Chengdu Challenge #14: Xinjiang Cumin Lamb (Zi Ran Yang Rou)
The Mystery of ‘Sichuan Cumin Lamb’~~
Happy Year of the Sheep! No one in my family is a sheep, so this Chinese New Year just makes me think of food, and, more precisely, of lamb. It also gives me the perfect excuse to try to solve one of the biggest mysteries about Sichuan restaurants in America: Why do they always feature cumin lamb?
Cumin lamb is not a Sichuan dish. Traditional Sichuan restaurants in Sichuan don’t serve lamb, and they rarely use cumin. And you won’t find a recipe for cumin lamb in any Sichuan cookbook. But every great Sichuan restaurant in the U.S. serves lamb with cumin as one of its most popular dishes. What’s up with that?
Where you will find plenty of both lamb and cumin in Chengdu is at Uyghur restaurants, run by Muslim migrants from China’s northwest Xinjiang Province. You’ll also find cumin lamb in northern provinces from Shaanxi (capital Xian) to Inner Mongolia. For those southern Chinese who have acquired a taste for lamb, they know where to go. And for those southern Chinese like my daughter, who clamor for chicken feet and pork feet but are disgusted by leg of lamb, they know where to avoid.
Perhaps my search was inspired by The Search for General Tso, a wonderful new documentary about the history of Chinese food in America as told through the story of one dish, General Tso’s Chicken. Unlike the documentary makers, however, I can’t hop on a plane to do far-flung interviews. So the only way I could figure out how to solve this mystery was to search in a news database of major world newspapers for mentions of the dish in the English-speaking world.
I went back 20 years, searching for the moment when cumin lamb became associated with Sichuan cuisine. Back in the mid-90s, you only found mention of cumin lamb in Australia. By the mid-2000s, the dish started to pop up in U.S. restaurant reviews, where it was generally and rightfully associated with northern Chinese Muslim cuisines, usually served at a northern Chinese restaurant.
Then in 2008, The New York Times‘s Frank Bruni reviewed the Midtown Manhattan branch of Szechuan Gourmet, which he loved, and said his favorite dish was the crispy lamb with cumin. Two years later in the same pub, Sam Sifton referred in passing to “cumin lamb from Sichuan.” I also saw references to it being served at Chicago favorite Lao Szechuan and at an authentic Sichuan restaurant in Oxford, England, where after eating there, The Guardian‘s reviewer wrote, “Lamb isn’t a Chinese favourite, and nor is cumin, so I don’t know where the idea of fried lamb with cumin came from, but it was a sticky hit.”
I then checked the menu of America’s most famous Sichuan chef, Peter Chang, and, sure enough, the very first dish listed on his pork/beef/lamb section is cumin lamb. Several spots above Sichuan’s beloved twice-cooked pork! This seems a bit blasphemous to me, but I guess it might make sense for him, since some of his fans call him “the master of cumin.”
So my best guess is that while the majority of Chinese in southern China may turn up their noses at lamb, Americans are much bigger fans of it. And when a few chefs in the U.S. started borrowing the dish from Xinjiang and putting it on their menus, it was a great hit. So they all started doing it, and it became an expected part of the Sichuan dining experience.
General Tso’s Chicken followed a similar trajectory. But the difference between the story of cumin lamb and that of General Tso’s Chicken is that the ubiquitous chicken dish stormed the land precisely because it was adapted to American tastes, while cumin lamb, though not Sichuanese, remains firmly Chinese.
And why not add it to the Sichuan repertoire? Our country is hardly a hotbed of Uyghur restaurants. And cumin lamb is spicy and bold and delicious, which is pretty much the definition of a good Sichuan dish.
Third Time’s a Charm
Like I said, there are no recipes for this northern Chinese dish in Sichuan cookbooks and, in fact, none in any of my rather large collection of Chinese cookbooks. Mongolian scallion lamb makes it into many of them, but that’s a non-spicy, saucy dish, much different from the drier, spicy cumin lamb. I tried using that recipe and just adding cumin, but it was all wrong.
The best recipe I found online was, funny enough, in the NYT, where Melissa Clark took at shot at recreating the dish (and corroborates my thoughts): “Stir-fried cumin lamb is a dish 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 in New York, where I order it whenever I get the chance.”
Her version is good. But I thought it could be better by making it spicier (of course) and by preparing it the way Sichuan chefs prepare beef dishes, by slicing the lamb thinner and giving it a preliminary deep-fry, for the dual purpose of ridding it of extra fat while locking in a tender texture. Also, because this dish is often described on menus as crispy or fried, I believe it should be.
My third try was a charm.
For this version, I used leg of lamb. (You could, of course, use beef in the exact same way.) Yes, a three-pound leg of lamb is too much lamb, but breaking it down, I got enough lamb for three dishes, sliced and ready to go in the freezer. I actually plan to use the part with the fat cap to make Uyghur-style cumin-and-chili-coated lamb kabobs, but that’s a whole other story.
As always with meat, put the lamb in the freezer for a while to firm it up so you can cut it thinly, which is important. Then give it a quick dip in some hot oil. Have all the other ingredients lined up and ready to go, and from there you’re done in no time.
And it will taste pretty darn authentic—whether you picture yourself in Xinjiang or in Sichuan while you eat it.
Have your own thoughts on this mystery? Let me know.
- 1 pound lamb, cut in ¼-inch-thick slices
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup peanut or canola oil
- 1 white onion, quartered and cut in chunky slices
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 to 8 green onions, cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces
- 1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, sliced in rings
- 10 to 12 Chinese dried red chili peppers (whole, or cut in half for more heat)
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon Chinese dark soy sauce
- Handful of cilantro sprigs
- Briefly marinate lamb slices in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt.
- Heat wok until hot. Add enough oil to deep-fry the meat, about 1 cup. Heat oil just until a test piece sizzles (300° F or 150°C; it should not be hot enough to brown the meat). Fry lamb slices until they are just cooked through, then remove and let drain on paper towels. (If you choose not to deep-fry the lamb, shallow fry and pour off all of its fat before proceeding.)
- Clean wok and return to heat until hot. Add 3 tablespoons fresh oil and heat until hot. Add white onion, flipping and stirring until it starts to wilt. Add the garlic, green onions and fresh chili peppers and stir-fry on high heat until the onions just start to brown along the edges.
- Add dried red chilies, cumin seeds and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry until fragrant.
- Add back the lamb slices and cook briefly, mixing them in with the aromatics.
- Add cumin powder, Shaoxing wine, soy sauce and dark soy sauce and stir-fry vigorously to combine. Add cilantro and mix through. Remove to platter and garnish with a bit more cilantro.