Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Summer is a'cumin in

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 Summer is a'cumin in Discovered at a Sichuanese restaurant, this simple lamb dish achieves its bold flavor through a stunning dose of ground cumin seed.
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Summer is a'cumin in

Summer is a'cumin in, so let's celebrate cumin, the exotic, aromatic spice that originated in Southwest Asia and that has spread its tasty culinary influence around the world. Cumin-scented dishes light up the cuisines of nations as far afield as North Africa, Spain and Portugal, India and China, Southeast Asia, and across the Atlantic to Mexico.

Cumin's aroma is elusive, difficult to describe, but you'll recognize it if you think of commercial curry blends or Mexican-influenced chili powder. It's a very intense scent, hence its popularity back to early times when spices were prized for their facility at disguising "off" flavors in meats too old to be palatable but too valuable to discard.

We hope that's not much of a problem nowadays, but cumin's flavor power still makes it a natural in spicy, bold dishes - not limited to curries and chili - that are bold enough to talk back. It's particularly fetching with lamb, playing a delightful counterpoint with the mildly gamey flavor of the meat.

A member of the parsley family, cumin is a tiny seed, similar in appearance to caraway seed but much more strongly flavored; the seeds are sometimes toasted, a process that oddly seems to both mellow and intensify the flavor. You'll also find cumin ground into a powder. As with all spices, it's best to keep your cumin tightly sealed in a glass bottle in a cool, dry place, and check it periodically, discarding older product when its characteristic aroma starts to fade.

Because it's so strong, cumin is generally used with discretion in Western kitchens, contributing a subtle melody in an orchestra of aroma.

Today's featured dish, however - Western Chinese lamb and cumin - pushes cumin flavor to the extreme, and it's a revelation. I've run into it recently on the "authentic" Chinese menu at a couple of local Sichuanese spots. I gleaning a few basics in brief across-the-language-barrier conversations, followed by extensive Google searching, leading to the conclusion that this dish and the region it's from are delightfully obscure. I've found a few brief descriptive references in restaurant reviews of Sichuanese restaurants in the U.S., Britain and Australia, but no real recipes.

As best I can determine, the stir-fry rendition that I've sought to replicate here comes to us through the Sichuanese restaurant community, which picked it up from a grilled lamb dish of nomadic Muslim communities in the Xinjiang (Shengyan) province, now officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the high desert region on China's far northwestern corner, adjoining Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Tibet. Now, that's a long way from home.

The dish is surprisingly easy to make - essentially, it's as simple as stir-frying chopsticks-size bites of lamb with lots of slivered sweet onion and lengths of green onion, seasoned with more cumin than you might believe reasonable, plus black and red pepper to your personal taste for heat. The first taste is all about cumin, but then the other flavors come together in a startling way that's almost like discovering a new taste. And while so much aromatic spice can be wine-challenging, I lucked into an unexpected but almost inspired pairing. Read on ...


(Serves two)

12-16 ounces lamb shoulder or leg without the bone
2 tablespoons (30g) ground cumin (or more to taste)
Black pepper
1 medium sweet onion, enough to make about 1 cup chopped
2-3 green onions (scallions)
2 tablespoons peanut oil (preferred) or vegetable oil
Dried red-pepper flakes


1. Trim most visible fat from the lamb and cut it into small (half-inch or 2.5cm) bite-size cubes. Sprinkle the lamb with 1 tablespoon of the cumin and salt and black pepper to taste, perhaps 1 teaspoon (5g) of each. Stir to distribute the spices evenly and set the seasoned meat aside while you prepare the rest of the dish.

2. Peel the onion and cut it in half along its equator, then cut each half vertically into thin slices. Chop the white portion of the scallions into thin rounds and the green portion into 1-inch lengths and keep them separate.

3. Put a wok or heavy skillet on a medium-high burner and heat until it's hot enough that a few drops of water sprinkled in will "dance" around briefly, then evaporate. Put in the peanut oil or vegetable oil and a healthy shake of dried red-pepper flakes; turn the wok to distribute the oil evenly, and when it's sizzling, stir-fry the onions and the chopped white portion of the scallions until they cook a bit and start to brown.

4. Add the seasoned lamb and continue stir-frying until it has lost its raw, red color. Lower heat to medium, add a bit of water to the wok if necessary to keep the food from sticking, and cook for about five minutes until the onions are soft and considerably reduced in size and the lamb cooked through. For the last minute or two of cooking, stir in the green portion of the scallions and the rest of the cumin.

Serve with plenty of steaming white rice and a salad.

MATCHING WINE: The strong cumin and spice flavors make this one a wine challenge. This might be an occasion for a cold beer, preferably a quality lighter-style lager or pale ale. Wine will work, though: An off-dry Riesling should be fine, or a modest bubbly - Prosecco or a decent Spanish Cava. I went a little more offbeat and was very happy with a good quality Australian Sparkling Shiraz, not a low-end sticky-sweet bottling though but the fine Shingleback "Black Bubbles," a bone-dry, full-bodied Shiraz that just happens to be bubbly. It was a great match.

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