Lamb and beef dishes

Ziran Yangrou (Cumin Lamb)

This is essentially an imported dish, which entered China from its Muslim neighbours (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan) through Xinjiang in the northwest via the ancient Silk Road terminating in Xi’an. Like Yangrou-chuan(r) – grilled lamb skewers – it is now a popular dish all over northern and western China – it has even penetrated to Beijing and Hebei as well as northeastern  Harbin – but it’s still hard to find any lamb dishes in the south outside a Muslim restaurant. It can vary a lot, but is always worth trying.

Cumin and lamb compliment each other perfectly – though this dish can also be found with beef instead of lamb in Chinese restaurants and food halls, sometimes even with a sauce (not for the purist, but still good). Add some chillies and plenty of coriander, and it’s even better.

According to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), lamb’s benefits include expelling dampness from the body, warming the blood, and improving your overall Qi.

1. Cut the meat to the proper size
Although cutting the lamb into thin slices is the most popular way in Chinese restaurants, cubes can be better 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 avoid overcooking and leave the meat tender.
2. Marinate the meat
This is the most important step. Not only will the liquid ingredients eliminate any gamey flavour from the lamb, they also tenderize the meat over time. If you have extra time, marinate the meat for an hour or even longer, for ultra-tender lamb.
3. Sear the meat properly
Instead of stirring the meat constantly, 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 this is a “dry” stir fry (i.e. without sauce) and you 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 wok or frying pan.
5. Add the spice mix at the right time
Don’t add the spices too early, or they will burn. And not too late, because we want to toast the spices with the hot oil so they are extra fragrant. 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 key components and make the lamb extra fragrant. Also, don’t be surprised by the huge bowl of dried chilli peppers. Their purpose is to add aroma to the oil, but not spiciness. Make sure you use mild Chinese or Korean chilli peppers, so the dish won’t be too spicy. If you prefer a less spicy dish, add 2 to 3 dried chilli peppers instead of the amount listed.

One last point: the trick to a good cumin lamb is the lamb fat. Overly lean lamb turns tough and unpleasant. A little extra marbling makes all the difference. Most recipes recommend leg of lamb, but shoulder is better.

Version 1

1 lb lamb (450-500g), preferably shoulder, cut into ½-inch by 2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons cornflour
1 tablespoon oil (optional, if you have a fattier cut of lamb)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
For cooking
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons oil
2 red Sichuan chilli peppers (chopped) or ½ tsp chilli powder
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 spring onions (chopped)
Large handful of chopped coriander
Salt (to taste

Pat the lamb dry with a paper towel before cutting it (if you want it in slices rather than chunks, it will be easier to cut if partially frozen). Once cut, combine the lamb with the marinade ingredients in a bowl – cumin powder, cornflour, oil, light soy sauce, and Shaoxing wine. Set aside and marinate for 30 minutes.
Once the lamb has been marinated, heat a wok over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds to the wok and dry toast them until fragrant. Turn off the heat, remove the cumin from the wok, and set aside.
Now heat the wok over the highest setting until it starts to smoke. Add two tablespoons of oil to coat the wok, and then immediately add the lamb. Sear the meat until it turns brown and starts to crisp slightly. The high heat will sear the meat, but keep it tender as well.
Now add the cooked cumin seeds, red chillies (or powder), sugar, spring onions, coriander, and salt. Toss everything together quickly (so that the spring onion and coriander are just wilted), and transfer to a serving dish. Serve hot with plenty of plain white rice.

Version 2

1 lbs (450 g) lamb leg (or shoulder), cut to 2/3-inch (1.5-cm) cubes
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup cornflour
Spice Mix
2 tablespoons cumin powder
2 teaspoons Sichuan chilli flakes (or Korean chilli flakes)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns (Optional)
Stir fry
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup whole dried Chinese chilli peppers (or Korean chilli peppers)
1/2 onion , sliced
1 tablespoon ginger , minced
5 cloves garlic , sliced
1 cup coriander , chopped
Toasted sesame seeds (Optional)

Combine lamb, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, and salt in a big bowl. Mix well. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature or in the fridge up to overnight (better).
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 cornflour. Stir until all the lamb pieces are coated.
Heat the oil in a large wok or frying pan 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.
Your pan should still have some oil left in it. If not, add more oil so there are about 2 tablespoons in the pan.
Add the dried Chinese chilli peppers, onion, ginger, and garlic. Stir and cook for about 1 minute, until the onion just starts to turn tender.
Add the lamb again 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 coriander and give it a final stir.
Transfer everything to a big plate immediately and serve hot with steamed white rice.

Version 3

1/2 lb lamb, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon shaoxing wine
1 tablespoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 medium onion
4 tablespoons sunflower oil or 4 tablespoons peanut oil
3-4 whole dried red chillies
2-3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup fresh coriander, chopped

Put meat into the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Then take it out and slice it thinly across the grain.
Marinate meat in soy sauce, wine, cumin, pepper, and salt.
Slice onion.
Heat the empty wok over highest heat until you can feel the heat above it. (Keep the heat high throughout the cooking process.) Add the oil and swirl to coat the pan and heat the oil.
Add the chillies and sear for a moment, then throw in the garlic slices and let them sizzle for a moment until fragrant.
Add the meat and onions and stir fry until the meat is done.
Remove from heat, add fresh coriander, toss together, and serve.

“Xinjiang” or “Beijing” Lamb Skewers

This is another import from China’s Muslim neighbours, via Xinjiang. They are now so popular in Beijing, that many people think of them as Beijing-style. In Beijing, the skewers are about 5 inches long, but when I had these as a street snack in Harbin, where they are also very popular, the skewers were about 12 inches long. It depends on the size of your grill.
The meat is cut small, so that it is not unusual for people to order about 20 of the smaller ones per person as a meal, together with pitta-like flatbreads and a side salad.

Use a long, shallow grill – this kind is best:

Put lots of charcoal at one end for grilling with direct heat, less in the middle for indirect heat, and none at the other end for keeping warm, if necessary.

Cut the lean meat into small, evenly sized squares, and cut the fat into smaller, thinner pieces.
It’s important to get all the pieces just cooked through at the same time, so the meat remains tender and juicy. The proper size of the meat should be about 1-cm (1/2-inch) thick if you’re using bamboo skewers.
Put a piece of fat between lean pieces when preparing the skewers.
This is the key part of making the best lamb skewers. If the raw skewers look a bit too fatty to you, it means you’re doing it properly.
The fat prevents the lean part from drying out. The majority of the fat will melt away during the cooking and the pieces of fat will turn to super crispy bits in the end. Plus, the dripping fat will cause some flames over the charcoal, which sear the surface of meat immediately.

Always marinate the meat.
Some online recipes suggest seasoning the lamb and cooking it straight away. But marinating is the key to creating the best lamb kebabs, according to vendors. The marinade creates a juicier lamb and eliminates the gamey flavor.
Always try to marinate the meat for a couple of hours in advance, so the seasoning will penetrate deeper. If you don’t have enough time, you can still marinate the skewers for 30 minutes right before cooking.

Season the skewers with PLENTY of cumin and chili powder during grilling
To season the skewers properly, sprinkle plenty of cumin powder, cumin seeds, and chili powder (if you don’t like spicy food, just eat something else). By plenty, I mean you should dump cumin powder from the jar until it almost covers both sides of the lamb. Half of the spice will drip away with the fat. So you get just the right amount of seasoning in the end.

1 pound (450 grams) lamb meat plus fat
1/2 onion , sliced
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds(Optional)

2 tablespoons peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornflour
2 teaspoons cumin powder and extra for grilling
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder and extra for grilling
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorn powder (Optional, but this is the big difference between Chinese-style and the original)

Combine oil, soy sauce, cornflour, cumin powder, chili powder, and salt in a small bowl. Mix well.
Trim fat from the lamb meat if necessary. Cut lean part into 1.5-cm (0.5-inch) cubes. Cut fat into thin pieces half the size of the lean pieces.
Thread lamb cubes closely onto skewers, alternating between lean meat and fat cubes.
Spread onion inside a large sealable bag. Place lamb skewers on top of the onion. Pour the marinade over the lamb. Massage the bag so the lamb is covered evenly with the marinade. Seal the bag and place upside down, the onions facing up. Let marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.
Build a modified two zone fire (as described above by the grill illustration), and leave some space without any charcoal.
Transfer the lamb skewers onto the grilling grate, one finger’s width apart. Flip frequently until the lamb turns dark brown on all surfaces. Move to indirect fire. Generously sprinkle a layer cumin powder, then chili powder (or you can skip the chili powder if you don’t want the lamb to be too spicy). Flip, then sprinkle another layer of cumin powder. Sprinkle whole cumin seeds onto the lamb for extra flavor, if using. Grill until the meat is cooked through.
Serve immediately. Or move to the side of the grill without coal to keep warm.

You can use beef, if you don’t like lamb.
If you really don’t like lamb fat, you can put one piece of fat for every two to three pieces of lean meat. Again, the fat will shrink a lot because a lot of it will render and drip off during cooking. The fat left on the skewer will be crispy and add a nice flavor to the meat.

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