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Real-deal Xinjiang cumin lamb recipe that yields crispy juicy lamb pieces coated with a bold cumin chili spice mix, stir fried with onion, garlic and cilantro. It’s a dish you can easily make at home, and it tastes just like what you’d get in China. Gluten free adaptable

Cumin lamb (孜然羊肉, Zi Ran Yang Rou), originally from Xinjiang cuisine, is such a popular dish that I thought was a Beijing dish growing up. It is just one of those dishes you see everywhere, no matter whether in a small diner or high school cafeteria. 

Xinjiang cumin lamb in a pan

When visiting China for the first time, especially the northern or western part of the country, you might be surprised at how popular lamb is. As a matter of fact, it is a staple for the Chinese Muslim community, which consists of about 20 million people. My family serves lamb quite a lot because my grandma used to make a mean lamb stew. Now, living in the US, where lamb dishes are not very common, I cook this dish at home to satisfy my nostalgia.

What is cumin lamb

Cumin lamb, when done properly, is very addictive. The lamb cubes are crispy on the surface and buttery tender inside. They are coated in a bold spice mix that includes cumin powder, chili pepper, and Sichuan peppercorns. Tossed in a fragrant oil with plenty of aromatics such as ginger, garlic, and onion, the lamb comes out like a flavor bomb that explodes in your mouth.

If your knowledge of Chinese food is based on Americanized-Chinese-style dishes from takeout restaurants in the US, you might be shocked to find out this dish does not include a stir fry sauce. That’s right! It is a different type of stir fry that uses dry spices instead of a sauce to season the food. Sometimes Chinese cookbooks call it a dry stir fry. It is actually the cooking method that’s most popular in the northern part of China, where I grew up.

This recipe uses a very easy approach to help you recreate the authentic experience in your own kitchen, without using a wok.

Homemade cumin lamb with onion and chili pepper

Ingredients

What cut of lamb to use

My favorite cut for cumin lamb is lamb leg. The meat has just the right amount of fat to keep the cooked pieces juicy and it’s very flavorful. If leg is not available, other cuts such as medallions, deboned loin chops, and stew meat are OK as well.

Mise en place

When you’re ready to cook, your table should have:

  • Dried chili peppers and chopped ginger and garlic
  • Cilantro
  • Marinated lamb coated with cornstarch
  • Spice mix
  • Onion

How to cook cumin lamb

To cook cumin lamb:

  1. Sear the lamb in a heavy pan
  2. Once the lamb is browned and the inside is still pink, transfer it to a plate
  3. Saute the aromatics and chili pepper
  4. Add the onion for a quick stir 
  5. Add back the cooked lamb with spice mix
  6. Stir to coat everything
How to make cumin lamb step-by-step Real-Deal Xinjiang Cumin Lamb (孜然羊肉)

Achieving the perfect cumin lamb stir fry

Here are some short but very important notes to help you cook the real-deal cumin lamb with perfectly cooked meat and a bold flavor.

1. Cut the meat to proper size

Although cutting the lamb into thin slices is the most popular way in Chinese restaurants, I stick to cubes when it comes to home cooking. Since the stoves in most home kitchens are not as powerful as those in restaurants, cutting the meat this way will help you avoid overcooking and yield tender meat.

2. Marinate the meat

This might be the most important step. Not only will the liquid ingredients eliminate any gamey flavor from the lamb, they also tenderize the meat over time. If you have extra time, I highly recommend marinating the meat for an hour or even longer, which will yield ultra-tender lamb.

3. What pan to use

My favorite piece of cookware is the heavy duty carbon steel 12.6-inch frying pan from DeBuyer. It’s extremely helpful if you use an electric stove at home. It heats up very hot, holds heat well, and is nonstick when properly seasoned. Instead of stirring the meat constantly, I sear each side until just golden while the inside is slightly pink, then set it aside. This way, the meat will be cooked perfectly at the end.

4. Use a generous amount of oil

It might look like a lot of oil, but remember, we’re cooking a dry stir fry and need plenty of oil to toast the spices and bind the ingredients together. Without enough oil, the spices will burn easily and stick to the skillet.

5. Add the spice mix at the right time

Don’t add the spices too early, which will burn them. And not too late, because we want to toast the spices with the hot oil so they are extra fragrant. We add them at the end of the cooking, and leave them in the pan for about 1 minute.

6. Use plenty of aromatics

Fresh garlic, ginger, and onion are the key components and make the lamb extra fragrant. Also, don’t be surprised by the huge bowl of dried chili peppers. Their purpose is to add aroma to the oil, but not spiciness. Make sure you use mild Chinese or Korean chili peppers, so the dish won’t be too spicy. If you prefer a less spicy dish, add 2 to 3 dried chili peppers instead of the quantity listed. 

That’s it! Now you have the secret weapon to recreating the real-deal cumin lamb in your own kitchen. I hope you enjoy the dish as much as I do!

Xinjiang cumin lamb close up

More Xinjiang-style recipes

  • Da Pan Ji (Chicken Potato Stew with Noodles, 大盘鸡)
  • Xinjiang Lamb Skewers (新疆烤串, chuar)
  • Ding Ding Chao Mian (丁丁炒面, Fried Noodles in Lamb Tomato Sauce)
  • Uyghur Lamb Pilaf (Polo, 羊肉抓饭)
  • Baked Samosa, Two Ways (Uyghur Lamb Meat Pie, 烤包子)

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Real-deal Xinjiang cumin lamb recipe that yields crispy juicy lamb pieces coated with a bold cumin chili spice mix, stir fried with onion, garlic and cilantro. It’s a dish you can easily make at home, and it tastes just like what you’d get in China. Gluten free adaptable

Real-Deal Xinjiang Cumin Lamb (孜然羊肉)

Real-deal Xinjiang cumin lamb recipe that yields crispy juicy lamb pieces coated with a bold cumin chili spice mix, stir fried with onion, garlic and cilantro. It’s a dish you can easily make at home, and it tastes just like what you’d get in China. Gluten free adaptable

To make this dish gluten-free, use tamari instead of soy sauce, and use dry sherry instead of Shaoxing wine.

Author: Maggie Zhu

Course: Main

Cuisine: Chinese

Keyword: restaurant-style

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 lb (450g) lamb leg , cut to 3/2-inch (1.5-cm) cubes
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch

Stir fry

  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 1/2 cup dried Chinese chili peppers
  • 1 small white onion , large diced
  • 1 thumb ginger , minced
  • 5 cloves garlic , sliced
  • 1 cup cilantro , chopped
  • Toasted sesame seeds for garnish (Optional)

Instructions

  • Combine lamb, soy sauce, and salt in a big bowl. Mix well. Let marinate for 20 minutes at room temperature, or in the fridge up to overnight.

  • Combine the ingredients for the spice mix in a small bowl.

  • When you’re ready to cook, drain the extra liquid from the bowl of lamb. Add the cornstarch, a few tablespoons at a time, and mix, until all the lamb pieces are coated.

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the lamb pieces and spread them out with a pair of tongs or chopsticks, so they don’t overlap. Let cook without touching until the bottom side turns golden, 1 minute or so. Flip the lamb and cook the other side until slightly golden, while the inside is still a bit pink, 30 to 40 seconds. Transfer the lamb to a big plate.

  • Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, the dried Chinese chili peppers, ginger, and garlic. Stir a few times to release the fragrance. Add the onion. Stir and cook for about 1 minute, until the onion just starts to turn tender. Add back the lamb and sprinkle the spice mix all over. Stir immediately to coat the lamb with spice. Remove the pan from the stove and carefully try one piece of lamb. Sprinkle a bit more salt on it, if needed.

  • Add the cilantro and give it a final stir. Transfer everything to a big plate immediately. Serve hot as a main dish.

Nutrition

Serving: 1 serving , Calories: 319 kcal , Carbohydrates: 11.8 g , Protein: 23.6 g , Fat: 19.6 g , Saturated Fat: 4.3 g , Cholesterol: 69 mg , Sodium: 577 mg , Potassium: 390 mg , Fiber: 0.8 g , Sugar: 0.8 g , Calcium: 47 mg , Iron: 4 mg

The recipe was published on Jan 2, 2018 and updated on Jun 22, 2022 with new video and images.