I’m sure you’ve had the experience of trying some totally surprising food that you’ll never forget, a dish that ends up changing your outlook on food and life forever. For Anthony Bourdain it was oysters eaten directly from the sea. For me it was Uyghur lamb from Xi’an Famous Foods in Manhattan.
If you haven’t been to Xi’an Famous Foods, please stop reading this blog now and go there immediately. This tiny restaurant chain in New York (4 locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn) serves Chinese food with an unfamiliar twist. Their cumin lamb is straight from the Muslim Uyghur tradition, with no resemblance to American-Chinese food-court staples like Orange Chicken and Mongolian Beef. It’s wonderfully different: spicy enough to make you gasp, rich enough to make you come back for more, interesting enough to make to question everything you thought you knew about Chinese food.
After months of trying, I’ve discovered a taste that’s really close to theirs. Of course, it’s the Xinjiang dry spices that make the difference. Located in the very far west of China, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (新疆) borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and is home to many ethic groups, but at 45% of the population, the Uyghurs are the largest. This dish is a great tribute to their complicated culinary heritage.
Xi’an Famous Foods is mostly a noodle place, but they serve the Uyghur lamb as a Chinese-style sandwich between crisp rounds of flatbread slipped into a small paper envelope, which is perfect for a fast food experience. I prefer serving it with rice for a more leisurely dinner and I think it’s even better that way.
For the Xinjiang dry spices:
- 3 Tbsp whole cumin
- 1 Tbsp chili powder
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper (adjust to desired level of heat)
- 1-2 tsp Sichuan pepper corns
- 1-2 tsp black pepper
For the marinade:
- Half of the Xinjiang dry spices above
- 2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
For the lamb:
- 1 Tbsp peanut oil
- 1 lb lamb, cut into small bite-sized pieces
- 1/2 red onion, cut into slivers
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2″ thick piece of ginger, minced
- 5 dried red chile peppers, whole
For the sauce:
- Half of the Xinjiang dry spices, above
- 1 Tbsp light soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp broth (chicken, beef, or vegetable)
- 1/2 tsp corn starch or potato flour
- Lightly roast the Xinjiang spices in a dry wok until the color begins to brown, then grind roughly and divide in half.
- Make a marinade from half the Xinjiang dry spices and the dark soy sauce. Marinate the lamb in this mixture for at least half an hour.
- Heat a wok over high heat until it barely begins to smoke, then add the peanut oil, and then add the lamb. Spread the lamb around so that as many pieces as possible are in contact with the hot surface of the wok.
- When the lamb starts to brown, stir it up and then add the onion, garlic, ginger, and whole chiles. Cook for about 2-3 minutes until the onions just start to get soft.
- Add the sauce and stir for about 30 seconds, then serve while hot.
Variation: For what it’s worth, the Xi’an Famous Foods version is a bit oiler and the sauce is wetter. To make it that way, double the peanut oil and the broth.