When most people think of cumin, the first thing that comes to mind is Indian food. While cumin is indeed a plant native to the eastern Mediterranean and India, its use as a spice spans the world from Mexico to Morocco to Mongolia. Perhaps it’s because it comes from a hardy plant that fares well in hot climates, or maybe it’s because the pungent spice did its job so well (spices were after all, a way of covering up less than fresh ingredients in antiquity).
Whatever the reasons for its widespread use, I go through cumin faster than I go through black pepper. For this dish I took some inspiration from the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang, where lamb trumps pork, tomatoes are a staple vegetable, and cumin is the dominant spice. It’s a quick stir-fry made with lamb tenderloin, onions, tomatoes and yep, you guessed it: cumin.
As its name implies, tenderloin is an extremely tender cut of meat that comes from an underutilized muscle under the ribs and along the spine. Because it’s very lean, tenderloin is best prepared quickly seared with a medium-rare center. In beef, it’s a great cut for steak, but with lamb, the tenderloin is a bit too small to turn into a steak.
That’s why I like to use it in stir-fries. With a lot of heat and a short cooking time, it stays moist and juicy without getting tough and mealy. To ensure each morsel of lamb has plenty of flavor, I marinate it first with soy sauce, wine, and spices. By adding some potato starch to the marinade, it helps the meat hold onto its juices, and helps thicken the liquid released by the vegetables into a sauce.
Like any stir-fry, the steps can go very quickly and a few seconds can be the difference between smoky and burnt, so be sure to have all your ingredients prepped and measured so you can work the wok like you’re on a cooking show.
Cumin Lamb Stir-Fry
- 450 grams (16 ounces) lamb tenderloin
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin seed
- 2 teaspoons potato starch
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
- 6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon Doubanjiang (or other fermented chili paste)
- 1 onion sliced
- 1 ripe but firm tomato, cubed
- 1/2 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
- Slice the lamb into 1/2-inch cubes and place it in a bowl with the soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, salt, ground coriander, and ground cumin. Mix until evenly combined. Add the potato starch and stir to coat evenly. Let this marinate for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
- Heat a wok or cast iron skillet until very hot. Add the vegetable oil and cumin seeds. Fry the cumin until it takes on color and becomes fragrant and then add the garlic, sautéing until it starts to brown.
- Add the Doubanjiang and stir-fry for about 5 seconds.
- Add the lamb and press down into a single layer, allowing it to brown on one side.
- Add the onions and stir-fry until the lamb is medium rare. Taste the lamb and adjust the salt to taste.
- Turn of the heat and add the tomatoes and half the cilantro and toss to distribute.
- Plate the cumin lamb and top with the remaining cilantro.
Yield: 3-4 servings
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.