Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper

It’s been a while good friends. My excuse is that I have had the Chinese branch of the family staying with me for the past three weeks and it hasn’t left much time for blogging or other social media.
My little grandson Dermot is 20 months old now and a bundle of energy and fun. Arriving home from work to his face peering out the window, his jumping up and down with delight to see his nai nai or ye ye at the door as he ventures outside to add his own “ding dong” to the bell while nattering away in his unique combination of Chinese and English, has me nearly undone with joy. He has me interspersing my few words of Chinese with his words of English as he mixes the two up with ease, learning a new phrase each day. Today it was xia yu le – “it’s raining” which he repeated with delight over and over again, rain being a rare occurrence in Beijing. Somehow this made the onset of winter more bearable. Rain or shine, every day is a pleasure when you’re not even two. Now that he’s a little boy I’ve stopped posting photos of him – he deserves his privacy after all – but I couldn’t resist this rear view of him enjoying one of his first visits to the seaside.

An October Sunday in Bray
An October Sunday in Bray, Co. Wicklow

Meanwhile Shan and I have been cooking most days, taking turns in the kitchen, working out a rota for when she, Shane and Dermot come to live with us for a time next year. On Monday evening we took a night off to visit China Sichuan in Sandyford where we let Kevin Hui take over and treat us to the flavours of his kitchen. As usual the food stunning, the flavours engaging the palate on so many levels.
One of the dishes he served us was a stir-fried lamb with cumin and Sichuan pepper which was very evocative of the flavours of Shan’s native Xinjiang province in the far north-west of China. Shan is rightly fussy about her lamb dishes. It’s hard to beat the earthy flavours of the lamb reared in the mountains of Xinjiang province but she gave the version at China Sichuan the thumbs up.
Between the two of us we deconstructed the dish, identified the key ingredients and set out to recreate it at home. I’ve tried variations of Xinjiang Lamb on the blog before but I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the result. Tonight, with the memory of the China Sichuan version still fresh in my mind, I produced something that hit the spot.
The trick was to use a lean cut of lamb – canon of lamb – which needed only a very short time marinating in a mix of Shaoxing rice wine, soy sauce and a little cornflour, and t0 “pass it through the oil”, a technique which involves deep-frying the marinaded lamb for just 15 seconds at a relatively low temperature of 140 degrees c to lock in the flavour and tenderness before stir-frying it with the other ingredients. Add freshly ground cumin, ground, dry roasted Sichuan peppercorns, chunks of white and red onions, pieces of dried and fresh chillies and some spring onion greens and it was easy to feel transported back to the mountains of Shan’s home province.
This technique will work equally well with beef. Don’t be tempted to overcrowd the wok with meat – the smaller the quantities, the more intense the flavour experience.
Shananigans Xinjiang Lamb with Cumin & Sichuan Pepper
Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper
Lamb with Cumin and Sichuan Pepper

Serves 2 -3 as a main dish or 4 as part of a multi-course meal
Ingredients

  • 400g canon of lamb or any lean lamb
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 dried chillies (or more to taste)
  • 2 fresh red chillies
  • 1 white onion
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
  • Pinch of sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ tsp Chinese white rice vinegar
  • 2 spring onions (green part only)
  • Groundnut oil

For the marinade

  • 1 tbs Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 tbs light soy sauce
  • 1 tsp dark soy sauce
  • 1 tbs shallot oil or groundnut oil
  • 1 tbs cornflour

Preparation and cooking

  1. Cut the lamb across the grain into paper thin slices. Canon of lamb, the equivalent of fillet steak, is the perfect cut for this. It needs very little marinating and works better than leg or shoulder of lamb.
  2. Mix the marinade ingredients, add to the lamb and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
  3. Finely chop the garlic and slice the onions into chunks.
  4. Chop the fresh red chillies at steep angles discarding the seeds; break the dried chillies into pieces.
  5. Slice the spring onion greens at steep angles in 3 cm lengths.
  6. Heat the oil in a seasoned wok to about 140 degrees C. Add the lamb and stir-fry gently for about 15 seconds. As soon as the pieces separate, remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon, drain well and set aside. This is called jau yau or “passing through the oil” which makes the meat very moist and tender.
  7. Pour off all but 2 tbs of the oil. Heat the wok to medium, add the garlic, dried chilli and, after about 20 seconds when the flavours have been released add the onion and stir-fry for a few minutes to soften.
  8. Increase the heat to high and add the fresh chillies, cumin and ground Sichuan pepper. Stir-fry briefly until the fragrance is released.
  9. Return the lamb to the wok and stir well over high heat, seasoning with salt and a pinch of sugar to taste.
  10. When all the ingredients are sizzling and well mixed, add the spring onion greens and toss briefly. Then remove from the heat, add a half teaspoon of Chinese white rice vinegar to bring out the flavour, stir briefly and serve.

Tips

  1. If you pop the lamb in the freezer for about half an hour you will find it much easier to slice it very thinly. Allow it to return to room temperature before cooking,
  2. You can substitute beef in this recipe, sirloin, fillet or bavette of beef work well.
  3. To grind your Sichuan pepper, dry roast Sichuan peppercorns in a solid based frying pan for long enough to release the aromas but being careful not to burn and the grind them coarsely in a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder. I have a small coffee grinder I only use for Chinese spices.
  4. You may also find ground Sichuan pepper in your local Asia market. It is sometimes called “Prickly Ash Powder”.
  5. You can use ground cumin or grind your own from dry roasted whole cumin.