Lamb kebab: The Uygur ethnic group's signature dish

Ask any Chinese diner to name the most famous food from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and lamb kebab will be the likely answer from most of them.

The mouth-watering skewers of grilled meat are recognised nationwide as the Uygur ethnic group's signature dish. Many Uygurs, a majority of whom are Muslims, have opened kebab restaurants across the country and beyond, but Xinjiang is widely considered to be the place to enjoy authentic kebabs.

During lunchtime, the smoke and aroma of lamb on the grills begin to rise from Erdaoqiao, an area where many Uygurs live in the regional capital of Urumqi. Orders for kawap (lamb kebabs in the Uygur language) in Uygur restaurants, big or small, begin to accumulate. Some diners joke that kawap smoke is what helps pilots find Urumqi in the air.

Restaurant owner Yasinjan Memet was busy piercing chunks of meat sliced fresh from a lamb leg with metal skewers. Like all kawap chefs, he inserted a piece of lamb fat on each skewer to help the kebabs stay tender after being grilled. The fat nourishes the lean lamb meat and brings out the best taste in every chunk of them, the 49-year-old said.

Soon, an order of 20 kawaps arrived. He then took the skewers he prepared outside to a traditional U-shaped Uygur iron grill. Uygur businessmen set their grills, which are decorated with ornate patterns, outside their restaurants to attract diners.

The length of the grill also depends on the size of the restaurant.

"Bigger restaurants have longer and more sophisticated grills," Yasinjan said while flattening the charcoal in his grill to make sure his kebabs were cooked evenly.

As soon as he put the skewers on the grill, the meat began to sizzle and smoke.

"Look, delicious kawap made from the leg of unmarried lambs!" he shouted in the Uygur language, rotating the skewers as the meat began to brown. "Unmarried lambs" refer to lambs that are about one year old and have not mated yet. Their meat is key in making the best kawap, he said.

About 4 minutes later, skewers of tasty lamb emerged from the grill, dusted with a pinch of cumin, dried chili powder and salt.

"Could anyone resist them?" Yasinjan smiled and asked. He then put a nang - a traditional Uygur round-shaped flat bread - on top of the kebabs and turned them over using the nang as a plate to serve the customers.

"The nang will absorb all the juice from the meat. Nothing delicious is going to waste," Yasinjan said.

The lamb kebab may look easy to make but it requires the chef's ability to pick the best meat and time the cooking process well so that it is not burnt or undercooked, said Yasinjan, who has been making kawap for more than 20 years. His restaurant is just across the street of a meat market and he personally picks the fresh lamb for his kebabs every day.

"Some tourists once asked me why I don't put as much cumin and chili on the kebabs as what people do in Beijing. I told them it's because they are not confident about the freshness of their meat so they have to cover that up with spices," he said. "Xinjiang people are experts in tasting kawap. Your business won't survive if your meat is not fresh."

Aniwar Hasmu, deputy director and researcher at the Xinjiang cultural relics and archaeology research institute, has been studying food culture in the region. He said Xinjiang people have been enjoying kawap for a very long time.

In 1985, archaeologists discovered two pieces of grilled lamb ribs on a red willow stick in a tomb in Qiemo county in Southern Xinjiang's Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture. He said the kawap dated back more than 2,700 years.

The archaeologists also found a small fan made of fur and wood in a tomb in Lop county in Southern Xinjiang's Hotan prefecture in 1984. Aniwar said it could just be the tool used to grill kawaps.

"People still use similar fans to help the charcoal burn," he said.

Red willow is a common plant in the desert areas of Xinjiang and people still use them to make kawap, just like how their ancestors did 2,700 years ago. In Erdaoqiao, bundles of red willow sticks are popular items in small shops specialising in accessories for grilling kawap.

"The flavor of the red willow will be gradually released into the meat, giving the kawap a special flavor. It's the most authentic and delicious kawap," Yasinjan said.

Not far from Yasinjan's restaurant, businessman Bayiaji had no time for lunch because he was busy inspecting his workshop's kawap grills before they were shipped to East China's Shandong province and South China's Shenzhen city.

The 39-year-old calls himself "king of the kawap grills" because he claims he can make the grills look like "traditional Uygur palaces".

Bayiaji's business and craftsmanship in the iron kawap grills were passed from generation to generation. He now has plans to inject some innovative elements in the family tradition.

"I've been learning about the structure and domes of the palaces in Europe," he said.

"Soon, I will make European-style kawap grills."