Toothpick Lamb From a Sichuan Master Chef (Yaqian Yangrou, 牙签羊肉)

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Toothpick Lamb From a Sichuan Master Chef

Finger-Licking Flavor

Have you ever had the famed toothpick lamb at L.A.’s Chengdu Taste or Sichuan Impression? Or perhaps at another of the ever-growing list of stellar Sichuan restaurants in our land? If you have, you probably wish you could make these crispy lamb nuggets adorned with a cuminchilihuajiao spice mix at home. If you haven’t, believe me, you want to make them at home.

We’ve been chomping on these on every visit to Los Angeles for years, but I’ve never actually had them in Chengdu and never seen them in a Sichuan cookbook, which made me wonder if Sichuan chefs in America were innovating with toothpicks. I mean, clearly the dish is a take on yangrou chuan, the grilled lamb skewers that are street food all over China, but I’d never seen it miniaturized and made in a wok there.  But then one of our longtime readers and customers gifted us a cookbook by a Sichuan master chef that has a recipe for toothpick lamb, proving that it is indeed eaten in the motherland. In fact, the book was published in 2012, so they’ve been eating it for years.

We have the best customers. I’ve always said that. The fact that Alexander Kaufman of Atlanta gifted us a cookbook by Zhu Jianzhong of Sichuan—entirely in Chinese—only underscores how many Americans have the same obsessive love for Sichuan food that we do. Alexander does not read Chinese, nor do I. But the book is well written enough that the Google Translate app does a pretty accurate job on it, and any mistranslations on my end can be cleared up by Fongchong. Fully translating recipes is hard work that she’s not inclined to do, but she’s good about providing answers or corrections when I’m stuck. (Eleven years in America, and Chinese is still her first language—a skill that was supremely important to her and that her dad and I supported and enabled.)

When I asked Alexander where he got this cookbook, called Classic Sichuan Cuisine, he pointed me toward Amazon, where it is listed on the U.S. site and ships from a bookstore in China! So if you read Chinese or are up for a bit of translating, I can highly recommend this far-ranging book of Sichuan favorites, both classic and modern, homey and trendy, distilled from Zhu’s 20 years as a chef, educator and writer in Chengdu.

However, one caveat: As with most all cookbooks written by chefs, be it Chinese or American, you may find some of the recipes a bit of work. This toothpick lamb, for example, was pretty elaborate as written, including a two-step prep when raw, a deep-fry, a long braise and a stir-fry. I made it this way several times before I started cutting out some steps to see if we could get away with less work. Turns out we can.

I wanted this recipe to be something you’d actually make, so I’ve trimmed the steps, totally omitting both the braising and stir-frying steps, which we found did not deliver enough extra taste for the extra invested time. Unless you’re a chef! Then by all means go the extra steps.

But the rest of us will appreciate that the spices used to infuse the meat during the braise work just as well added to the other dry spices in the final toss of the meat. So simply marinate, fry and toss and you’re done! The perfect appetizer, casual meal or bar snack, since it tastes (almost) as good room temp as it does hot.

Spice mix for toothpick lamb
Master Chef Zhu’s recipe, streamlined. Step 1: Make the cumin-Sichuan pepper-chili spice mix
Thread lamb onto toothpicks
Step 2: Marinate the lamb and thread onto toothpicks (which is not as tedious as it sounds)
Toothpick lamb cooking in a wok
Step 3: Deep- or shallow-fry the lamb cubes, toothpicks and all. (Notice the wok hei enveloping the meat!)
Tossing lamb with cumin spice mix
Step 4: Toss crispy lamb cubes with your favorites chili oil or chili crisp and the dry cumin spice mix

Chef Zhu’s extra step that I would never dispense with is coating the fried lamb cubes in your favorite chili oil or chili crisp (preferably homemade) before tossing them in the dry spice mix. That doubles the finger-licking flavor. In fact, Fongchong has always refused to eat lamb at all, due to its gamey and unfamiliar taste to her southern Chinese palate. The headnote on this recipe said that Sichuan folks don’t eat much lamb either, unless it’s prepared in very specific ways to dispel the gaminess. And it worked! FC ate a whole dinner of this, then a leftover lunch, without even realizing it was lamb. (She didn’t ask, we didn’t tell!)

This recipe is appetizer size, but you can easily double it to full dinner size by frying the lamb in batches. I made this with both lamb shank/leg as is the norm in Sichuan and with cheaper lamb shoulder, and we didn’t really prefer one over the other. But you do want to use relatively small—about 1-inch cubes—of lamb and relatively high heat so that you can quickly crisp them up on the outside while still cooking all the way through.

While toothpick lamb has a similar taste profile to the stir-fry simply known as cumin lamb, the preparation, presentation and finished dish are quite different!

Toothpick Lamb From a Sichuan Master Chef (Yaqian Yangrou, 牙签羊肉)

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking
Adapted from Zhu Jianzhong's Classic Sichuan Cuisine, published in China (in Chinese) in 2012

Ingredients 

  • 350 grams (3/4 pound) boneless lamb leg or lamb shoulder
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 2 thick slices ginger, crushed with back of a knife
  • bamboo or other heavy toothpicks
  • enough roasted rapeseed oil to shallow-fry or sub with a neutral oil
  • 6-8 dried xiaomila chilies or larger chilies cut in pieces
  • tablespoons cumin seed
  • 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn more if not Mala Market
  • ½ tablespoon ground chilies
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon MSG
  • 2-3 tablespoons Sichuan chili oil or chili crisp
  • handful cilantro, torn into large pieces

Instructions 

  • Trim lamb of any excess fat or silver skin. Cut it into small cubes no more than about 1 inch. Add lamb to a bowl of water and massage the lamb pieces, pouring off the water and repeating 3 times to wash the lamb. The water should run fairly clear and the lamb should turn from red to light pink.
  • Add wine, salt, baking soda, shallot and ginger, mix well and marinate lamb for 15-30 minutes. Then run a bamboo toothpick through the middle of each cube and out the other side, so that it protrudes on both sides. Lay the lamb pieces out on a paper towel to dry and pat off any excess liquid.
  • While lamb is marinating, add cumin seed and Sichuan peppercorns to a dry skillet and toast until fragrant. Remove from heat and cool, then add to a mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) and pound to a coarse powder. Add ground chilies, salt, sugar and MSG (if using), mix well and set aside.
  • Add enough oil to your wok or pot to shallow-fry and mostly submerge the meat, and heat oil to about 375°F. Add lamb and adjust heat to cook at a rapid bubble until the cubes are starting to brown. Add the dried chilies and cook briefly, then remove lamb and chilies with a spider or slotted spoon into a large bowl.
  • Spoon the chili oil or crisp over the lamb and mix well, then add the cumin spice mix and toss to coat. Gently mix in cilantro and remove to a serving plate.

Tried this recipe?

About Taylor Holliday

The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for heritage Sichuan ingredients and Chinese pantry essentials.

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8 Comments

    1. Good question! I guess I didn’t address that. I do think the toothpicks are there to make it finger-food, easy to eat as a drinking snack or appetizer. But even when you order it as part of a meal, it comes that way. You could, of course, leave them off.

  1. In Shanghai in April, 2006, I ordered and very happily ate “toothpick lamb.” My notes tell me it smelled of cumin and chili; hence I suspect it was this dish. When I ordered the dish from an English language menu I imagined that “toothpick” was a translation of “skewer.” No–the dish arrived looking very much like the version in the photo–lots and lots of toothpicks.

  2. We used to eat toothpick beef (so a beef version of this recipe) when I lived in Kunming in 2000. It is almost identical to what you have here, but it was also served with mint.