As a youngster in New Zealand, it wasn’t unusual to return home to the sweet aroma of roasting lamb. Over the years, Kiwi cuisine evolved to mouth watering lamb shanks, gourmet lamb burgers, lamb racks, lamb medallions and many other cuts that make your taste buds tingle and tummy twitter. With almost 10 sheep for every New Zealander, there’s a bit of lamb to go around.
Fast forward a few years and 9,735 kilometres across the Pacific, where we found ourselves craving a little lamb love in Shanghai. While lamb and mutton are the meats of choice for the sparsely populated western China provinces and Inner Mongolia, and is a popular dish in Northern China, finding a nice cut in Shanghai is needle-in-a-haystack kind of stuff.
There are a few REALLY expensive western butchers with a little lamb, some Xinjiang (western China) restaurants and kebab-grilling street vendors in Shanghai, but after scouring Shanghai’s supermarkets and traditional wet markets, it seemed finding reasonably priced lamb to prepare at home is harder than playing poker in Greek.
I was unconvinced. China has almost 150 million sheep, more than any other country on the planet. In this city of 24 million people, including 13 million migrants, there must be plenty of places shifting the sheep meat. Doing some research, I asked a Shanghainese friend who knows a lot about what’s going on the city. She claimed that many Shanghainese fear their noses will bleed after munching mutton, especially in the summer. Beliefs like that means it doesn’t sell too well. I was dubious, but waited until the warm weather abated to continue the quest. Autumn, winter and spring, I criss-crossed Shanghai supermarkets searching for lamb. Still nothing.
Just when everything looked Little Bo Peep, someone tipped me off about Shanghai’s weekly Muslim markets, where every Friday Jingan’s Changde Road turns into a bustling row of markets selling Xinjiang supplies. It is paradise for lamb lovers like myself. If you can stomach it, there’s fresh carcasses hanging where focused butchers carve off chunks of meat. It’s a little fatty, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. And if you’re looking for a quick lamb fix, there’s the chunkiest lamb kebabs I’ve seen in Shanghai, delicious lamb dumplings, lamb pasties, little lamb chunks served on rice and carrots, large spicy roasted lamb on the bone … I’m getting hungry just typing about it.
The atmosphere at the market is alluringly exotic, China-cum-Central-Europe-cum-Middle-East. Xinjiang is at the crossroads of central Asia, as much Turk as Chinese, with influences from the Stans and Russians, and a history steeped in trading that’s older than the Silk Road. It’s a mishmash of some of the most exotic, adventurous and mysterious places on earth. The Muslim element reminds me of the Nile River, but there’s obviously the China element as well; two of the world’s most interesting places.
Although the Muslim market isn’t huge, not a pimple on the Kashgar Bazaar apparently, you’d be hard pressed to find a better spot for lamb lovers in Shanghai, and it’s a pretty interesting place to spend an hour or two on a Friday.
Shanghai’s Muslim Market
Where: By the Mosque on Changde Road, just north of Changshou Road (常德路，长寿路以北) . Subway line 7: Changshou Road Station.
When: Every Friday from around 11am – definitely visit the few stalls on the eastern side of Changde Road, that’s where the lamb dumplings are. Pack your own vinegar if you like them that way.
Some facts about China’s sheep:
143 million is the estimated sheep count in China.
China has more sheep than any other country in the world, 45% more than the next most sheeped country, Australia.
62% of China’s sheep graze in the western sheep belt provinces of Xinjiang (25%), Gansu (13%), Qinghai (12%), Tibet (12%).
A Chinese shepherd claimed one of his sheep gave birth to a puppy.
Almost all of the lamb eaten in China is in the western and northern provinces.
If you’re looking for lamb in Shanghai, it’ll be easier to find a purple poodle wearing a puffer jacket.