Chengdu Challenge #14: Xinjiang Cumin Lamb (Zi Ran Yang Rou)

cumin lamb

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.

cumin lamb

I had this cumin lamb at a Uyghur restaurant in Guangzhou last year.

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.

cumin lamb

The goal is slightly crisp veggies with a bit of char on the edges. Dish should be moist but not saucy.

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.

cumin lamb

Slice thinly (even more so than this) for best results

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.

cumin lamb

The cast of characters

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.

Chengdu Challenge #14: Xinjiang Cumin Lamb (Zi Ran Yang Rou)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  1. Briefly marinate lamb slices in 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and ½ teaspoon salt.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. Add dried red chilies, cumin seeds and Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry until fragrant.
  5. Add back the lamb slices and cook briefly, mixing them in with the aromatics.
  6. 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.

 

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31 Responses

  1. Melanie says:

    Oh. My. Word. *drool* Time to get my husband a wok!

  2. Bethia says:

    Do you know the book Every Grain of Rice by Fuschia Dunlop? I think she has a cumin beef recipe. She might have some insight on the lamb dish.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Bethia, Good point about Fuchsia’s beef with cumin recipe, which she attributes to Hunan, while saying that “cumin is not a typical spice in mainstream Chinese cooking.” Her books have no lamb recipes. The beef recipe in Every Grain of Rice is a basic stir-fry, however she does say her original recipe calls for twice-frying as restaurants do. (I don’t have her Hunan book.) The photo of it looks delicious, but quite different from U.S. restaurant-style cumin lamb. Thanks for writing!

  3. Another read that makes me want to hit the kitchen immediately, keep ’em coming!

  4. Xianhang Zhang says:

    Xinjiang is my second favorite regional cuisine after Szechuan and I think the reason is both of them love those fiery, pungent, funky flavors. Since there are basically no Uyghur restaurants in the US, I think Sichuanese chefs have basically adopted some Uyghur recipes to give them some exposure in the US. I’ve also seen some Uyghur flatbreads at Sichuan restaurants and one of my favorite Sichuan restaurants in SF has an amazing lamb hotpot.

    Still, I haven’t found a source for my favorite Xinjiang recipe which are the spicy lamb skewers (Yang Rou Chuan) which means I have to resort to making my own. leg of lamb is OK and is easily findable in the US but lamb shoulder makes a far superior product IMHO.

    • Xianhang Zhang says:

      Also, note that Shaoxing wine is not used in Xinjiang cuisine as muslims are forbidden from partaking in alcohol.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Xianhang, I agree! I love eating in Uyghur restaurants in China. Perhaps an even more interesting post would be on how Uyghurs prepare Sichuan dishes, which they often have on their menus. But I’ve never seen a Uyghur cookbook in English. So surprised you saw the flatbreads at a Sichuan restaurant here.

      Also agreed on lamb shoulder. I started with that cut, but it’s hard to get good, even slices from it. I would definitely use that for skewers though. Would you want to share your recipe for Yang Rou Chuan? I found one online that looks pretty good, but haven’t tried it yet.

      • Xianhang Zhang says:

        For my recipe, I dice lamb shoulder into fatty and not-so-fatty chunks, with the fatty chunks slightly smaller. I combine the shoulder with onion, cut into squares, ground cumin, ground chilli flakes, salt, MSG and szechuan pepper. There’s no real quantities, just adjust to taste but use way more cumin than you would think is necessary. I microwave chunks for 30s to check for seasoning and adjust as needed.

        Skewer the lamb on skewers with lean chunk, fatty chunk, onion and then grill over high heat. I find shoulder can go up to medium/medium well and still remain juicy whereas leg that’s cooked beyond medium rare tends to be dry.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Love it! I’m definitely going to try this when it’s grilling weather again. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  5. Xianhang Zhang says:

    Is lamb a popular hotpot meat in Sichuan? Lamb is my favorite meat for Sichuan hotpot in the US but I don’t know if it’s popular in Sichuan.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      I’ve never seen or had it there, but my friends tend to order mostly offal for the hotpot. There are so many hotpot restaurants in Chengdu that they specialize in different kinds of broths and ingredients, so you could no doubt find it.

  6. Cookist says:

    Thank you for this recipe! I am addicted to this dish and can’t wait to recreate. My local restaurant (Cleveland OH) also adds a dollop of fermented broad beans; yes, more salt and umami please.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Ooh, either fermented broad beans (douban jiang) or fermented soybeans (douchi) would be a great addition I bet. Enjoy!

  7. Taylor, Another amazing recipe from you. Made it last night and my friends were impressed with the spicy aroma and the delicate lamb together. Keep up the great work. Fantastic stuff.

    On a side note, I have found an amazing Szechuan place in Florham Park, NJ and the chef has taken to making me a “special hot sauce”. He uses the Pixian chili bean paste as its base but then he adds celery leaves, garlic, chives, green hot peppers, and a few other ingredients. I actually got some to bring home to DC on my last trip and everyone loves it. I’m going to try to recreate it, but I was wondering if you have found anything like it in your travels or your research?

    As always, love your blog and p[lease keep those great recipes coming!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks, Jim! I’m glad to hear from you again and see you’re still testing the recipes. I’ve not seen a sauce like you describe anywhere, but it sounds fantastic. Especially with the addition of celery leaves. I love that you got the chef to share one of his secret sauces. I also love that real Sichuan restaurants are popping up everywhere in the U.S. I hope you’ll share a recipe if you manage to recreate it.

  8. Tara Turney says:

    This is a great recipe. I used this as the base to recreate one of our favorite versions of this from a Sichuan restaurant here in Hong Kong. I added leeks and cooked them with the onion (cut back on the amount of onion) but the texture of the leeks with browned edges adds another nice note to the dish. One of my favorite not-Sichuan-but-Sichuan dishes!

  9. Paul Winalski says:

    I made this last night and it was delicious. What a wonderful blend of flavors.

  10. Ben says:

    I can give you an Australian perspective, where this dish is not really found in sichuan restaurants but only in Uyghur restarants. It definitely seems like an arabic/chinese fusion to me, rather than something that originated in sichuan. Great recipe!

  11. Spike says:

    Finally got around to this today – fantastic result. I made uigher skewers on Sunday as well. Love the cumin and prickly ash combo of savory/hot. As the only meat eater in my fam, lamb is a bit of a luxury, but a post easter markdown whole leg portioned out and frozen will fix that for a minute.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Yum! We don’t eat this much either because my daughter doesn’t like lamb. I bet it’s almost–but not quite–as good with beef.

  12. idlehouse says:

    worked for me, thanks

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