Rou jia mo originated in Shaanxi province, in the northwest of China, but they are now a popular street food across the country. The heavy use of cumin and other spices is common in the food culture of the province, which sits along the Northern Silk Road and has a sizable Muslim population. I recommend a fattier cut of lamb or beef for stir-frying; outside of Shaanxi province, pork belly is common, but it requires braising for a longer period of time. The flatbread buns, baijimo, are traditionally cooked in a clay oven, but you can make them rise just using a skillet on your stovetop. Don’t skimp on the rising time, or the baijimo will end up flatter. When you get this as a street snack, the meat is usually hot, but there’s no guarantee the buns will be warm; when you make this at home, the warm buns fresh off the skillet make eating the rou jia mo a sublime experience.
- In a stand mixer or large bowl, combine the flour and yeast. Slowly add the water and mix (on low setting if using a mixer) for 5-6 minutes, until a smooth dough has formed. Transfer the dough to a bowl and cover the top of the bowl loosely with a slightly damp towel to prevent the dough from drying out. Allow the dough to rest for 20-30 minutes, until it has increased in size slightly and has a lighter and airier feel.
- Flour your work surface again and roll out the rested dough. Divide the dough into balls about 2 inches in diameter. Dust your rolling pin with flour and roll out each segment into circles about 5.5-6 inches in diameter. Roll up each circle into a cylinder, then coil the dough so that it resembles a snail. Turn the dough to the side so that the coil part faces up. Lightly press down on the dough with the palm of your hand to make it easier to roll out with the rolling pin. Then, using the rolling pin, flatten again into slightly smaller disks, about 4-4.5 inches in diameter and 1/3 inch thick.
- Place the rolled-out pancakes on a plate and repeat with the remaining dough. Allow the disks to sit for another 10-15 minutes before pan-frying. (Whatever you don't cook immediately can be frozen for future use.)
- Heat a nonstick, flat-bottom skillet or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Lightly brush both sides of the disks with oil. Working in batches, pan-fry the disk on the first side for 4 minutes, until lightly golden and puffed up. If the disks are browning too fast, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low. Flip over disks with tongs and pan-fry the other side until lightly golden and even more puffed, 3½-4 minutes.
- Transfer to a sheet pan or plates to cool, then slice the buns open horizontally with a serrated knife to form buns.
- Marinate the lamb or beef: In a medium bowl, combine the meat with the soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Stir until the cornstarch is dissolved. Add the cumin, fennel, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and anise, and mix well. Allow the meat to marinate at room temperature for 10 minutes.
- Heat the cooking oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the meat and stir-fry for about 2 minutes, until no longer pink on the outside. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
- Add the onions and ginger, and cook until the onions are softened and translucent, 4-5 minutes. Return the meat to the skillet and cook for another 1-2 minutes, then turn off the heat. Stir in the chopped scallions. Use a fork to stuff the buns with the filling. Serve hot.
Diana Kuan is a food writer and photographer based in Brooklyn. She is the author of Red Hot Kitchen, on cooking with Asian hot sauces, and The Chinese Takeout Cookbook, on Chinese food and culture in America. Her work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Time Out New York, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. In addition to writing and photography, Diana has taught cooking classes for the past 10 years in both Beijing and New York. Her favorite foods are dumplings, ramen, and tacos, usually with hot sauce on the side.