Sheep were first domesticated in Mesopotamia between 11,000 and 9,000 B.C. In northwestern China, the areas which are Gansu and Qinghai today have been breeding and consuming sheep for 5,000 years. During the Yuan Dynasty mutton was an imperial staple.
While not as popular as beef or chicken, mutton is still an important part of Chinese dinner tables.
People in Inner Mongolia like things simple. They just boil mutton in clear water and seasoned only with ginger and peppercorns to reduce the strong odor. After it’s cooked medium-well, dip the meat in salt and ground pepper.
Roasted Whole Lamb can be found across China, but Ningxia-style lamb stands out because it uses Tan sheep (滩羊). Raised on herbs and mineral-rich water, Tan sheep taste extra tender and almost odorless. They’re usually brushed with a mix of cumin, ginger, pepper, flour, and eggs before being roasted in the stove.
Lamb is considered perfect winter fare in Shanghai. Since goats are easier to find than sheep in southern China, people in Shanghai use local goats from Chongming Island (崇明岛) to cook this dish. It still counts as mutton! Goat legs are chopped into pieces and stir-fried. Yellow wine, rock sugar, and brown sauce are added into the soup to braise the lamb.
People in Zunyi, Guizhou believe goats vary in flavor depending on color. The black ones are said to be the most delicious, while the white ones are the least. For rice-noodles with mutton, cooking a black goat is optimal. The mutton, bones, and sweetbread are boiled in water, and wrapped tightly with gauze, to drain the water and make the meat chewier.
In Hainan, people cook mutton with their own tropical twist. Mutton is firstly braised in coconut water, then frozen in the fridge until jelly-like cakes are formed.