A cumin spiced lamb dish might sound totally un-Chinese, but it’s actually authentic and very on-trend! Hailing from Xinjiang province, this Cumin Lamb stir fry is one of the best easy new recipes I’ve tried in months.
Xinjiang Cumin Lamb Stir Fry
New recipes that truly catch me by surprise are few and far between these days. But this one did – and hit it so far out of the park that I declared I must share the recipe “immediately”!
Succulent pieces of lamb generously flavoured with a cumin-sichuan pepper spice mix, golden on the outside and astonishingly tender inside. This is a dish from the Xinjiang province of China where the food is heavily influenced by food of the Middle East, reflecting the predominantly Muslim population. It’s an absolute dead ringer for the ones I’ve had at restaurants, quick to make, and so good I couldn’t stop eating it straight out of the pan.
But what surprised me the most was the ingredients. Everything from the local grocery store.
Even if you are not familiar with Cumin Lamb, if you love Chinese and Middle Eastern food, I guarantee you will love this!
Xinjiang Cumin Lamb backstory – Xinjiang is a province in the north-west of China, situated on the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the Middle East and Europe. With a predominantly Muslim population, the food of Xinjiang is unlike most Chinese food you probably are familiar with. There’s less soy sauce, no pork, and less rice. Instead, think fragrant spices, lots of lamb, flatbreads, skewers, pilafs and richly spiced sauces. Cumin lamb skewers and today’s Cumin Lamb Stir Fry are two signature dishes from the region. Tarim Uyghur in Auburn (Sydney) is highly rated by the community.
Recipe credit: Today’s recipe is adapted from Real-Deal Xinjiang Cumin Lamb recipe from a wonderful website called Omnivore’s Cookbook, one of my trusted sources for authentic Chinese cooking. I made a few minor tweaks to streamline but the flavour is bang on!
Ingredients in Cumin Lamb
Here’s what you need to make this lamb stir fry.
Marinade & spice mix
Lamb & marinade
Lamb cut – I recommend using lamb leg or rump. Good lamb flavour, not too fatty, suitable for quick cooking. More expensive cuts such as backstrap or cutlets are wasted on a stir fry (in my humble opinion) especially given we can tenderise the lamb using the Chinese velveting method (just a touch of baking soda – next point!).
Slow cooking cuts – like shoulder and shank – are a too tough for this recipe (tenderising is not as effective) and most other chops are too fatty.
Baking soda – To tenderise the lamb so it stays beautifully succulent and tender even if it’s kept on the stove for a little longer than ideal. Baking soda is used to velvet chicken and beef in Chinese stir fries too. Tried and loved technique! (Note for velveting-fans: In this recipe we use less baking soda for a larger volume of meat so there’s no need to rinse the baking soda off, you can’t taste it!).
Chinese cooking wine (“Shaoxing wine”) – An essential ingredient for making truly “restaurant standard” Chinese dishes! Substitute with Mirin, cooking sake or dry sherry. Non alcoholic sub – substitute with 2 tablespoons chicken stock/broth.
Cornflour/cornstarch – This creates a light coating on the lamb that the spice mix clings to. Some recipes will have you toss the marinated lamb in cornflour. I tried that, and ended with with a gluey mess. It’s far easier to just mix the cornflour in with the marinade – and the end result is practically the same.
Soy sauce – Either light or all purpose soy sauce. But not dark soy sauce – flavour is too strong and the colour is too intense! More on which soy sauce to use when here.
Salt – For seasoning.
Cumin – LOTS! 2 whole tablespoons!! This is a bold flavoured dish – and true to its name.
Sichuan pepper (pre-ground) – The cool, numbing, almost lemony spiciness of Sichuan pepper that we all know and love is a signature characteristic of this dish! Completely different to the hot spiciness of powders like cayenne pepper.
Usually I’ll urge you to toast and grind your own, for better flavour. But in this recipe, we (Chef JB and I) tried it with freshly ground and pre-ground and honestly, there was no noticeable difference because the cumin and dried chilli are the dominant flavours here. So feel free to use store bought pre-ground – widely available these days in large grocery stores.
To make your own, dry toast whole peppercorns, cool, grind, sift out lumps, then measure out 1/2 teaspoon powder. Whole peppercorns yield just under half in powder, so start with 1 1/2 teaspoons of Sichuan peppercorns.
Substitute with 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper.
Sugar – Just a small amount, to balance the other flavours. Doesn’t make this dish sweet.
For the stir fry
The whole chilli are used for flavour and fragrance, not for eating. They are used in dry form so they are chewy and not very pleasant to eat.
Dried chilli – Asian ones, if you can. But even sub-continent (Indian) chillis or South American chilli will work! As noted above, they are stir fried with the other ingredients for flavour and releasing some heat, but not intended to be eaten. So the exact type and spiciness of the dried chilli is not as important as in other dishes such as Beef Rendang where dried chilli are blitzed into a curry paste.
Ginger and garlic – Plenty, for beautiful aromatics flavour!
Onion – Also for aromatic flavour.
Coriander/cilantro and sesame – Finishes that are tossed in right at the end.
How to make Cumin Lamb Stir Fry
Slices of lamb are marinated for just 30 minutes to tenderise and flavour. The actual cooking part is very quick, as stir fries typically are. Once you start cooking, you’ll be done in less than 5 minutes.
Marinate the sliced lamb with the soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, cornflour/cornstarch, salt and baking soda to tenderise.
Mix the cumin, Sichuan pepper and sugar in a bowl.
Cook the lamb in two batches in a large non-stick skillet for just 1 1/2 minutes until light golden, then remove. The thin slices do not take long to cook!
Sauté the aromatics – garlic, ginger, onion and whole dried chillies.
Add the lamb back in with the spice mix and toss just to coat the lamb in the spices. It doesn’t need to be cooked.
Toss the coriander/cilantro and sesame in, then toss again just to disperse. Then serve immediately!
You will love how tender the lamb pieces are! We deliberately keep the slices not too thin so you get a nice satisfying bite of lamb. Caramelised on the outside, pink and succulent inside!
How to serve Cumin Lamb
This is a dry-style stir fry, which means it is one of those stir fries that doesn’t come with loads of sauce. Absence of sauce is compensated for with robust flavours in the stir fry, like you find in other “dry” stir fries like Kung Pao Chicken, Thai Cashew Chicken and Crispy Mongolian Beef.
So personally, I’m fine serving it with plain white rice though I think some people would prefer a flavoured rice – because there’s no sauce for rice soaking. And I get it. If you’re in that camp, try it with Fried Rice (or the now infamous Emergency “Dump & Bake” Fried Rice if you don’t have day-old cooked rice), Garlic Butter Kale Rice or Buttered Rice. Supreme Soy Noodles will also be great as a side dish, along with steamed Asian Greens with Oyster Sauce.
Love to know what you think if you try this! I know it’s a little more niche than the usual stir fries I share. So that should tell you it’s extra great!! – Nagi x
Watch how to make it
Xinjiang Cumin Lamb Stir Fry
Lamb & marinade:
- 500g/ 1 lb boneless lamb leg meat (or rump) , sliced 1/2 cm / 1/5″ thick (Note 1)
- 1 tbsp soy sauce , light or all-purpose (not dark or sweet)
- 1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine (Note 2)
- 1/2 tsp cooking/kosher salt
- 1 1/4 tsp baking soda , sifted if lumpy (Note 3)
- 2 tbsp cornflour / cornstarch
- 2 tbsp cumin powder
- 1/2 tsp white sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground Sichuan pepper (Note 4 to grind your own)
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil (or canola, peanut)
- 1/2 cup dried Chinese chillis , whole, 25-30 pcs (Note 5)
- 1 onion , halved then sliced 8mm / 1/4" thick
- 2 tbsp finely minced ginger (~5cm/2″ piece)
- 5 cloves garlic , finely sliced
- 1/2 cup coriander/cilantro , roughly chopped
- 1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
- Marinade – Combine lamb, soy sauce, Chinese cooking wine, salt, baking soda and cornflour in a mixing bowl. Mix well then set aside for marinade for 30 minutes (counter fine).
- Spice mix – Mix the ingredients in a small bowl.
- Cook lamb – Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large non-stick skillet (30cm/1") over medium-high heat until hot. Add half the lamb and spread out in a single layer. Leave for 30 seconds then, using 2 wooden spoons, toss for a further 1 minute until the lamb is slightly golden. Remove onto a plate then repeat with remaining lamb (you shouldn't need more oil).
- Sauté aromatics – Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the dried chilli, ginger and garlic. Stir for 10 seconds to release flavour, then add the onion. Cook for 2 minutes until the onion just starts to soften.
- Spiced lamb – Add the cooked lamb then sprinkle the spice mix over. Toss well to evenly coat.
- Finish dish – Add the cilantro, sesame seeds and toss. Serve over rice! (Note: the dried chillies are not meant to be eaten.)
Life of Dozer
Many of you inquired about the well being of Geoff* when I moved away from the northern beaches. I’m happy to report he is well, and still receiving a stead flow of meals from us! My assistant still lives in the northern beaches so she takes meals to him and I still go to the dog beach (Bayview) on weekends. He is also very well looked after by other locals. Small token of appreciation for how well he looks after the park for us!
Here he is with his companion, Cubby, yesterday morning (Sunday).
You’d think Dozer would be more respectful given he doesn’t see Geoff every day anymore. But no. Still begging for a little taste of the breakfast I gave Geoff not 5 seconds ago. #Shameless!
* Geoff is a local who lives in his van at the dog park/beach. He has special permission from the council to park there. He looks after the park like its his own backyard which is why it is the most pristine dog park in the whole of Sydney. He wakes up to gun-barrel views over beautiful Pittwater every morning!