Aromatic and pungent, cumin lamb stir-fry is an easy dish that seldom fails to impress. This recipe offers tips to obtain the perfect taste and texture.
Note: This is a revised version of my post published in 2017. It provides more tips and process shots.
What is cumin lamb stir-fry
I was born and raised in Gansu province, China, where Chinese Muslim culinary culture is strong and lamb is popular. Today’s recipe, Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry (Zī Rán Yáng Ròu/孜然羊肉), originated from Xinjiang, a neighboring region, is one of the signature dishes that I love dearly.
Sharing a similar flavor profile with the famous street food Lamb Skewers and Baked Lamb Bao Buns, it features a wonderful combination of tender, succulent lamb and distinctive spices like cumin and dried chili.
It’s a simple stir-fry to make. The ingredient list is short and the cooking process is fast and easy. But the taste isn’t simple. It’s aromatic, earthy, spicy, smokey and oniony.
Here are a few tips to bear in mind before you dive into the detailed recipe:
- Choose the right lamb cuts
- Marinate before cooking
- Fry the spices for a better aroma
- Keep stir-frying hot and brief
The best cuts for lamb stir-fries are leg, rump/chump or loin (I used lamb leg steak for shooting the recipe). They’re tender cuts that are quick to cook and they have less conjunctive tissue than other cuts.
It’s good to include some fat for a juicier and more flavorful taste, but please feel free to trim off thick pieces of fat if any.
Cumin works like magic when used to flavor any lamb dishes. It has a distinctive flavor and aroma which helps to mask (or reduce) the gamey taste of lamb. You’d need both ground cumin and cumin seeds for this recipe. And be sure not to stint on the quantity.
Chili is another key ingredient in this recipe. I usually use chili flakes (coarsely ground dried chili pepper) but finely ground dried chili (in powder form) works too. I’ll explain in later sections how to alter the cooking procedure if using the latter.
Cilantro & onion
Traditional recipes for this dish always include cilantro (coriander). Congratulations if you’re a fan of this herb. Use a generous amount! If not, skip it or use scallions to substitute. Onion is there to add extra pungency, crunchiness and color.
Cut the lamb
Unlike many meat-based Chinese stir-fries (e.g. Garlic Sauce Pork, Beef & Broccoli), lamb in this dish is usually cut into cubes instead of slivers or slices. I believe this is for ensuring maximum tenderness and juicy texture in the middle of each cube. I recommend you aim for a size of around ¾ inch (2cm).
Marinate the lamb
Put the lamb cubes, cumin powder, cornstarch, light soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine into a bowl. Stir and rub to distribute the seasonings evenly (Best to use your hand). Then coat everything with a thin layer of cooking oil.
Sear the lamb
You can use either a wok or a deep skillet (frying pan). Sear the marinated lamb in oil over high heat when the cookware becomes very hot. This helps to sear the surface quickly thus “locking in” the moisture. Take the meat out as soon as it loses its pinkness. Leave any oil in the wok/skillet.
Fry the spices
Turn the heat down to low (or temporarily remove the wok/skillet from the burner if using an electric cooker). Fry cumin seeds and chili flakes to release their aroma. Keep this step short as you don’t want to burn them.
🛎Note: If using ground chili which is very fine and easy to get burnt, don’t fry it with cumin seeds but add it in the next step along with the lamb.
Combine the dish
Return the lamb, along with sliced onion, to the wok/skillet. Turn the heat back to high. Stir fry until the lamb is just cooked and the onion retains its crunch texture (It should take no longer than a minute).
Finally, add a little salt and cilantro. Give everything a quick stir then dish it out.
You should always serve this dish hot as lamb fat congeals quickly as it cools. So don’t forget to have steamed rice ready before you start cooking this dish.
Other easy stir-fries
Looking for more easy and tasty stir-fry recipes? Here are some classics:
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Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry (孜然羊肉)
- 1 lb lamb - leg, rump(chump), or loin cuts
- 1 tablespoon cumin powder
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
- 3 tablespoon neutral cooking oil - divided
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon chili flakes - or to taste (see note 1)
- 1 small red onion - sliced
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 bunch cilantro - aka coriander
Marinate the lamb
- Cut the lamb into even-sized cubes (about ¾ inch/2 cm). Put them into a bowl.
- Add cumin powder, cornstarch, light soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine. Mix and rub to coat the lamb evenly.
- Then add 1 tablespoon of oil to seal the marinated meat. Leave to rest for about 10 minutes.
Stir-fry the dish
- Heat a wok/skillet until it becomes very hot. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil (if using cookware with a non-stick coating, make sure to add oil then heat it).
- Over high heat, stir in the marinated lamb cubes. Keep tossing to sear evenly. As soon as the meat loses the pinkness on the surface, transfer it out to a plate leaving any oil in the wok/skillet.
- Turn the heat to low (or temporarily remove the wok/skillet from the burner if using an electric cooker). Put in cumin seeds and chili flakes. Briefly toast them in oil to release their aroma. Be careful not to burn them though (see note 2).
- Return the lamb, along with sliced onion, to the wok. Turn up the heat to high and stir-fry for 30-60 seconds or so (see note 3).
- Sprinkle salt over and add cilantro. Give everything a quick stir then dish it out. Serve immediately with steamed rice.
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