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Chinese lamb with cumin

Whole cumin seeds, jalapeño, red bell peppers, garlic, and onions deliver a lively taste.

By Blue Kitchen / April 14, 2011

The mild, rich taste of lamb works beautifully with the cumin, onion and jalapeño and red bell peppers in this dish

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Cumin gets around. Originally cultivated around the Mediterranean and the Middle East – and in fact found at archeological sites in Babylonia and Egypt – it’s now found in cuisines throughout Asia, Africa, the Americas, and parts of Europe.

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One of our favorite places to find it is in a lamb with cumin dish served at Lao Beijing, one of Tony Hu’s authentically regional restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown. Lamb with Cumin is a traditional dish of Mongolia and the neighboring Xinjiang region of western China, but variations have made their way across much of China. Lao Beijing’s version is fiery and flavorful, and the powerful scent of cumin almost precedes it to the table.

My version here (well, mine with major collaboration from Marion) is not an attempt to duplicate the restaurant dish, but to play with some of the key ingredients and come up with a lively, fragrant meal that’s weeknight quick and easy. One of those key ingredients is whole cumin seeds, not ground cumin. Most recipes involving cumin seeds have you toast them in a dry skillet; for this one, they’re sautéed in oil with garlic, creating a wonderfully flavorful oil that imparts its taste to the lamb and the vegetables.

The mild, rich taste of lamb works beautifully with the cumin, onion and jalapeño and red bell peppers in this dish. But as much as it puzzles me, I understand not everyone is a fan of lamb. (On a recent visit to Lao Beijing, having just devoured their wonderful lamb with cumin, we recommended it to a group of four guys poring over the encyclopedic menu at the next table. The alpha male of the group pointed to two of his fellow diners and said, “These girls don’t like lamb.” I wanted to point out that the two “girls” at our table loved lamb, but decided to let it slide.) If you’re cooking for non-lamb lovers, you can substitute thinly sliced flank steak. It won’t be the same dish, but it will be a good one.

If you’re making multiple Chinese dishes to share, this recipe will make four servings. As a single main course, it will serve two generously.

Lamb with Cumin
Serves 2 as a main course

3/4 to 1 pound boneless lamb shoulder (see Kitchen Notes)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Canola oil
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
2 large cloves garlic chopped
1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
1 large jalapeño pepper (or 2 small), thinly sliced
Cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes (optional—see Kitchen Notes)
1 large green onion (or 2 small), sliced

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