Sichuan-Style Shaokao (Chinese BBQ, 烧烤)
Introducing The Mala Market Xinjiang BBQ Shaokao Spice
Shaokao (烧烤, shāokǎo), or Chinese barbeque, comes in many forms. The most famous is from the far west region of Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims have perfected cumin-dusted lamb skewers, but other areas of the country have taken Xinjiang BBQ and made it their own.
In Sichuan, there is certainly no shortage of Muslim street grillers with their meat-laden carts and crusty rounds of nang bread. But there is also a more localized style of chuan, or skewers, that features less lamb and more chicken parts and vegetables. That’s just a generalization, however, because if you walk into a modern shaokao joint in Chengdu, sometimes you’ll be ordering from a menu, but sometimes you’ll be greeted with case after refrigerated case of marinated animal and plant bits threaded onto skewers, waiting for you to choose them, place them on your tray, and deliver them to the BBQ masters, who will grill them up to order.
I prefer this interactive experience, where you get to see before you buy, because it opens up all kinds of possibilities you may not have explored on a menu. As in other popular forms of Sichuan dining—hotpot, dry pot, chuanchuan (a kind of hotpot where the ingredients are threaded onto skewers), boboji (cold skewers served in a big bowl of chili-oil sauce)—the choices for shaokao are almost limitless: If you can thread it on a bamboo skewer, you can grill it!
Below I break down the main things to consider for a Sichuan shaokao feast.
The shaokao spice
After years of eating shaokao on visits to Chengdu, I am finally tackling this recipe on the occasion of the launch of The Mala Market Shaokao Spice. I’ve long made my own shaokao spice that I put on just about everything (oven-roasted “Chongqing” chicken wings being my go-to), but I have never been able to find the time to produce it for our store. Fortunately, we have a chef customer and friend in Travis Post, who makes a celebrated version of this spice for his Plenty of Clouds restaurant in Seattle and who agreed to make it for The Mala Market using our spices. When Travis was the chef at Yunnan Kitchen in NYC, Pete Wells said of his shaokao spice:
“I just know that I fell silent as I swiped this house-made bacon into the rust-colored powder again and again, trying to name all the spices. There was cumin, Sichuan pepper and hot chiles for sure, and maybe some star anise as well. Whatever is in it, the blend is hard to resist.”
Now it must be said that Chef Travis’s spice for The Mala Market is in the style of Xinjiang, because who doesn’t love a cumin-heavy BBQ spice? However, I’ve found that in Sichuan, the shaokao spice blend usually goes much lighter on the cumin or even omits it. Soon we will also carry a cumin-less Sichuan Chili Dip, which can be used for Sichuan-style grilling or for dipping your BBQ in at the table. (My personal preference is to use the Xinjiang-style spice for the meat and the chili dip for the vegetables.)
If you’re not using the Mala Market Shaokao Spice, then you’ll need to make your own, using your own preferred ratios of cumin, ground chilies, ground Sichuan pepper and perhaps fennel, star anise and black cardamom. And salt.
Once you’ve decided on your shaokao spice, you need to decide how to apply it. You can simply sprinkle the spice over the skewers before, during and after cooking. Or you can marinate them first, for a double whammy of flavor, which is what I recommend. Mix some shaokao spice with neutral oil and possibly some soy sauce and sesame oil and marinate the skewers in it. Then hit them again during or after grilling.
Meat/fish chuan (skewers)
My absolute favorite in the protein category is chicken skin. It is hard to beat a marinated, crispy, charred piece of fatty chicken skin. But I also love lamb and chicken wings and chicken hearts and gizzards and giant prawns. Fongchong’s favorite in the meat category is sausages that look a lot like hot dogs. No comment.
The key here—and really for all Chinese BBQ—is cutting the meat into quite small pieces, much smaller than you would for a Western kabob. This serves several purposes: smaller pieces of meat have a higher ratio of marinade or spice to surface and therefore more flavor; they cook much more quickly, which is a necessity on small Chinese braziers; and it means you can eat dozens of skewers at a sitting (and the average Chinese person does!).
The abundance of vegetables offered in Sichuan shaokao is to me one of its most brilliant aspects. Even non meat lovers can enjoy barbeque in Chengdu. From thinly sliced potatoes and lotus root and various kinds of tofu and mushrooms, to green chilies, green beans, eggplant, cauliflower and even corn (each giant kernel threaded onto the skewer in single file), the options go on and on. You can use the same marinade as the meat, or simply brush them generously with oil and dust them with the shaokao spice before, during and/or after grilling.
The key step here is to parboil the more dense vegetables before grilling, both to make them pliable enough to thread on the skewers (otherwise they will break) and to make the grilling faster. This is tricky though, because if you over-boil them, they will also break during threading. So you want just a partial cook, about half-way done.
I am by no means a grill master, so I am counting on you to grill on the equipment and in the manner that you usually do, remembering that the smaller ingredients may take less time. Your life will be much easier when grilling skewers if you have the type of grill with a raised grate so the ends of the skewers can protrude off the grill for easy access and turning. As you can see, we have a Weber grill, with a grate a couple inches below the grill edge, so the skewers must be turned, rather awkwardly, with tongs. (I’m seriously considering buying one of these Asian braziers though.)
Also, I do recommend that you use wooden skewers or thin metal ones, as the fat metal skewers will destroy the small meat and thinly cut vegetables. Remember to soak the bamboo skewers in water before using to reduce the burn.
To learn more about the wonderful world of Chinese BBQ, check out blog posts from our friends Maggie Zhu at Omnivore’s Cookbook for a primer on Xinjiang lamb skewers made on a Chinese brazier and Georgia Freedman of Cooking South of the Clouds for Yunnan-style shaokao (which is quite similar to Sichuan’s).
For more of our own Chinese BBQ-inspired recipes, check out my Sichuan everything-sauce for grilling & roasting or this Sichuanish BBQ: Crispy Sichuan-Pepper Pulled Pork oven recipe! Grace Young also helped us come up with this recipe for Sichuan Spareribs With Mala BBQ Sauce (Mala Paigu): Cooking With Grace Young.
Sichuan-Style Shaokao (Chinese BBQ)
Marinade per pound of protein and/or veg
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Mala Market Shaokao Spice (or make your own from a combination of cumin, ground chilies, ground Sichuan pepper, salt and spices such as fennel, star anise, black cardamom)
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
Grilling ingredient ideas
- lamb shoulder (the fatty bits keep the meat moist as it cooks)
- pork shoulder
- chicken wings (flat part only)
- chicken skin (cut from thighs, which can then be cut into small cubes for BBQ or kept for a later use)
- chicken bits like heart and gizzard
- large shrimp, squid, scallops
- firm tofu, soaked tofu skin
- almost any vegetable (potato, lotus root, mushroom, cauliflower, broccoli, green beans, zucchini, eggplant, shishito or other green chilies, green onions, etc.)
- long, thin bamboo or metal skewers
- Put bamboo skewers in water to soak while you prep. Mix marinade ingredients, multiplying by the number of pounds you wish to marinate. Marinade is recommended for meat. It is also great on vegetables, but, alternatively, you can brush the skewers generously with oil and sprinkle on the shaokao spice before and during grilling.
- Prep meat by cutting into small cubes of about ½ inch or slicing thinly into long strips. Thread them onto the skewers, using only the top half or so of the skewers, leaving the bottom as a "handle." Leave chicken flats and shrimp whole.
- Cut vegetables into uniform, thin slices about ⅛ inch thick (potato, lotus root, zucchini, eggplant) or into small cubes of ½ inch. Break cauliflower and broccoli into small florets. Leave green beans and chilies whole. The goal is uniform cooking size.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the dense vegetables (everything except eggplant, chilies, green onions) and cook about 2 minutes, until the vegetables are only slightly cooked. Remove to an ice-water bath or run under cold water until cooled.
- Thread vegetables on skewers as though you're sewing, coming up through one side and out through the other of larger pieces like potatoes and zucchini. Be careful not to break the vegetables. Feed green beans and green onions onto the skewers horizontally.
- Place the skewers in large freezer bags or flat trays and pour marinade over them, turning skewers to coat well. Marinate at least 30 minutes at room temperature or longer in the fridge, and then return to room temperature.
- Prepare grill as you normally would. Grilling skewers is considerably easier if your grill is structured to allow you to hold the skewers and turn/flip them as they cook. Otherwise, use long tongs to flip the skewers. Keep in mind that the smaller, thinner cuts require less time to cook. Sprinkle additional shaokao spice on the skewers as they cook or right after they come off the grill.
The chicken skin idea made me want to try this. I love crispy grilled chicken skin.
I’ve been working on learning Chinese food (I realized after I started working on it, that I could never possibly know it all. So much to learn). I can say that I haven’t seen much on cooking from Xinjiang. I’ll have to give the Shao Kao Spice a try.