Genghis Khan: Hokkaido’s Traditional Delicacy

Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. The dome-shaped grills resemble a Mongolian warrior's helmet.
The dome-shaped grills resemble a Mongolian warrior's helmet.

These dome-shaped grills, as the story explains, resemble a Mongolian warrior’s helmet. And in Genghis Khan’s time, his soldiers would use their helmets to grill muttons and lamb meat.

Name one thing Hokkaido and Genghis Khan share in common. Neither can I. That is, until I discovered a cuisine in Hokkaido named exactly that. Reminiscent of the Mongolian conqueror, Genghis Khan is a mutton speciality in Hokkaido that supposedly got its name from the cast iron domes used to grill the meat.

These dome-shaped grills, as the story goes, resemble a Mongolian warrior’s helmet. And in Genghis Khan’s time, his soldiers would use their helmets to grill muttons and lamb meat. This is how the association between the conqueror and the dish came into being. Anecdotes aside, grilled mutton has been a staple of Hokkaido since the early 20th century.

During World War I, Australian government halted wool exports to Japan. Up until then, the Japanese had relied on imported wool for its military garments. In an attempt to secure its wool supply, Japanese government initiated the “Million Sheep Plan” to drastically increase domestic wool production.

Hokkaido was in turn designated as an important region for sheep farming due to its abundance of suitable land. Soon, sheep became a major component of Hokkaido’s agricultural production and locals started to adopt an increased consumption of grilled lamb and muttons. This diet pattern continued to this day as Genghis Khan became a popular menu option for social gatherings and outdoor celebrations.

Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Daruma Honten a restaurant specializing in the non-marinated method of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Daruma Honten is established in 1954 with 16 seats packed in a 4.5 square metre wooden room. The short stools surround the outer rim of a giant U-shaped counter resembling a horse hoof. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. On the counter of Daruma Honten sits the round charcoal stoves used to heat the dome-shaped grills.

This shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy creates a sort of camaraderie amongst the patrons as if heading to war together after the meal is the only logical next step.

Today, there are many variations of Genghis Khan. There is the choice of mutton or lamb. Then, one can choose between two preparation methods: marinated versus the non-marinated with dipping sauce.

Restaurants also experiment with different slice thickness as they impart different flavour and texture. Many famed Genghis Khan restaurants are known not only for their meat quality, but their cuts and especially the secret ingredients in their sauces.

Daruma Honten is one such restaurant specializing in the non-marinated Genghis Khan. Located in Sapporo, this eatery is established in 1954 with 16 seats packed in a 4.5 square metre wooden room. The short stools surround the outer rim of a giant U-shaped counter resembling a horse hoof. On the counter sits the round charcoal stoves used to heat the dome-shaped grills.

The interior of Daruma Honten takes on a rugged, unassuming atmosphere. There is barely enough room for a person to pass between the counter and the back walls. Every time someone gets in or out, everyone in the path would shuffle around like panicked birds. This shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy creates a sort of camaraderie amongst the patrons as if heading to war together after the meal is the only logical next step.

Eating the Genghis Khan is a no-frills affair – grill the muttons, add the onions, and wash it down with beer. That is all there is to it, essentially. After the server replaces the charcoals in your stove, he will place a piece of lard on your grill plate. Let it melt to grease the grill. As the plate starts to sizzle, line cabbage and onions along its side. Then, start layering the meat in the centre of the plate and flip when the exterior is browned and crisp. Aim for medium rare, then dip it in the sauce. Done.

Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Replacing a new set of hot coal for each diner. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. The piece of lard that greases the grill. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Let the lard melt and grease the grill. As the plate starts to sizzle and pop, line cabbage and onions along its side.

Grilling meat in charcoal and lard naturally impart a bold flavour, calling for an equally forceful counterpart to balance its thickness. This is where the rustic bed of grilled onions come into play.

At Daruma Honten, the meat is cut in bite sizes, about five millimetres thick. Grilled to a medium-rare, it emerges succulent and fragrant. Grilling in charcoal and lard naturally impart a bold flavour, calling for an equally forceful counterpart to balance its thickness.

This is where the grilled onions comes into play. Its pungent sharpness heightens the tenderness of the hot mutton, prepping it with the final punch – Daruma’s secret sauce.

This savoury condiment has a soy base and is infused with vegetables and wine for depth. There is a splash of lemon that lightens mutton’s grease and enhances its aroma. The exact recipe for the sauce is closely guarded, as it is a major selling point for the restaurant.

At the end of the meal, put the remaining sauce on the rice and mix it with the hot tea given by the server. This hearty side dish warms the body with its thick texture – a nice closure.

Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Kimchi side dish in Daruma Hoten. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Raw mutton cut in bite sizes. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Start layering the meat in the centre of the plate and flip when the exterior is browned and crisp.

The meat burst with oozing hot liquid and screaming richness, its thickness and sauce are perfected to a T. They make no attempt to beautify the whole process, serving it as it is. Simple and unabashedly bold.

Genghis Khan used to be popular only in the Hokkaido region of Japan. In recent years, however, it has swept across the mainland, including Tokyo, as restaurants specializing in this cuisine grow in dramatic numbers.

Rising demand for grilled mutton led to the expansion of many established stores, most of them from Hokkaido. Daruma, for example, is one of them. Honten stands for “the original store.” They currently have four in operation, all in Sapporo.

What makes dining at Daruma Honten such a pleasant experience is its straightforwardness – the meat burst with oozing hot liquid and screaming richness, its thickness and sauce are perfected to a T. They make no attempt to beautify the whole process, serving it as it is. Simple and unabashedly bold.

The only downside is the wait time. Try queuing for an hour in the snow and you will come to grasp the allure it holds for the poor devotees standing outside in the cold.

Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. Grilling meat in charcoal and lard naturally impart a bold flavour, calling for an equally forceful counterpart to balance its thickness - the onions. Genghis Khan: Hokkaido's Traditional Delicacy. The interior of Daruma Honten takes on a rugged, unassuming atmosphere. There is barely enough room for a person to pass between the counter and the back walls.

 

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