At Hitsuji no Oka, Furano, Hokkaido
Jengis Khan, (that’s right- not Genghis Khan!) is a particular specialty of Japan’s northern most island Hokkaido. Lamb is not a hugely popular meat in Japan. The Japanese dislike the strong smell associated with it (they literally wrinkle their noses when you mention it), but it is widely accepted that the only place to eat lamb, and the way to eat it, is in Hokkaido as Jengis Khan.
Jengis Khan, in the simplest terms, comprises finely cut pieces of lamb cooked upon a grill. Most shops will use a shichirin; a traditional clay pot which holds hot coals, upon which a cast iron teppan or grill, is placed on top. The teppan itself has cunningly wrought grooves, designed to allow the juices of the meat to drain away, whilst still letting the heat from the hot coals escape. In old time Japan, shichirin were used widely for nabe (Japanese hot pot) and other meals, but by and large most people have passed over the shichirin for the modern, more easy to use, gas stove.
The food “Jengis Khan” has no real association to the man Genghis Khan, and is actually quite a recent invention. The general consensus is that the dish became popular in Hokkaido just before the Second World War, after a government incentive to increase the number of sheep in Japan. After a while, mainland sheep farms were dismantled, but the farms in Hokkaido were left remaining.
It is said that ‘Jengis Khan’ is inspired by Chinese cuisine popular in Mongolia at the time, known as Kouyanrou. This dish of grilled ram was adapted to suit Japanese tastes and reinvented as ‘Jengis Khan’. The name ‘Jengis Khan’ has been attributed to Tokuzo Komai who named the dish after the legendary Japanese hero Yoshitsune, a well-loved historical figure known for his battle prowess and tragic end. Yoshitsune was thought to have died in the Tohoku region of Japan, but some people believed that he actually fled to Hokkaido, and from thence to Mongolia where he later became…. Genghis Khan!
I didn’t get to try this famous dish until my second visit to Hokkaido. The last time during the Snow Festival in February, we missed the chance due to every Jengis Khan restaurant being rammed full (even past 10pm at night). This time we were determined to have our fill. We chose a small restaurant in Furano, Michelin listed, though yet to receive a star- perhaps because in the case of Jengis Khan, the customer cooks for themselves!
The place was Hitsuji no Oka （羊の丘 : Sheep Hill）and it is located in the middle of the Furano countryside, a good twenty minute drive from any town. It sits at the top of a hill, a forest to its rear, overlooking verdant farmland and a backdrop of blue mountains. What a setting!
The restaurant itself is a long log cabin with a large covered veranda where wooden tables stand for customer’s use. This makes the most of the sweeping, lush views and natural ventilation (it gets very smoky around Jengis Khan!). They also offer fresh cows milk free of charge on request.
Out back there is a wide, open field with a number of small wooden huts (called “pensions” in Japanese), where staff sleep on site, or you can pitch a tent if you’ve a mind to stay. There is also the sheep pen, and a rabbit hutch with upward of twenty-five bunnies- though I don’t think they eat those! The bathrooms are eco-friendly drop toilets set apart from the main building. The whole set up has a certain air of low-tech, living-the-simple-life, rustic charm.
Coming back to the food…
The shichirin is carefully lowered into a hole in your table, and the teppan is placed on top. And then the meat is brought out. At Hitsuji no Oka you have a choice of three cuts of meat:
Option 1, and the most popular, is the premium cut. This is our recommendation too!
Option 2 is the ‘Sheep Hill Jengis Khan’ (羊の丘ジェンギスカーン) the leaner parts of the lamb, advertised as the popular ladies choice.
Option 3 is the ‘White Sheep’ cuts (白い羊) which are the fattier cuts of meat.
We tried both the premium and the white sheep, both were delicious but premium came out on top (ergo the name!). The meat comes with onions, and a dipping sauce. You can also order a plate of seasonal veggies to go with this and rice.
On the Method:
To cook Jengis Khan, simply place the lamb on the middle of the domed teppan, allowing for any juices to drain away from the meat. Around the outside place the vegetables. Remember to turn the meat, and once it looks cooked, take it from the hot plate and dip it into the tare (a special dipping sauce) and enjoy!
The price for all this is very reasonable, although you can’t put a price on the view! And if you really loved the lamb, they also offer delivery so you can try cooking it at home. I’m not sure that they ship outside of Japan though…
I’m looking forward to the day when this cuisine comes to the UK. I can’t help but feel it would be wildly popular, once people got over the fact that, yes, you do have to cook your own food. In any case, if you enjoy a bit of lamb then Jengis Khan is a must try on your next visit to Japan.