Globe-trotting whole cumin seeds bring a whole lot of flavor to Lamb with Cumin

by Terry B on April 13, 2011

Whole cumin seeds, jalapeño and red bell peppers, garlic and onions all deliver big taste in this lively Chinese dish. Recipe below.


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.

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

cooked white rice

Trim excess fat from the lamb and cut it into bite-sized chunks. Arrange lamb in a single layer between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap and pound until thin. Season lamb with salt and pepper and set aside. Heat a tablespoon or so of oil in a a large nonstick sauté pan or skillet over medium flame. Add the cumin seeds and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until seeds become fragrant and a few of them start to pop. Stir in garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds.

Add lamb in a single layer (and drizzle in more oil, if needed) and let it cook for 2 to 3 minutes, or until browned. Turn lamb and cook for another 2 minutes. Transfer lamb to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Some of the garlic and seeds will transfer with the lamb, which is fine.

Add onion and jalapeno and red bell pepper to the pan, again drizzling in a little more oil, if needed—you don’t want to scorch anything, just sweat it and only slightly brown it). Season with salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes, if using. Toss to coat with oil and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to avoid burning. Return lamb and any accumulated juices to the pan, toss to combine and cook for another minute or so. Add green onion, toss to combine and remove from heat. Serve immediately over rice.

Kitchen Notes

Lamb shoulder, the flavorful cheap cuts. I used lamb shoulder chops for this dish; they’re affordable and marbled with fat for flavor. Trim off excess fat and cut as much meat from the bones as possible. Save the bones to toss into a pot for some broth in the future. Buy about 2 pounds of bone-in chops to get the 1 pound or so of meat for this dish.

Fire it up. You would think an entire jalapeño pepper, seeds and all, would add some heat to this dish. Not the anemic ones we’re getting these days. Add about a quarter to a half teaspoon of cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes (or more, depending on your jalapeños and taste buds). While I said this was optional in the ingredients list, I highly recommend it—this dish needs a nice spicy kick. For a more authentic approach, add a few whole dried red chili peppers to the pan when you’re sautéing the cumin seeds. Just make sure you discard them when you plate the Lamb with Cumin. You do not want to bite into one of these.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) April 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Cumin and hot peppers — what an addictive combination! I’m always amazed at how many cuisines use cumin: Indian food, of course, and Latin food, but also Chinese and Tex-Mex and Middle Eastern. Yes indeed, cumin gets around!

Cynthia Fox-Giddens April 13, 2011 at 11:27 pm

The cumin spice is one I am becoming more familiar with for good reason too. This lamb meal sounds yummy indeed along with the other veggie favorites added. Grab the chopsticks!

Carmen April 14, 2011 at 2:11 am

OMG! This sounds incredible! I recently inadvertently purchased some whole cumin seeds (intending ground cumin) and was looking for a good recipe to use them. Since I also love lamb, and actually all of the ingrdients you used, I can’t wait to make this. Thanks again!

Stephen Dilley April 14, 2011 at 2:13 am

This looks amazing, can’t wait to try it!

Terry B April 14, 2011 at 4:43 am

Lydia—And in Europe, Spain is the country that most uses cumin. Apparently it was widely used throughout Europe until the middle ages, then fell out of favor in other countries. I’m guessing the Moorish influence in Spain kept it popular there.

Cumin sees a lot of use in our kitchen, Cynthia!

Thanks, Carmen! There are any number of recipes that call for whole cumin seeds, but you can also toast them for about five minutes in a dry skillet, stirring often, and then grind them in a spice grinder for truly amazing ground cumin.

I hope you like it, Stephen!

Christina April 14, 2011 at 4:34 pm

I love the taste of baked earth that cumin imports. It never fails to remind me of the smells of working in the pottery studio.

This sounds like a dish made for me, Terry B., and I look forward to playing with it in my kitchen. As always, thanks for the inspiration!

kirsten April 16, 2011 at 3:17 am

this looks amazing, at the top of my to try list! Thanks for sharing!

Terry B April 18, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Christina—I never made the baked earth connection, but now I totally do! I also recently read that cumin is related to parsley. I’d never made that connection either, but now really can see (smell?) it.

Thanks, Kirsten! BTW, Your Linguini with Garlic, Anchovies and Capers looks simple and wonderful.

kishore makan May 25, 2011 at 2:34 am

From South Africa~looks very interesting,definately going to try your recipe today.

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