As one of China’s most popular street foods, Chinese lamb skewers originated in Xinjiang. This delicious dish contains small pieces of meat with pieces of fat between them and covered by pepper powder, cumin seeds, and salt. The person preparing the skewers then places it over a charbroiled grill for cooking. In addition to lamb, people enjoy grabbing skewers filled with beef, chicken, fish, or vegetables from street vendors in China.
What we know as skewers or kabobs today trace their origins to the Eastern Han Dynasty that took place between the years 25 and 220 A.D. Archeologists discovered two carvings in the modern-day Shandong province, which was a village called Wulibao at the time. The carvings reflected two skewers believed to contain lamb and beef, both of which have long been associated with the Chinese cooking process.
Lamb pilaf is nearly as popular and historic as lamb skewers. In Xinjiang, street vendors sell lamb pilaf after cooking a batch outdoors using a huge pan. The street vendors also add diced carrots, chopped onions, mutton, and fat chunks from mutton. The taste becomes more flavorful the more mutton fat the street vendor includes in the lamb pilaf.
Knowing the history of Chinese lamb skewers and its accompaniments has been the biggest factor in the popularity of the dish. People also appreciate the convenience of picking up a snack or meal as they’re walking down the street.
A former street vendor in China who goes by the initials SJ decided to become an entrepreneur instead. Along with his business partners, SJ opened a restaurant formally called Long Long Time Ago We Were Just Street Vendors in Beijing. Nicknamed LLA, SJ took the skills he learned as a street vendor and opened the restaurant after saving money for years.
Serving street food indoors where young people could hang out together proved to be a popular business model. It wasn’t long before SJ had enough revenue to open a second LLA in Shanghai. Chinese lamb skewers are one of the most popular foods at both locations.
The LLA restaurants have remained successful because owner SJ remained committed to maintaining an authentic atmosphere. The restaurant’s name is a nod to its beginnings while also remaining open to the fact that public food preferences change over time. Today, patrons of LLA sit in stalls designed for large groups with a grill in the center of them. Once the wait staff brings the meat and other ingredients for the skewers, diners are free to select what to put on their own skewers and then place the skewer on the grill. The high-tech grills at LLA rotate the skewers automatically.
In San Francisco, Z & Y Bistro is a contemporary new Chinese restaurant born from its nearby sister location, Z & Y Restaurant. Z & Y Bistro offers a delicious array of Chinese lamb and other meat skewers, alongside more traditional Sichuan favorites made famous over the years by Chef Han at Z & Y Restaurant.
A beloved tradition for hundreds of years, lamb skewers are something the Chinese expect to live on indefinitely.