Northern style lamb with cumin and chili

It’s two years since Linda and I went to see friends in Beijing (sans children). What an amazing place to visit. It does help if you have friends to recommend places to eat. We were incredibly lucky and experienced some of the most incredible tastes I have ever experienced.

My absolute favourite was a dry fried lamb dish with cumin seeds and chili. This is so fragrant with a great kick to the palate, perfect with Chinese beer. It’s a northern dish from the Xinjiang region near Mongolia.

And it has been hard to find in New Zealand until we visited Dragons in Tory Street, Wellington. Dragons looks like it is missed out on the style gene – large, expansive, bad lighting, in no way intimate, and when there are only a few diners it looks like a very lonely place to eat. But the menu is excellent. And, what’s more, they have lamb with cumin and chili. Their version of this stunning dish is more moist than the one I remember in Beijing but the taste is unmistakably alike.

Here’s how I think they make it:


1 kg lamb shoulder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds (toast them gently before use)
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peanut or grape-seed oil


Cut lamb into 1/2-inch cubes. Toast cumin seeds in dry skillet over medium heat, shaking pan occasionally, until fragrant, a minute or two. Toss together lamb with cumin, chili, garlic, soy sauce, a large pinch of salt and a healthy grinding of pepper. If you like, cover and refrigerate until ready to cook, up to 24 hours.

When ready to cook, put a tablespoon of oil in a large solid frying pan. The pan should be enough to hold all the lamb chunks in one layer so they all brown evenly. Turn the heat to high. When hot, add the lamb.

Cook, undisturbed, for about a minute, then stir once or twice to loosen lamb from skillet. Cook another minute, then stir again. Keep cooking until the meat is medium done – this won’t take long – only a couple of minutes. The pan needs to be blisteringly hot for this dish to work well as the drier the consistency of the dish the better.

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