CHINESE-MUSLIM LAMB BURGERS
Rou Jia Mo
SERVES 5 TO 6
Think of rou jia mo as the Chinese equivalent of a hamburger—one that features the distinctive flavors of the street foods favored by one of China’s oldest ethnic and religious minorities. In the Muslim quarters of Beijing, and in other Muslim-concentrated parts of China such as Xi’an, much of China’s multicultural heritage dating back to the Silk Road era is preserved. As the original capital city of China, Xi’an is a melting pot of many religions, ideas, and cuisines. The food is roughly referred to as “Chinese Muslim” and features Middle Eastern staples such as flatbreads and lamb (as opposed to Chinese staples of rice and pork), as well as lots of flavorings that traveled the 4,000 miles of the Silk Road: cumin, scallions, onions, and chiles. (I imagine that this is something that Marco Polo would have eaten.) Since many Muslims do not eat pork, there are a number of halal butcher shops and restaurants, where still today you can easily follow your nose to the likes of lamb skewers and these tasty burgers.
FOR THE LAMB:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 pound lean lamb (such as leg meat, stew meat, or deboned shoulder chops), cubed
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch knob fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon Sichuanese peppercorns, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
¼ cup soy sauce
FOR THE BUNS:
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
3 cups all-purpose our, plus more for shaping the buns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh cilantro leaves, for serving
Chopped scallions (white and green parts), for serving
PREPARE THE LAMB: Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb pieces and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the garlic, ginger, peppercorns, cumin, salt, black pepper, and red chile flakes. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute, until the spices are fragrant. Add 3 cups of water and the soy sauce, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer gently for 1 ½ hours, or until the lamb is very tender, adding a little more water as needed so the meat is saucy, not dry.
MAKE THE BUN DOUGH: Pour 1 ½ cups of warm water into a small bowl, and stir in the yeast and sugar. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes, until the yeast blooms. In a large bowl, stir together the flour and kosher salt. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the yeast mixture, stirring just enough to make a smooth dough (no need to knead it further). Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place for 1 hour, or until the dough has nearly doubled in volume.
When the lamb is very tender, use a slotted spoon to lift it onto a cutting board. Coarsely chop the meat and return it to the sauce.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Heat a dry cast-iron skillet over medium heat.
SHAPE THE BUNS: Dust your hands and a clean work surface with flour. Scoop out a lump of dough about the size of a clementine orange and flatten it on the floured surface. Using your hands, stretch the dough out to form a rope about 10 inches long. Flatten the rope with your palms, then roll the dough up on itself from one end to the other, creating a tight spiral. Set the dough spiral up and flatten it with your palm into a disk about 4 inches wide. (The rolling and flattening gives the finished bun its characteristic chewy layers.) Repeat with the remaining dough to make 10 to 12 buns.
Place 3 buns in the heated dry skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the underside is lightly browned. Flip and cook for 2 to 3 minutes to brown the second side. Place the browned buns on an ungreased baking sheet, and repeat with the remaining buns. Bake the buns for 10 minutes, until they start to crisp.
SERVE THE BURGERS: Slit the warm buns in half horizontally, like a pita pocket, and fill them with the lamb. Top with the cilantro leaves and scallions. Spoon on some of the sauce from the lamb, and serve at once.
Tip: The traditional buns for this dish aren’t readily available at grocery stores. You can either make your own with this recipe or substitute warm pita bread.