Summer is definitely here. It’s a joyful season, and across China, everyone seems to be happy. Walking down the street, you can’t help but notice big smiles, loud voices and big, full bellies. If you come to China in the summer, I promise you that your belly will grow too—especially at night. Just follow my instructions.
Take a look around any Chinese city, and you’ll see illuminated red signs outside restaurants, on the side of the road, everywhere, flashing a single Chinese character: “串” (chuàn). It looks like two pieces of meat, skewered on a stick, and that’s exactly what chuan’r is: a delicious and crispy Chinese kebab. In the north, they pronounce an “r” at the end of lots of words, something like a growl.
Invariably, surrounding these signs, you’ll see people sitting around in plastic chairs, pigging out. They’ll have food and drinks spread all over their tables. Servers stand over thin, long barbecues and are surrounded by clouds of smoke, rising from the sizzling meat.
These outdoor night stalls are called dapaidang (大排档), and as much as ice cream cones or open fire hydrants, they’re a symbol of summer.
It’s said the word paidang comes from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) term for officials who treated each other to nights on the town. Over time, the phrase became popular among commoners, and today (using the Cantonese “档,” which means stall) it just refers to simple, cheap dining. People can dress casually, talk loudly, and leave all their worries behind.
Every time I pass a chuan’r seller, I slow down. My legs will grow heavy. My stomach will growl. Just stop for a minute, my stomach pleads. I give in. Maybe I’ll just have one bottle of beer and a few chuan’r, I think. But it usually turns into more than that.
Chuan’r can be made of any kind of food—chicken, fish, beef or any vegetable. But easily the most beloved kind is lamb, yangrou chuan’r (羊肉串儿). It’s especially good in the summer, when the dish is joined by three of its good friends: cool beer, boiled peanuts and green beans. Together, these four make the perfect combination. Sure, there are other dishes that can be eaten with chuan’r, but these are the essentials.
The most commonly heard invitation this time of year? “Let’s go eat dapaidang!” (去吃大排档吧！Qù chī dà páidàng ba!) And it’s not uncommon to stay there till after midnight, empty beer bottles and chuan’r sticks piling up on the table. With each beer, the night feels cooler, more pleasant. It’s a great time for friends to share and for family to get together. Ordering the food is very simple. Just learn this one phrase: “Boss, I’ll have two!” (老板, 来两串儿! Lǎobǎn, lái liǎng chuàn’r!)
If you haven’t worked it out already, I love dapaidang, even if it leaves a huge mess. The morning after, the ground will be littered with sticks, beer bottles and other trash. But what’s a night’s fun if you don’t get a little messy?
Most of the chefs who cook chuan’r wear short, round, white caps. They are likely from Xinjiang, in the northwest of China, where chuan’r originated. Xinjiang food is renowned throughout China. But today, many people, not just those from Xinjiang, have learned how to make chuan’r. You can barely taste any difference. When you are making Xinjiang kebabs at home, there are three “don’ts.” These are: don’t cook it directly on a gas stove (or you’ll start a fire); don’t eat underdone lamb (or you’ll get sick); and—this one comes from the doctor—don’t drink too much beer with the chuan’r (sadly, although it is the greatest dapaidang tradition, the two don’t partner well chemically). The healthiest drink for chuan’r is barley tea, which will help your body digest the meat.
I learned all this from the head chef at the Xinjiang Hotel, in Beijing. Actually, he added one “do,” but I don’t know how realistic it is. He insisted you use fresh Xinjiang lamb—for the hotel, he ships the lamb in every day. “But don’t worry,” he assured me, “even without the right lamb, you can still cook tasty kebabs based on these instructions.” Here they are:
Ingredients (for 12 skewers)
- 500g lamb (backs of the legs are better) 羊肉 yángròu
- 120g onion 洋葱 yángcōng
- 7-10g salt 盐 yán
- 150g water 水 shuǐ
- Cumin 孜然 zīrán
- Chili powder (optional) 辣椒面 làjiāomiàn
- Bamboo or steel skewers 竹签或铁签 zhúqiān huò tiě qiān
- Remove the tendons, and cut the meat into 2 to 3 cm slices, about 3 or 4 cm long.
- Mix the lamb with the minced onion, salt and water. Stir until the lamb absorbs the water. Allow to sit for four to six hours, stirring occasionally.
- Brush the skewers with oil and thread the lamb onto the sticks. Include at least one piece of fat in the middle of each skewer.
- Cook on a barbecue (烧烤炉 shāokǎolú), or a rectangular Xinjiang chuan’r box. Turn the meat frequently.
- As the lamb cooks, it will shrink. Scatter cumin and chili powder down both sides as it cooks. When no more juice comes out, it’s ready!
Boiled peanuts and green beans are much easier to make. Just add the shelled peanuts or green beans along with salt, leeks, ginger, pepper and anise—all of these to taste. You can’t go wrong. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and let cook for two to three hours. After that, they’re ready to eat but feel free to leave them soaking. The longer they’re left—believe me—the better they’ll be.