It's been years since the first time I fell in love with the spicy cumin lamb at the ever-popular Xi'An Famous Foods, situated beneath flickering fluorescent lights in the subterranean Golden Mall in Flushing, Queens. Longtime readers of Serious Eats have already seen their fair share of love stories to this establishment, so I'll spare you another, but I can't let credit go unpaid to the place that first turned me on to the earthy, spicy, pungent combo that led me to this recipe.
It's the marriage of cumin and lamb—a Middle Eastern influence—that defines these skewers, so when devising the marinade, I made sure cumin was the most prominent ingredient. I used both freshly ground cumin and whole seeds, which deliver a stronger hit of pungency. Although cumin forms the base of the flavor, the dish's distinctiveness is derived from its Chinese influence, which in my version takes the form of soy sauce, sherry, garlic, and hot pepper.
While the plate that originally left such a strong imprint on my heart was noodle-based, I'm happy to say that the flavors work pretty damn well on the grill, too. The cumin certainly stood out the most—the tender lamb chunks were visibly coated in cumin seed—but the other ingredients in the marinade were present in the exterior of the meat as well, delivering an addictive, exciting Northern Chinese flavor experience.