Cumin Lamb (孜然羊肉 Zi Ran Yang Rou)
August 22, 2020
Cumin lamb is heavily influenced by China’s Xinjiang cuisine, where lamb is often cooked with cumin, red pepper powder, and salt. One of the most famous Xinjiang dishes that is similar to cumin lamb is the lamb kebab, or chuan (羊肉串), where skewered lean and fat lamb meat lavishly sprinkled with cumin and red pepper powder are cooked over an open fire grill. Although different in texture and cooking method, Cumin Lamb and lamb kebabs both share the aromatic flavors that result from cooking lamb meat with cumin and other spices. Of course, both are extremely tasty and full of aromatic flavors. Every time I go back to Beijing, I would always visit the Xinjiang Village that was settled by the Uyghurs in the 80’s from Xinjiang province to have some authentic lamb kebabs, or chuan (羊肉串).
Back in the US, whenever I crave for the unique combination flavor of lamb meat, cumin, and red pepper powder, I would make cumin lamb at home. Compared to lamb kebabs, it takes much less time and does not require an open grill. You will find it actually quite easy to make once you get the spices down.
The list of the spice, herbs, and condiments for cumin lamb might look daunting at first sight. But really the ingredients are there to counterbalance lamb’s unique “gamey” taste, which some people find overwhelming.
Because cumin lamb has such an intense flavor, it goes extremely well with plain rice and noodles. I also like to balance it with light and cold dishes when I serve it. You can pair it with Chinese Broccoli with Garlic-Soy Sauce, Chinese Cucumber Salad, Baby Bok Choy with Shiitake Mushroom, or Green Bean Garlic Sesame Salad.
While stir frying, lamb meat tends to produce quite a lot of liquid. To get the best flavor, add the cumin and red pepper powder while there is still plenty liquid around so the flavor of the spices is fully infused into the lamb. The liquid also needs to evaporate completely before serving. Following these two critical steps will pretty much guarantee the success of the Cumin Lamb.
Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 4 people family style
Ingredients (in the order of usage):
- 1 lb (~450g) of boneless lamb leg meat1
- 1 teaspoon five spice powder2
- 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine or rice wine
- 1 1-inch long ginger
- 1 scallion or green onion
- 3 garlic gloves
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 anise stars
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1-2 teaspoons cayenne chili powder
- ½ teaspoon table salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons or more chopped cilantro3
- Marinate the lamb. Cut the lamb leg meat into thin slices and place in a bowl. Add the 1 teaspoon of five spice powder2 and 1 tablespoon of Chinese cooking wine, mixing well. Leave the lamb meat to marinate on the kitchen counter for at least 10-15 minutes.
- While the lamb meat marinates, cut the ginger into short sticks and scallion into small pieces. Peel the garlic gloves and cut them into thin slices.
- Gather all the spices and condiments.
- Heat a skillet or pan under medium-high heat and add the 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. When the oil is getting hot, add the 1 teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns and 2 anise stars. Leave the spices in the oil for a minute or two until the spices become darker and the oil is infused with the peppercorn and anise star aroma. Use a slotted spatula to remove the spices.
- While maintaining medium-high or high heat, add the ginger sticks and green onion pieces, stirring for half a minute. Then add the marinated lamb meat, immediately stirring and tossing until lamb begins to change color.
- Add the 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, and continue stirring.
- There should be quite some liquid in the pan by now. Add the 1 teaspoon of ground cumin and 1-2 teaspoons of cayenne chili powder. Add more chili powder for a spicier kick. Then add the 1 teaspoon of whole cumin seeds. Keep tossing and stirring.
- When all the water has evaporated, add the ½ teaspoon of table salt (or 1 teaspoon of kosher salt) and sliced garlic. Continue stirring for a minute.
- Right before transferring the meat to a plate, add the cilantro leaves, stirring to combine.
- Picking good quality lamb meat is important. I like to use the Australian imported boneless lamb leg meat sold at Costco.
- Five spice powder is a Chinese spice, made from cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorns. It is commonly used in Chinese and other Asian cuisines.
- If you can’t tolerate cilantro, you can either skip it or leave the washed cilantro whole on the plate and add the cooked cumin lamb on top.