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Most of the time when I cook, I like sticking to the recipe. It’s only recently that I’ve been feeling more comfortable playing around with an established recipe to fit to my own taste. Growing up in China, one of the things I LOVED was grilled lamb skewers from street vendors. Thinly cuts of undesirable pieces of lamb is threaded on long metal skewers, dusted with a fiery hot chili pepper and curry powder, most likely to hide the taste of old/ half spoiled meat, and grilled on a long hibachi style grill over hot coals… I always had a hard time convincing my mom to buy me some since she always thought they were unsanitary but boy did I love those skewers. Food is always better with a bit of excitement, and in this case it’s the thrill of the possibility of upset stomach, kind of like Russian roulette but with spoiled lamb meat.

When we visited China back in July of 2011, we visited Xinjiang province, the western most frontier of China where the grilled lamb skewers originated, and experienced it on the streets of Urumuqi.

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Of course the meat now is of much better quality, and the grill is comparably cleaner, but it just does not taste the same as I had remembered. I guess very few things you do nowadays would feel the same as it did when you were a child, even when the thing itself has not changed.

For some reason the lamb skewers came into my mind, and I decided to make kebabs. I was not trying to make what I had as a child, but my memories definitely had some influence on how I played with the recipe.

The recipe I found is from Foodandwine.com, and the lamb is marinated with a spice infused yogurt prior to grilling. I opted to marinate the lamb in yogurt and lemon juice only, then dusted the lamb with freshly toasted and ground spices and pistachios before grilling them. The yogurt and lemon is supposed to tenderize the meat, and I really wanted to feel the punch of the spices as a crust on the lamb.

To marinate the lamb, I combined 1lb of 1 inch cubed lamb shoulder with 8 ounces of yogurt and juice from half a lemon in a re-sealable plastic bag.

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I let the lamb chill in the fridge for 3 hours, but over night would be better. Meanwhile I made my spice blend. Whole cumin seeds, whole cloves, and black peppercorn are toasted over medium heat in a small pan until fragrant, then grounded together with some cardamom seeds, and mixed with ground mace, all spice, salt, and finely chopped pistachio nuts.

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I also made the mango chutney while the lamb was marinating. In a food processor, blend together cilantro, mint, shallots, garlic, and half of a chopped mango.

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Add the yogurt and lemon juice and continue to process.

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Scrape the mixture into a bowl and fold in the other half of the chopped mango.

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Keep the chutney covered and chilled in the fridge.

After the lamb has marinated, scrape as much yogurt as possible off the meat. I used paper towels to dry them off. Thread the meat on long metal or bamboo skewers. Pre soak the bamboo skewers if you are using those to prevent it from burning and breaking on the grill.

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Sprinkle and rub the spice mix into the skewered lamb chunks. Rub on more if you like a crunchy crust.

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Grill the lamb over hot coals, turning every 2 minutes or so. On my grill, 6 minutes was medium rare. I also warmed up some store bought pita on the grill.

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I served the lamb with pita, chutney, and a simple salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and onions in a red wine vinaigrette.

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Cumin Lamb Kebabs with Mango Yogurt Chutney

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