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by Jacqueline M. Newman


Spring Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(1) page(s): 13 - 15, and 37

Mutton, called Ovis aries no matter its age, is almost always nine months of age or older. This meat is called lamb when less than nine months old, called mutton when older than that. Popular, particularly among Chinese minority groups, is not as popular among the Han Chinese, particularly those from the southeast of China.

There are many popular lamb dishes made by the Chinese who adore this meat, but not often by folks from the Guangdong Province and other southern places in China. Used most often when Chinese ethnic populations celebrate a special holiday such as the Feast of the Whole Sheep known in Chinese as the Quan Yang Xi festival. It is also most popular among Mongolian Chinese. Still celebrated, this holiday is less so among other Chinese minority populations. Dates and behaviors of this feast vary and those whose ethnic culture has Arabic origins usually celebrate it preparing a whole lamb, if they can afford to.

Many of these folk prefer a suckling lamb still feeding on its mother's milk. That means an animal three to six months of age. More than one hundred twenty million Chinese or less than nine percent of the Chinese population are ethnic minorities, most living in China's western regions. These nationality or ethnic groups, recognized by the government, are not new nor do all like how the government has named them. About half have Arabic roots and this particular holiday is not new to them. It was written about as early as the 7th century CE; other holidays they celebrate were probably recorded during the Yuan Dynasty (1274-1356 CE) which is also known as the Mongol Dynasty.

Recipes for whole lamb, usually up to forty pounds, and for other lamb dishes can including lamb cakes, spiced lamb cooked in clay, lamb kidneys, lamb liver, and other lamb preparations are popular during this holiday and other festive times. They are not all the same among these groups, but the Feast of the Whole Lamb is a most popular one.

Manchu people, chefs and ordinary folk, brag that they can make one hundred and eight different lamb dishes. Why that number, we know not, but some say they serve all of them at three or four different buffet-type gatherings every year. Others have told us they prepare twenty-four fried lamb courses and six not fried at these events. A few are cold, more are hot, temperature-wise.

Among Chinese in Inner Mongolia, they often cook different parts of the lamb separately, and if they prepare them together, it is because they do so representing completeness and luck. Han people who prepare and eat lamb dishes might make them in groups of four, and never use the word 'sheep' or 'mutton' when naming them, lamb is OK. Why this taboo, we know not nor could anyone explain as to why.

With few ancient recipes to guide us, one from the Yuan Dynasty uses a whole animal, its skin still on, its head, feet, and innards removed. Another says to remove the skin and leave the other parts attached. A third wraps the boneless meat in what we assume is clay, and cooks it in a deep pit. We once ate one that sounded as if that one and it was delicious. Boned and stuffed with its innards, chopped onions, minced ginger, rice wine, soy sauce, coriander, salt and pepper, the friend who was the cook, said his is wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil and baked for two or more hours.

A few of the recipes at the end of this article are old ones found in early literature. We did find one with cheese as an ingredient, another with bread crumbs, vinegar, and sesame seeds. In Qinghai, when I taught there, I had a lamb dish called: Hand-held Lamb. Someone told me it should be called 'Hand Grabbed Lamb.' When I asked about this name, I was told it was in the style of those who herd lamb and cook these animals for guests 'grabbing' the lamb, cutting off pieces, and serving it ready to be hand-held.

One evening, a host did something similar. He gave me a big fatty piece from the tail. It was very tender and very delicious. Then he cut other pieces one by one with his hunting knife in one hand, the hot roasted animal in the other. He piled those pieces on a huge platter, my notes say, and told everyone to grab a piece for themselves. A few did with chopsticks, most of us used fingers and ate them one at a time. When I took no more, this host piled several on my plate. I knew his unspoken message was that I eat them all; so I did, but very slowly so no additional ones would be added. Must confess, not one was as tender or as tasty as the tail piece. Therefore, I was disappointed with their texture, not with their taste. Later, his wife confided they always roast a whole lamb for guests and usually boil pieces for themselves. She said this was less work and less tasty, and she apologized for being tired and lazy that day. There were many savory sauces for dipping, and they were yummy.

In Xinjiang, I was once served what my host called 'roast lamb.' It was during winter, and my grease-stained notes say it was delicious. A few years later in a Uygur home in Beijing, I was served lamb roasted on their third-floor balcony. I never was in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Province, but those who have tell me that there, roast lamb is served at every feast. In restaurants, it often comes whole, on a wagon with a lovely ribbon around its neck, a piece of celery in its mouth. Never learned why the celery; if you know, educate us all.

Hui people eat lots of lamb, their lamb feasts with dozens of lamb dishes. Yi lamb feasts only have eight selections. In Inner Mongolia, specifically in Hohhot, a whole lamb feast is called a Zhama. There most whole roast lamb served has no skin, no entrails, either. It is stuffed with ginger, scallions, lots of salt and pepper, and served after five appetizer courses. In many of these regions, the guest of honor is handed a hunting knife to carve an ‘X’ on the forehead of the animal before the tail is severed and served to the honored guest. No one asked me to do that, or if they did, I did not understand.

A Uygur friend, one did live in Inner Mongolia for five years, told me his wife who was Mongolian, preferred quick-frying lamb, some stuffed with garlic, scallions, and many seasonings. I did ask if she put the kidneys and liver in that meat. He said no because these organs need lots of chopping, and he was not home early enough to do so. He added that the lamb he buys at a local supermarket comes ground up and the package says it has these organs in it, but he doubts that it does.

In Beijing where he lives now, he told me good fresh lamb with or without any organ meat in not that good. He added that his family eats lots of lamb with rice, calls it: Popuo Rice and eats it with his fingers as he did in the countryside.

I did find a recipe for the rice and lamb he was talking about made in a casserole called 'a rice pot.' It has carrots, onions, Sichuan peppercorns, and no organ meat. He says his wife cooks Mutton Soup with Seahorse, sometimes with organ meats, and often with herbal ingredients; but she was not home when I was there.

As to boiled lamb or boiled mutton, during one military campaign, Genghis Khan's cooks needed to find a way to prepare this dish for him and his troops very quickly. That supposedly is the origin of the boiled mutton, not meat boiled in metal helmets as I had once read. By the Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE) boiled lamb was popular in the Imperial Court and later served sliced thin after boiling it in water or broth with many seasonings. This is the hotpot many are familiar with today. It is a dish with roots in Mongolia that spread to Southern China during the Tang Dynasty.

Some weeks after that friend told me this and I returned to New York, a recipe did arrive from his wife. This lamb recipe was similar to those I read about and have seen since. On recipe I read that was called Meat Cakes, said to be from the Yuan Dynasty, another called Nomad's Lunch from the same dynasty we incomplete and we were unable to use them. Both were from books of those times, translated since. I forgot to write down by whom, if it said that, and I have made then usable. Do hope you make and enjoy them, even though exactly where they came from is in question.

If you are in Beijing, there is at least one store servicing the quarter of a million Muslims living there. It has a restaurant and several floors selling traditional Muslim foods, also a banquet hall. Their cuisine was introduced to China as was their Islamic religion circa 650 CE. One source says they came from the Alcoran. Many practice food beliefs which include eating good clean food, not eating pork as that animal is deemed 'filthy' and to avoid the flesh of dead animals, eagles, wolves, tigers, and the like because of their evil nature. Muslims also do not eat dog, cat, snake, and the blood of any animal. There are several Muslim restaurant in Flushing, and we will report about their food in future issues.
Mutton and Sea Dragon Soup
1 and 1/2 pounds mutton, fat and veins removed, cut into six to eight pieces
3 to 4 seahorses, also commonly called Sea Dragons
2 pieces dang shen, soaked for one hour, then diced
2 pieces huang qi, soaked for one hour, then diced
40 goji berries
10 Chinese black dates, cut in half, pits discarded
10 dried longan
1 to 2 dried tangerine peel pieces, soaked until soft in one-quarter cup warm water, drained and then slivered
3 slices fresh ginger, slivered
1 teaspoon black pepper
1. Put mutton into six cups of boiling water, then discard the water.
2. Bring four quarts of water to the boil, reduce the heat to simmer and immediately add the meat and all other ingredients. Allow this mixture to simmer for two hours.
3. Remove the mutton, tear it into shreds and return it to the pot, bring it back to the boil, pour into a soup tureen, and serve.
Mongolian Meat Cakes
1 pound lamb meat, chopped coarsely
1/2 pound lamb liver
1/2 pound lamb kidney
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound Chinese yams, peeled and coarsely diced
1 pound potatoes, peeled and coarsely diced
4 slices fresh ginger root, coarsely minced
2 eggs , beaten with two tablespoons cold water or seltzer
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 Tablespoons potato starch
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 Tablespoons lard, melted
2 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Chinese white cheese or grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
5 Tablespoons sesame oil
Condiments of your choice
1. Chop, then gently mix the meat, liver and kidney., then lightly mix in the chopped onion, yams, potatoes, ginger, eggs, cornstarch, potato starch, salt and pepper, the melted lard, soy sauce, vinegar, breadcrumbs, grated cheeses, sugar, and the sesame seeds. Form these into three-inch flattened meat patties.
2. Heat the sesame oil in a wok or fry pan and put half the meat patties into it and fry them for five or six minutes on medium heat, then turn them over and fry them about the same length of time on their other side; or they can be grilled on both sides about six or seven five minutes per side. Remove them to a preheated oven-proof plate and put them in the oven until the second batch are fried or grilled.
3. Put the preheated platter on another so hands are not burned. Serve with any well-seasoned condiments.
Nomad Spiced Lamb
1 leg of lamb, about five pounds, boned and cut as one large piece that can be stuffed, rolled, and tied
6 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons soft brown sugar
1/2 pound lamb liver, cut into thin slices, all veins removed
1/2 pound lamb kidney, chopped
2 onions, chopped into quarter-inch pieces
2 pounds peeled potatoes, chopped into half-inch pieces
6 slices fresh ginger, minced
4 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
1/4 teaspoon mixed ground white and black pepper
1/2 cup chopped parsley or minced coriander
2 large pieces of regular aluminum foil
1. Pound the lamb into a single slice ready to be rolled.
2. Mix soy sauce and brown sugar and rub it on either side of the meat. Allow this to rest for fifteen or twenty minutes, then lay slices of liver on top of that so that it will be the inside of the meat.
3. Mix chopped kidney, onions, potatoes, fresh ginger, rice wine, both ground peppers, and half the parsley or coriander, and spread this moist mixture on top of the lamb slices, and roll gently into one single roll.
4. Wet the outside and press the rest of the greens around it and sit this roll on a sheet of aluminum foil and roll it up and close the edges. Put this on a second sheet of aluminum foil making sure the beginning edge is not in the same place as was the first piece of foil.
5. Put this roll onto a pre-heated 450 degree oven for half an hour, turn it down to a 425 degrees turning the roll onto the top side.
6. Turn it once more and bake for another half an hour. Then transfer it to a serving platter, remove and discard the foil, slice the meat on that platter, and serve it.
Manchurian Fried Lamb
1/2 pound half-inch diced boneless lamb
1/4 pound lamb liver, cut into quarter-inch pieces, veins removed
1/4 pound lamb kidney, cut into one-quarter-inch pieces
3 Tablespoons sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
3 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
3 Tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 Tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1. Heat a wok or fry pan, add the meat, liver, and kidney pieces and stir-fry for one minute before adding the garlic and stir-frying them together for another minute; then add the scallion pieces and stir-fry half minute more.
2. Add all the other ingredients, stir-fry another minute, then serve immediately.
Lamb and Rice Puluo
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 pound lamb cut into half-inch cubes
2 carrots peeled and cut bite-sized
2 onions, peeled and cut bit-sized
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppers, crushed well but not into powder
2 cups raw rice
1. Heat oil in a heavy ceramic casserole, then stir in the meat and keep stirring for two minutes before adding the carrots and the onions and stir-fry everything for another two minutes.
2. Add the salt and the crushed Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry for two more minutes, then add the rice and five cups of boiling water stirring all the time.
3. Reduce the heat to simmer, cover the casserole, and simmer for half an hour longer, and then stir the meat-rice mixture. Now taste the rice, and if not cooked, recover it and allow it to cook another five to eight minutes or until thoroughly cooked. Then serve.
Lamb and Sour Cabbage Hot Pot
2 pounds lamb loin, sliced very thinly
1 cup sour cabbage, rinsed and cut into one-inch strips
5 pieces brown doufu, angle-sliced thinly
1/2 ounce thin dry rice noodles, soaked until soft
1 Tablespoon lard
4 cups beef and/or chicken broth
10 dipping items such as:
soy sauce, sesame paste, leek flower sauce, mashed fermented bean curd,
shrimp paste, hot pepper oil, minced fresh coriander,
minced fresh ginger, minced scallions, minced pickled vegetables
1. Arrange two platters each of the lamb loin and sour cabbage pieces, brown bean curd, and two bowls of the soaked uncooked noodles.
2. Provide each person at the table with a long-handled fork, a small strainer basket, and a small bowl.
3. Put each dipping sauces in a small bowl around the hot pot or chafing dish or on a platter with or near the meat, sour cabbage, and doufu platters.
4. Melt the lard in the bottom bowl of a hot pot or chafing dish, and add the pre-heated broth. When it comes to just below a boil, everyone can cook their own meat, cabbage, doufu, and noodles in small amounts, then dip the meat in whatever sauce or sauces they like; or they can make a sauce mixture to dip their meat and cabbage pieces into when cooked to their desired doneness.
5. After all meat, cabbage, and doufu are eaten or when all guests have had their fill, provide a ladle and let each person help themselves to the soup and any noodles still in the hot pot.

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