China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Recipe: Kunming-Style Shaokao Barbecue

June 2nd, 2014

All kinds of meats and vegetables can be turned into Kunming’s version of Chinese-style barbecue (烧烤, shāokǎo). Just grill everything on skewers and douse it with lots and lots of spice mix. This version of the mix is based on a recipe given to us by our local shao kao guy in Kunming. It incorporates spices popular in Yunnan, like Sichuan peppercorn and black cardamom, but we have adapted is so that it can be made with a type of ground chile available in the US. The fresher the spices, the more flavorful the dish will be, so it’s best if you grind your own—especially the black cardamom, which loses flavor very quickly after grinding. This recipe is also adapted for use with a kettle grill, which can be made to approximate a long, narrow shao kao grill with the help of a couple of disposable aluminum loaf pans, some bricks, and a wire grate.

Meat and zucchini cooking on the makeshift shao kao grill

Meat and zucchini cooking on the makeshift shaokao grill

Spice Mix
1 tbsp + 2 tsp ground dried chile, ideally Korean ground chile like Wang Korean Red Pepper Fine Type Powder
2 1/2 tsp ground Sichuan peppercorn
1 tbsp ground white pepper
1 tbsp + 1 tsp ground black cardamom
1 tbsp + 1 tsp salt
1 tbsp Chinese thirteen spice powder (十三香, shisanxiang), available in Chinese groceries or online
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp msg (optional)

Meat and Vegetables (suggestions)
green beans
scallions, roots trimmed off
zucchini, cut into rounds
okra (not traditional, but very tasty)
pressed tofu squares
chinese sausage
pork belly, cut into small pieces
pork, beef, and/or lamb, thinly-sliced

Additional Ingredients
chile powder
vegetable oil

Special Equipment
extra-thin bamboo skewers
2 disposable foil loaf pans
2-4 bricks
1 wire grate, like the kind that fits into a baking sheet (optional)
grill tongs
hand-held fan (electric or manual – a piece of cardboard will work fine)

Preparing the coals in a makeshift shao kao grill

Preparing the coals in a makeshift shaokao grill

Prepare the spice powder by mixing the ingredients together; set aside. Make a jar or cup of vegetable oil mixed with salt and set aside with a pastry brush or small paintbrush.

Skewer the vegetables and meat: Slide the skewers through the mushrooms, green beans, scallions, and okra, and other long vegetables at a 90 degree angle so that you can fit many pieces on each skewer. Pressed tofu and round pieces of zucchini should be skewered through their narrow sides so that they lies flat on the grill. Sliced meats can be folded up accordion-style, put on a skewer, and then stretched out so that they will lie flat on the grill. If you like your meat a little bit spicy, rub some chile powder onto the skewered slices and set them aside to absorb the flavor.

Prepare the grill: Take the two loaf pans and cut one end off of each so that they’ll nest together to create one long trough. Use the tip of a sharp knife to cut holes in the bottom of the trough. Add extra holes at one end, and some holes in the sides on the same end (this is where you will heat the coals) . Set the trough on top of a grill and put bricks on either side of it to hold the sides up. (If you’re not using a wire grate, make sure the bricks are on their sides so that they’re taller than the aluminum pans so that you can set the skewers of food on them.) Pile charcoal on the side of the trough that has the most holes cut into the bottom and light them; (you can think of this side as a chimney area, where the coals will heat up best due to the increased air flow from the holes in the pans). When the coals are hot, use the tongs to spread them out across the rest of the trough, ideally placing more coals in the center of the trough and fewer on the far end so that you have a very hot area for cooking and a cooler area for just keeping things warm. Add more coals to the “chimney” area so that they can heat up as you cook and you always have a fresh supply of hot coals at the ready.

Scallions cooking over very hot coals (on the left) and being kept warm over older coals (on the right)

Scallions cooking over very hot coals (on the left) and being kept warm over older coals (on the right)

Set the skewers over the hot coals in the center of the trough (on the grate, if you’re using one), keeping the handles of the skewers off of the heat so that they don’t burn or get too hot to handle. Grill all of the food, brushing/patting the meat and vegetables with the salted oil and turning the skewers frequently. The vegetables should soften and char a bit; the meat should cook until well done. As you cook, use the fan to blow out any coals that flare up when oil drips on them and setting the cooked skewers on the cooler end of the trough to keep them warm. When all of the food is cooked, remove the skewers from the grill and shake a very generous amount of the spice mix onto them, flipping them to coat both sides.

Photos: Josh Wand (4)