kebabs are from Xinjiang. And it is true the best tasting ones are those cut into medium sized chunks and burnt over wood. Yummy.

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    Josh on June 7th, 2010 at 5:23 am

    Glad you approve! I say that Xinjiang kebabs are the best but I honestly haven’t tried any from other Central Asian/Middle-Eastern countries. I’m sure they’re good as well but I’m happy to hear that I’m backing the best :)

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  10. It is not a sauce, the marinade is made up of sliced onions, crushed garlic, salt, and milk, the milk is the tenderizer, marinate overnight. Mum and dad perfected the recipe, there is nothing like it in the market. Keep mixing it up every few hours and leave overnight, just before skewing the meat place an egg into it, this helps seal the juices when cooking. Also in a salt shaker, have 1 part salt, and a mix of mild and hot paprika to your taste, this is then sprinkled over the shashlik before the cooking process begins. Also using wood is better, coal gives it a completely different taste

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    Galina on February 22nd, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    Also add some soy sauce to the marinade, forgot the ingredient :)

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  11. I just came back from Xian and previosly from Shanghai .. and there were many vendors selling these kebab and it was very delicious. first time tasted them, we were so surprised it tasted so delicious. I bet you experience the authentic which I bet must be tastier.
    Only in Xian we managed to bought some spices and could not wait to try to grill our selves. thanks for sharing this.

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  12. It surprises me to see a young man string all that tail-fat on the skewer. i know lots of younger Uyghurs who are not eating so much fat for health reasons (and because modern jobs keep them sedentary.) In my experience, all that tail fat is traditional, perhaps, but something older, rather than younger people eat.

    You can also check out my site for a great recipe for Big-plate chicken, and Uyghur spice mix for kebabs and other roasty things.

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