[Image: Thinly-sliced beef, stirfried with onions and fresh red chillies, piled in a heap on a white plate. Cumin and chilli seeds are visible, and a sprig of fresh coriander sits on top.]
My first ever encounter with 孜然牛肉 (zī rán niú ròu/cumin beef) was unintentional. I was out for dinner with bob at No. 10 Restaurant near Earl's Court, and partway through our meal I noticed the scent of cumin in the air. To my surprise, this was not a dish heading past on its way to another table, but a freebie for us. I'd never encountered cumin in Chinese food before, and was amazed by how perfectly it worked. (Though I never did find out why they were giving us free stuff.)
Anyway, aside from the mystery of free food, I'd say the lesson to learn from this is that when you order 孜然牛肉 at a restaurant, if it's done well, you should be able to smell it before you see it.
I've had cumin beef in both Sichuan restaurants and Hunan restaurants, and am not 100% certain of which cuisine it truly belongs to. However, going by Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuan and Hunan cookbooks, it appears to be a Hunan dish; I can find no mention of cumin in Ms Dunlop's Sichuan book, while her Hunan book includes a recipe for cumin beef. Also, pulchritude confirms that cumin is a spice used in her home province of Hunan.
When I made 孜然牛肉 a couple of weeks ago, I followed Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe from the Good Food Channel with one amendment: I replaced the fillet steak with top round (topside in the UK), as suggested by Barbara at Tigers & Strawberries. Barbara notes that this suggestion originally comes from Fuchsia Dunlop herself; I suspect the recipe I link to above has been sub-edited by someone from the TV channel. The top round worked very well to give an interesting texture and plenty of beef flavour. Asian Food Adventures also followed Ms Dunlop's recipe, and has some photos of the process.
Note that if you don't like the "velveting" step in Ms Dunlop's recipe, where the marinated beef is briefly deep-fried before being drained and returned to the pan for stir-frying, see the Tigers & Strawberries link above for an alternative. I stuck to velveting, since I had some deep-frying oil to use up anyway.
There are a few ways to vary this dish. The version at No. 10 (photo) had large pieces of lightly-cooked spring onion, a nice contrast with the tender beef. The version at Sanxia Renjia, pictured above, used round onions instead, and included fresh red chillies. Finally, the version at Golden Day (photo) just had small pieces of spring onion greens, and the chillies were minced or ground to a paste rather than being in obvious chunks.
Recipes for 孜然牛肉: