When my Han Chinese parents were growing up in Xinjiang, the inclusive, diverse spirit of the Silk Road was still alive. The Silk Road was a trade route that brought silk, fur, spices, and different religious ideologies to the Holy Roman Empire. The route began in southeastern China and wound its way up through ancient Constantinople, all the way west to Rome, then back east again. When the Manchus reconquered this contested area in the 1800s, they named it aptly: Xinjiang means “new frontier.” Xinjiang borders six Central Asian countries and has a long history of being conquered, lost, and reconquered by everybody from the Turks and the Mongols to the Uyghurs.
Right now, the Hans hold the “new frontier.” Civilizations once built on trading horses, silks, and furs now erect skyscrapers. Uyghurs are being pushed out, and since 2001, China has succeeded in suppressing this population by any means necessary.
Before this was the political reality, however, my family feasted on big plates of spiced chicken and lamb from the shish kebab carts on every corner, and they still reminisce about the region's bagel-like naan. No dish symbolizes this former melting pot more than “grabbing” lamb rice pilaf, named for the Uyghur tradition of eating communally with one's hands. The peppercorns are from Szechuan, the lamb comes from a black-headed breed in the Tarim Basin, and the pilaf-style cooking technique has roots in Turkey.
Every Han and Uyghur household in Xinjiang masters some variation of this hearty, comforting lamb rice pilaf recipe. Even with the complicated, deep-rooted conflict occurring in Xinjiang today, Hans and Uyghurs alike still sit down to the same delicious dish, best paired with an ice-cold Wusu beer.
Lamb ribs are ideal for this dish because they have the perfect amount of fat, and meat on the bone holds the most flavor when braising. However, lamb shoulder, flank, or leg would also work. If you use ribs, keep the meat on the bone and have the butcher chop them up into 2- or 3-inch pieces. My family uses jasmine rice because we are Han Chinese, so that’s what I prefer it this dish; the chewy texture is distinct from normal basmati rice pilafs and biryanis. The carrots should be cut into pieces "the length of your little finger and half the width." —Clara Wang
Test Kitchen Notes
The salt in the dish should be coming from the braising liquid, so salt the braising liquid liberally when braising the meat, and taste the stock after the meat is cooked and before you pour into the rice to ensure balanced seasoning. —The Editors
- Prep time 40 minutes
- Cook time 2 hours 40 minutes
- Serves 4 to 6
lamb (ribs, shoulder, or leg), cut into 2- or 3-inch cubes
Chinese cooking wine (or beer or vodka)
kosher salt (or to taste)
thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and sliced crosswise into 2- or 3-inch pieces
whole black peppercorns or 8-10 Szechuan peppercorns (tied in cheesecloth or a mesh spice strainer)
carrots, peeled and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place the meat in a large pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium.
- Add the half onion, cooking wine, salt, slices of ginger, and peppercorns to the pot. Cover with a lid but leave a crack for steam to escape.
- Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 hours, turning down the heat until it’s just barely bubbling after the first hour. The meat is done when it’s tender enough to come off the bone easily. Fish out the half onion, ginger, and peppercorns, and set meat aside for making the rice.
- While the meat cooks, wash and soak the rice in room-temperature water. It needs to soak for at least 30 minutes before cooking.
- Heat 2-3 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large, deep pan over medium heat and stir-fry the chopped onions and carrots until browned and soft. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Remove the meat from the pot, reserving the stock. Sauté the meat with the vegetables in the pan for 1 minute. Sprinkle in cumin seeds while sautéing.
- Drain the rice and add to the pan along with the reserved cooked half onion. Using tongs, arrange the meat on top of the rice.
- Add the reserved lamb stock until it just reaches the top of the rice but doesn’t flow over the top. This step is crucial; too much stock and the rice will get soggy, too little stock and the rice will burn. Cover the pot with a lid and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes.
- Turn the heat down to low and cook for another 5 minutes, or until the rice is fully cooked.
- Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve the meat and rice together.