During the year that I lived in China, my favorite late night food was chuan (grilled skewers of meat or vegetables). Late at night there were people (traditionally Uyghurs from Xinjiang Province) who would set up these tiny portable charcoal grills and sell you lamb, chicken, and beef skewers that you could order la (hot - as in spicy and not temperature) or bu la (not hot). If you were lucky your chuan man would have a few ears of corn, maybe some sliced potatoes and some other veggies in his cooler that he had threaded onto skewers. If not, you made do with glorious skewers of grilled meat. There is a chuan man in NYC's Chinatown who has a cart under the bridge. I have heard that there are chuan men in Flushing, but haven't tried any of their chuan yet. But one of my absolute favorite things about chuan isthe flavor combination of lamb, chili and cumin, which is a similar flavor combination to Mongolian lamb. So when I saw Mark Bittman's recipe for his variation on Mongolian lamb in his recent post on his 25 favorite recipes from his blog, I was pretty excited. I prefer chuan, but Mongolian lamb will do when chuan isn't an option. As a side note, Mongolian lamb is generally prepared with sliced lamb, rather than cubes of lamb, but cubes are easier to prepare.
So this dish is missing the heat (I always ask for my chuan to be served spicy) and char that the charcoal fire imparts. Those are my two complaints. But seeing as this recipe isn't meant to be chuan my complaints are kind of unfair. As far as Mongolian lamb goes, this dish had a lot of flavor. I love the flavor of the toasted cumin seeds and the scallions. I would like the lamb to have a better sear on it, so I will cook it accordingly next time. I might also add some sliced onions, just for an extra level of flavor and texture. I might also up the amount of cumin seeds slightly. I found another recipe on the NY Times website for Crispy Lamb with Cumin, Scallions and Red Chilis (which is the Dongbei equivalent of Mongolian lamb), and I might have to give that one a try next! And for the record, we served the lamb with an nontraditional combination of fried rice (which you really don't eat much in China) and store-bought scallion pancakes.
Recipe after the jump!
Lamb with Chili, Cumin and Garlic
By Mark Bittman
1½ pounds lamb shoulder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peanut or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn, to film the bottom of the skillet
1 cup trimmed and roughly chopped scallions, optional
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish, optional.
Cut lamb into ½-inch cubes (easier if meat is firmed in the freezer for 15 to 45 minutes). Toast cumin seeds in dry skillet over medium heat, shaking pan occasionally, until fragrant, a minute or 2. 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 skillet (ideally, it will hold the lamb in one layer, or nearly so) and turn heat to high. When hot, add lamb. Cook, undisturbed, for about a minute, then stir once or twice to loosen lamb from skillet. Cook another minute, then stir again. Add scallions, if using, and cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions glisten and shrink a bit and the meat is about medium.
If you want a slightly saucier mixture, stir in ¼ cup water and cook another minute. Serve hot over rice, garnished, if you like, with cilantro.