Food & Drink

May 6, 2014

How to add an Asian flair to lamb

Stir-fried cumin lamb, a favorite in China’s Xinjiang region, is a spicy treat

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.

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