Shashlik is really just the Central Asian name for a kabob, something on a skewer. In Kashgar, at least on the street, this is almost always lamb coated in a cumin based spice blend. Lamb is cut into small (3/8 inch) cubes and skewered with bits of lamb fat. The stick is dipped into a tray of the spice blend and then grilled over hot coals. While the kabab is on the grill, the seller uses a fan to boost the heat of the coals and picks up some of the sticks to baste the skewers still on the grill with the rendering lamb fat dripping from them. If you like the crispy crust of grilled lamb you will be mad about these.
In the summer of 1989, Jan, Miriam and I flew from Chengdu, where we were teaching English, to Kashgar, the farthest western city in China. The money we received for teaching was plenty for traveling, as long as we stayed within the Chinese borders. Since we were working directly for the Chinese, we also had been issued “White Cards.” These were official documents that essentially identified us as “honorary overseas Chinese” when paying for things like lodging and plane or bus tickets. Foreign tourists were charged a much higher price than the locals or visiting overseas Chinese for nearly everything.
We discovered the reality of this price structure when we tried to buy plane tickets to Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang. I had forgotten my “white card” in Chengdu. Jan’s plane ticket would cost us the equivalent of about $10 US, while mine would cost $100 US (most of the money we had for traveling. In the end, we wound up buying bus tickets for the three day trip across the Taklamakan Desert.
This turned into one of those lifetime journeys as we followed the old Silk Road for three weeks, on bus, steam train and electric train, from Kashgar to Ürümqi to Dunhuang through Xian and finally back to Chengdu. Because of political events, we were almost the only Western foreigners in Xinjiang at the time (except for a few stray Dutch and Canadian visitors). As well as many advantages, like easily finding rooms in foreigner’s hotels, this had its disadvantages. Street hawkers would follow us down the road desperate to make some sale, any sale, during an unusually lean tourist season.
If anyone has been to Kashgar lately (as in the last ten years) I would appreciate finding out a certain fact. While walking down the one of the back streets, we saw these beautiful boxes covered in woven brass. These things were huge, about 2 by 2 by 4 feet, and must have weighted well over a hundred pounds. Shiny brass strips, about a quarter inch wide, were woven into complex designs over the surface of the box. At many of the intersections of the brass strips, small nails tacked them down to the wood in their own complex pattern. These were obviously intended for local use. No tourist was going to be able to drag one off to the airport in a town where most public transportation consisted of hailing a passing donkey cart or a horse bus. I turned to Jan and said “If only they were this big, I would buy one in a minute.” I made hand gestures to show a box that was maybe 8 by 8 by 14 inches. Jan swears that when she looked back one of the young carpenters was copying my hand gestures and shouting to his coworkers. Jan thinks he was shouting “The tourists want them ‘this’ size!” My question is this: Do they sell these small brass covered boxes in Kashgar now? We have been wondering about this for over twenty years.
The secret to shashlik is the spices. I have read published recipes that are little more that cumin pepper and salt and other recipes that have lots of spices but then turn it into a wet marinade. That is not what I had in Kashgar. When we first came back I found a spice blend called “Dessert Spice” made by a company that seems to have gone out of business. It had the taste I remembered. Paul Prudhomme’s Meat Magic also comes close and I have frequently just use this as a short cut.
Karl’s Uyghur Shashlik
3-4 lb. lamb
20 bamboo skewers
Karl’s Shashlik Spice Blend
¼ cup cumin
2 tsp. nigella (black cumin)
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. lajiao (Sichuan dried chili flakes, not Sichuan pepper) or 3 small dried red chilies
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. garlic power
1 tsp. onion power
1 tsp. Kosher salt
½ tsp. paprika
1. Soak the bamboo skewers for half an hour.
2. Slice the meat into ½ to 1 inch cubes (depending on your preferred size).
3. Loosely skewer the meat.
Tip: You do not want the meat tightly packed on the skewers, but you also do not want any exposed wooden gaps that might burn through while you are grilling the meat.
4. Combine the spices in a spice grinder (or mortar and pestle). Pulse the grinder a few times.
Hint: You do not want the spices ground to a fine power, but more of a course mixture.
5. Lay the skewers in a tray and evenly sprinkle the spice blend on the meat. Turn the meat over and repeat until all of the meat is covered in spice.
Alternative: Put the spice blend in a shallow tray and dip the skewers of meat in it until they are completely covered. This is the way that the street venders in Kashgar do it.
Note: This recipe makes enough spice blend for 3-4 pounds of skewers, use it all.
6. You may grill them now over a hot bed of coals or let them sit and marinate for an hour, covered, in the refrigerator.
Tip: The grill should be as hot as you can get it and do not put the cover down.
7. When the shashlik are done, wrap them in foil to keep them warm until you are ready to serve.