Stir-fried lamb with cumin and cilantroIn recent years, cumin lamb has become a popular dish in Chinese restaurants in the US.  Chef Danny Bowien, known for his creative interpretation of Chinese recipes, has made cumin lamb a signature dish at his successful restaurant Mission Chinese Food.

This is interesting, because neither lamb nor cumin is typically associated with Chinese cooking.  However, if you go beyond the better-known regional cuisines in the eastern and southern parts of China, you will find that among the muslin populations in China, mostly in the western and northern regions, lamb often takes precedence over other types of meat, and cumin is a common seasoning.

To most Chinese people who did not grow up eating lamb as a staple, myself included, the exotic pairing of lamb and cumin was first introduced to them through the lamb skewers (羊肉串) sold as street food by vendors from the Xinjiang (新疆) region. The aromatic lamb intensified by cumin seeds and open fires stands out as something very different from the typical food they eat.

If you’re looking to expand your Chinese recipe repertoire, cumin lamb would be a great addition.  My recipe below shows how you can create Xinjiang flavors in your home kitchen.

To ensure juicy and tender meat in the finished dish, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use loin or leg meat of lamb if available, as they are more tender than other cuts.
  • Cut the meat against the grain into thin slices. Putting the meat in the freezer for 15-20 minutes helps firm up the meat and make it easier for slicing.
  • Apply “velvet” technique, described in the recipe below, to precook the lamb.

Equally important: stay away from store-bought ground cumin which won’t give you the vibrant cumin aroma essential for the dish.  Instead, toast whole cumin seeds, let them cool, and grind them in a spice grinder right before cooking.

Oh, also check out another dish from Xinjiang region I posted before: Uyghur-style rice with chicken and carrots.

Stir-fried lamb with cumin and cilantro

Makes 2 servings

Ingredients

340 g lamb meat, preferably from loin or leg
1 oz (30 g) cilantro
1 small onion, about 2 oz (60 g), halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon chile flakes
1 teaspoon soy sauce
4 tablespoons vegetable oils, divided
Salt

For the marinade:
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons potato starch or cornstarch mixed with 2 teaspoons water

Procedure:

  1. Cut the lamb against the grain into thin slices, about the size of 1 ¼ inch x 1 ¾ inch (3 cm x 4 cm). Putting the meat in the freezer for 15-20 minutes helps firm up the meat and make it easier for slicing.
  2. Combine the ingredients for the marinade and add the mixture to the lamb in a large bowl. Mix and stir until each slice is well coated.  Marinate for at least 30 minutes, preferably 2 hours.
  3. Separate the cilantro leaves from the stems, and cut the stems into 1-inch (2.5 cm) sections.
  4. Toast the cumin seeds in a pan over medium-low heat.  Shake the pan occasionally until the seeds turn a toasty brown color, about 4 to 5 minutes.  Transfer to a plate to cool.  Grind the seeds in a spice grinder right before cooking.
  5. To velvet the lamb: heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. When the oil reaches about 270 °F or 130 °C (when tiny wisps of smoke start to rise), add the lamb and stir quickly.  When the meat turns color and is just cooked, about 1 minute, transfer to a strainer to drain.  Clean the wok.
  6. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the wok over medium-high heat. Add the ground cumin and chile flakes, and stir constantly until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the onion and cilantro stems and turn up the heat; stir-fry for 1 minute.  Return the lamb to the wok and add the soy sauce.  Stir and mix until the flavors are well combined, about 1 minute.  Adjust seasoning with salt as needed.  Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve immediately.
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