What is Chuan (串) and where to find it in Shanghai

Chinese Kebabs (串儿) – A Simple Introduction to a Fine Chinese Food

So, what’s this Chuan we speak of? It is so good, so stick with us…

Chuan'r in Shanghai
Chuan’r in Shanghai

It all started with the Xinjiang lamb skewer (新疆羊肉串) vendors on the streets.

They are among one of the 56 minority ethnic groups in China.

Lamb skewer, or lamb kebab, is part of the cuisine of the Uyghur people and other Chinese Muslims.

These vendors left their hometown in the Xinjiang (新疆) to sell lamb skewers on small push carts all across China.

The spices they use on the skewers are a combination of cumin seeds, dried red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and sesame or sesame oil.

Although Xinjiang food is not one of the Eight Chinese cuisines it is still a very popular style of food in China that really should be tried!

Together, they produce a taste quite different from the cuisines of the rest of the country.

Over the last decade or so, Chinese people’s love for Chuan (串), which translates into skewer or kebab in English, has really gained momentum and you can find it in almost every part of China.

TV PROGRAMME ALERT – In 2016, a documentary series on the barbecue culture in China named Life’s Skewer (人生一串) aired.

Each episode of the show is thirty minutes long.

The producers of the show had handpicked thirty some kebab spots in China to visit and discuss on the show.

The highlight of the show is reportedly the authentic representation of the type of chuan Chinese people enjoy in their everyday lives.

Chuan’r – The Basics of Chinese Kebabs

Chuan’r – A Visit to Hong Lü Deng

Chuan’r – What to Order?

The Basics of Chinese Kebabs

There are a number of ways to say kebabs in Chinese, and even more things you can eat skewered.

  • 串. Chuàn. Simple and to the point, we like it.
  • 串串. Chuànchuan. Flows off the tongue well!
  • 串儿. Chuàn’r. Chuan, but make it Beijing! (A Beijing accent adds 儿s to the end of words and phrases).
  • 烤肉串. Kǎoròu chuàn. The most technical and the most specific. Appreciated!

The prices of Chinese skewers will depend on what you get, if it’s street food or from a restaurant, and where you are. Nonetheless, here’s a short list to potential kebabs you can expect:

串 (chuàn) in English is chuan, chuan'r, Chinese skewers, or Chinese kebabs.
  • Lamb 羊肉 Yángròu
  • Chicken 鸡肉 jīròu
  • Pork 猪肉 zhūròu
  • Beef 牛肉 niúròu
  • Seafood 海鲜 hǎixiān
  • Mantou (steamed bun) 馒头 mántou
  • Tofu 豆腐 dòufu
  • Veggies 蔬菜 shūcài

…you get the point.

There are a load of places you can eat chuan, too. Streetfood is very popular, but so are restaurants that specialize in kebabs. Here’s one, for example.

A Visit to Hong Lü Deng (红绿灯)

An Interesting-looking Place

Chuan'r - One of Chinas favourites that originates from Xinjiang Province
Chuan’r – One of Chinas favourites that originates from Xinjiang Province

A popular spot to get your Chuan’r fix is a funky looking shop at the bottom floor of a row of stores and shops on Changle Road (长乐路).

The simple design of the logo, consisting of three red, yellow, and green circles stacked on top of each other on a white background, makes it hard to miss.

The inside of the store is decorated with colourful neon lights, and thick red, yellow, and green stripes on the walls.

The sections of the restaurant are separated by glass walls.

The style of the seating is those of cushioned booths, which is reminiscent of local diner seating in the West.

Chuan’r – What to Order?

Okay, now it gets interesting:

The spot serves not only normal meat skewers such as lamb, beef, and chicken, but also their internal organs, as well as the usual tofu and vegetable skewers such us chives and a variety of mushrooms.

It also serves anything you can imagine that’s “skewer-able”. Take bread skewers for example, an item not normally associated with your typical street food skewers. The bread skewer tastes a bit like toasted bread, and it’s surprisingly a very popular item to order.

It’s common to enjoy Chuan’r with beer.

The cold, refreshing taste of beer balances well with the salty and pungent spices of the skewers.

Another must-order item from the menu is Kao Dai Zi (烤袋子), a savoury and garlicky vermicelli dish cooked with the meat of a shellfish.

Kao Dai Zi(烤带子) is a must-try item from the menu when you're enjoying Chuan'r at Hong Lv Deng in Shanghai
Kao Dai Zi(烤带子) is a must-try item from the menu when you’re enjoying Chuan’r at Hong Lv Deng in Shanghai

The dish is served in the shells, which makes for an interesting photo to share with friends on WeChat moments.

What the place is really known for, is the skewered silkworm cocoon (烤蚕蛹).

It’s apparently a delicacy in the Northeastern region of China. When it’s done right, the cocoons are supposed to be very juicy on the inside.

If you are someone who likes to try exotic foods, you may just love this dish.

A few other notable mentions include:

  • Frog skewer (牛蛙)
  • Barbecued eggplant (茄子)
  • Layered pork skewer (五花肉)
  • Whole fish skewer (烤鱼).

Last but not least, this place also serves crayfish (小龙虾) when they are in season during the summer months.

If you don’t mind a little bit of work and getting your hands dirty in exchange for delicious seafood, then you should definitely give this a try.

A quick note, though. As “exotic” as these foods are, the majority of people stick to the traditional lamb! Lamb skewers are by far the most popular type of Chinese kebab, and pretty much any mall you visit is guaranteed to have some form of chuan restaurant.

Our Shanghai students regularly meet for food every week. All corners of China have very different style food, and we like to try to sample them all in Shanghai.

For example Yunnan food, from the South West of China all the way to Xi’an all offer very different style of cuisine. Our Social calendar takes our students to a new restaurant every Wednesday so if you are in luck, we may well be taking you for some delicious Chaun’r sometime soon!

More Food-Related Content:

Shanghai Dumplings

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Chinese Noodles

LTL’s guide to the best 11 Chinese noodle dishes that you musty try!

Breakfast in Shanghai

Breakfast in Shanghai

Find out how to eat like a local and explore some of Shanghai’s best breakfast foods.

Chuan’r FAQ’s

What is a chuan?

Chuan is the pronunciation of , Chinese skewers or kebabs.

What is the Chinese meat on a stick?

In English, they’re called Chinese skewers or kebabs. The pinyin pronunciation is chuàn, .

What is the Chinese character for Chuan?

The character for Chuan is really easy to remember because it effectively resembles a kebab skewer – .

For the ‘r sound on the end it becomes – 串儿. This is just dialect, the meaning remains the same.

What is the flavour of Chuan?

The spices they use on the skewers are a combination of cumin seeds, dried red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and sesame or sesame oil.

Where does Chuan come from in China?

Chuan all began in the far western province of Xinjiang. The Xinjiang lamb skewer (新疆羊肉串) grew popular and can now be found throughout China,

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  4. Joseph

    Are there other types of chuan

    1. Angela

      Hi Joseph,

      Of course! Another popular type of 串 is 串串香 (chuànchuànxiāng) which is skewers cooked in hot pot. It’s from Sichuan!


  5. Leilani

    The best f****** food in China!

    1. LTL Team HQ

      You probably aren’t wrong!!