Lamb is not terribly popular in Southern China but it is quite common in the North and in the cuisines of the far West. When sautéed with scallions, it is a frequent addition to menus in many restaurants, particularly those featuring Beijing cuisine, where the English name usually appears in Chinese as 蔥爆羊肉 (pinyin: cōng bào yángròu). This, in translation, is ‘Scallions Explode Lamb’ but the actual dish is less alarming than it sounds. The second character in the Chinese name, bào (爆), can indeed mean to ‘burst’ or ‘explode’, but in the culinary sense it merely means to flash-fry at high temperature.
I bought a small lamb roast a few days ago with the intention of cutting it up for a few different dishes to feature here at my blog. It wasn’t a great cut by any means, and yielded a pretty meager quantity of meat after I trimmed away the fat and gristle, but I had more than enough to give this Northern Chinese favorite a try…
The basic requirements for this dish are obviously lamb and scallions, but beyond that there are many variations. I have reviewed many recipes in my own collection and on the Internet and the major areas of differentiation are:
- Manner of cutting the meat;
- Ratio of lamb to scallion; and,
- Additions to, and quantity of, the sauce.
The lamb is usually cut in either paper-thin slices or julienne type shreds. Some dishes add just a stem or two of scallion whilst a few others add enough to almost overwhelm the lamb. The sauce can be just about non-existent, or vary from a typical cornstarch thickened slip to a light glaze and, in either case, can include garlic, ginger, chili, in various forms, sesame oil and vinegar. Sugar and soy are often added to marinades for the meat or else in final sauce mixtures. The lamb, depending on the type of marinade can be quite crisply fried or else be quite soft and lightly cooked.
For this experiment, I want to go beyond the barest minumum but still keep things relatively simple…
- ½ lb. Lamb Meat (I didn’t weigh this but it is *about* a half a pound)
- 4 Scallions
- 1 ½ tbsp. Cornstarch
- 2 tbsp. Sugar
- 1 tbsp. Soy sauce
- 3 tbsp. Chili Paste
- 2 tbsp. Chinese Rice Wine (sake or dry sherry to substitute)
- 1 tbsp. Sesame Oil
The Chili paste I used is the Lee Kum Kee Brand Chili Garlic Sauce I featured in a recent ‘Foodstuffs’ post. This particular paste is really quite salty so I am not adding any in addition. If you use a different brand then you may want to adjust for this.
First, slice your meat and scallions… I initially tried to decide whether to cut my lamb in the paper thin slices or the thin julienne most commonly used but in the end I was constrained by the shape of the lamb chunks I had left after breaking down a small roast and using part for my Naan Pizza experiment. You can see the general size in the few pieces right at the front of the dish in the above picture.
I cut the white part of the scallion into 2-3 cm pieces and the green portion into 4-5 cm pieces. I keep these separate as they will be added at different stages in the final cooking.
Next, put the lamb into a small bowl and add the cornstarch. Mix so that all the pieces are coated and then knead the starch into the meat. Add half the sugar and do the same. Then, add the soy, and just a few drops of the sesame oil, and stir to blend. Set this aside to marinate for a minimum of thirty minutes. If you are going to leave it for longer then put the meat and scallions into the refrigerator.
The Final Execution
When you are ready to cook, heat your wok to high and then put in about ¼ cup of oil. When the oil is hot, add half the meat and toss and stir until it is nicely browned, then push the meat up the side of the wok and repeat with the remainder. Finally, mix all the meat together and continue to cook until the pieces are just starting to get some crispiness at the edges. Once this is done, remove the meat and drain the oil. You may wish to give the wok a quick wipe out at this point.
Next, add back a tablespoon of oil to the wok and just as it begins to smoke throw in the white part of the scallion. When the pieces just begin to soften and you can smell the aroma, add back the meat, the sugar and the green scallion sections. Splash in just a little water, maybe a tablespoon or so, and toss until the water has evaporated and the green scallion pieces are just beginning to wilt.
Pour in the rice wine and the chili paste and stir to coat everything. Finally, add your remaining sesame oil, toss a few more times and plate.
I served this dish with some Ramen noodles. More scallions would have been better but on the whole this was very nice. It was a little salty – because of the chili garlic paste – and next time I might cut back on the amount and add some dried chili to make up the heat (or else use a less salty brand). Quite a few versions of this dish use vinegar in the sauce and I would also like to try this, perhaps substituting it for the rice wine in a future version.