The first week of February found me down at the Chinese Community Center in Houston, TX. Decided to be a complete 外国人 and use my official-looking DSLR (that’s really just a Nikon D60) to give myself access to all kinds of places.
Dragging my sister, L, out of her shell was more of a challenge. She’s currently the photo editor for her high school yearbook, but wasn’t blessed with the pushy gene that I landed in spades. Needless to say, the first hour was a drag. But once she realized that Asians are more flattered than annoyed when you snap a few photos in their direction, she relaxed.
Smells of a Chinese street market coaxed us outside between “lion dance” performances. Tents lined both sides of a narrow parking lot, facing the crowd between with the difficult choice of which line to brave first. L and I found the crawlspace behind the vendors and set about maxing out our memory cards.
- meat*, cut into thin strips against the grain
- cumin, fresher the better
- red pepper, flakes or crushed
- table salt
- sesame oil (optional, if meat is really lean)
- flat bread, like naan or Navajo bread; flour tortillas will work in a pinch
- clean bicycle spokes (trust me on this one), sharpened on one end
- open flame, preferably from hard wood or charcoal but a typical American grill will work
- light charcoal / heat up grill
- thread strips of meat on bicycle spoke, leaving about four inches on one end and one inch on the other
- be sure to add at least one chunk of fat to the middle or ends of each spoke
- place a few raw chuanr over open flame, keeping your spices nearby
- season to taste while rotating to ensure even cooking
- be careful — spokes are made of metal and conduct heat!
- grab a piece of flat bread; treat it like a plate to transport finished chuanr
- … and repeat!
How & Why:
- *meat — this dish originated in the West with the Uygurs and (for obvious reasons) usually uses lamb. Beef is what my parents used when I was a kid, usually a tenderloin or a top sirloin cut. Try to get something with a prominent ring of fat still in tact. For this reason, I’ve never used chicken or leaner meats. If you’re watching your girlish figure, you are welcome to use sesame or olive oil…. but you’ve been warned: the flavor will be completely different. If you have a butcher you trust, tell him what you’re up to and he can recommend a good piece of beef.
- bicycle spokes — in a city where the population density doesn’t lend itself to everyone owning a full-sized sedan, bicycles run rampant. Which translates to a stockpile of replacements for parts that bend easily… spokes. Cheap, reusable, easily sharpened.
- flat bread — to collect all those juices, of course! When I’m in a hurry or didn’t have access to a grill (… college dorm, anyone?) I found the quick and dirty way to get my fix of that distinct chuanr taste: flank steak and a sauce pan. At the very end, I cleaned the pan with a couple tortillas, mopping up all the sauce. Turned out to be my favorite part of the entire experience.
- social — every so often, you’ll run across a true craftsman behind a chuanr stove. He’ll only be cooking 8-10 spokes at a time over a box stove no more than 14 inches across. That’s how these should be done at home — buy enough meat for 100+ spokes and invite the neighbors over. Chill your favorite drink and grab a patio chair or blanket. Get everyone involved in threading the spokes, take custom orders for the spices. If you’re lucky, the evening will feel suspended in a slice of perfect space and time.
- outside — remember, this is currently popular street fare in all major Chinese cities. Its the kind of dish a man from the West could come into the city with, buy ingredients for cheap, and sell to starving students just outside the University gate.