How to add an Asian flair to lamb

New York TimesMay 6, 2014 


Stir-fried cumin lamb, one of the few Asian-style lamb dishes to become popular in the U.S. The dish, from northwest China, is fragrant with the heat of chile pods, peppercorns and toasted cumin.


When it comes to cooking lamb, I lean European. I dream of a Provençal-style roasted leg scented with herbs, or the seared little Italian lamb chops that scorch your fingers when you pick them up.

Here’s what doesn’t immediately pop into my head: Asian-style lamb dishes, mostly because not that many have joined the standard Chinese-Thai-Vietnamese repertory here in the U.S.

There is, however, one major exception, and it’s a good one: cumin lamb.

Stir-fried cumin lamb is popular in China’s autonomous Xinjiang region, in the country’s northwest. And I’ve been seeing it more often on Chinese, particularly Sichuan, menus.

At its best, there is an equal ratio of fiery dried red chili pods to thin slices of lamb. The scent of toasted cumin and Sichuan peppercorns wafts over your plate and thrums through every bite. Some kind of vegetable (bell peppers, onions, celery) is usually added to break up the meaty heat. I like onions for contrasting sweetness.

Even at home, you can make a version that is spicy enough to make you sweat, in the best possible way.

Lamb loin, boneless leg of lamb and lamb shoulder chops are all good cuts to stir-fry and are among the easiest to find at the supermarket. The loin is the most tender and most expensive. Leg meat is usually very lean and simple to cut into strips for stir-frying. The shoulder chops, which can have more fat and sinew and are usually sold on the bone, require the most knife work. But all are good here; just take care not to overcook them. (The loin is the most forgiving.)

Whichever one you choose, cutting it when it’s very cold makes the work go faster. Try putting the meat in the freezer for 15 minutes before pulling out your knife.

You’ll also need cumin in both the whole-seed and ground-powder forms, which offer different aspects of cumin flavor and texture. Sichuan peppercorns and whole red chili pods are the most authentic here, but regular peppercorns and crushed red chili flakes would still give you a lamb dinner at its spiciest and fastest.

Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry

1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds

2 teaspoons Sichuan or regular peppercorns

1 pound boneless lamb

1 teaspoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

4 to 8 dried red chilies (or substitute 1/2 teaspoon or more crushed red pepper)

1 large white onion

1 bunch (about 8) scallions, trimmed

2 tablespoons peanut oil

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons Chinese cooking sherry (Shaoxing rice wine) or dry sherry

2 cups fresh cilantro, leaves and stems

Rice, for serving

TOAST cumin seeds and peppercorns in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a mortar and pestle, and crush lightly.

SLICE meat across the grain into 1/2-inch-thick strips. Toss meat with crushed spices, ground cumin, salt and dried chilies.

PEEL onion and halve it through the root end. Trim the ends and cut each half lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut white and light green parts of scallions into 2-inch lengths. Thinly slice scallion greens; keep separate.

HEAT a very large skillet or wok over high heat until screaming hot, about 5 minutes. Add oil. Toss in onion and the scallion bottoms. Cook, tossing occasionally, until vegetables are lightly charred but still crisp, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

ADD lamb and chilies to skillet. Cook, tossing quickly, until meat begins to brown. Add garlic, soy sauce and sherry. Cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and lamb is cooked through, about 2 minutes. Toss in onions and scallions. Remove from heat and mix in cilantro and scallion greens. Serve hot, over rice.

Yield: 4 servings.

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