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Spotlight Japan

Genghis Khan Conquers Japanese Palates

What do Japanese look for these days in a nutritious, healthy meal? Forget about vegetables, tofu or fish; they make reservations instead at a very specialized restaurant where customers grill their own meat . . . a restaurant where lamb and mutton are the focus. This is Japan's hearty "Genghis Khan" barbecue.

It may be somewhat misleading to call this dish Genghis Khan, after the heroic Mongolian warrior-king, for it comes not from Mongolia but from China. In the early twentieth century, the recipe found its way to Japan where it was well-received in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.

For years Hokkaido, known for its sheep farming, was unique in Japan for its high consumption of mutton.Here, Genghis Khan became a local specialty, cooked atop a unique dome-shaped grill—reminiscent of a Mongolian warrior's helmet—which may have inspired the Genghis Khan moniker.

In the 1960s, after a succession of mutton and lamb barbecue restaurants opened in Hokkaido, related sauces and marinades became commercially available and locals began to prepare Genghis Khan at home. It is the perfect "party food," and it's not unusual to see families and friends gathered around an outdoor grill enjoying Genghis Khan during spring cherry blossom season.

Genghis Khan cuisine has never been a common feature in the Japanese diet beyond Hokkaido. Yet in recent years, a more sophisticated distribution system for chilled meat—and broad changes in consumer tastes—have landed some of the world's freshest, most delicate-tasting lamb and mutton on menus across the country.According to one Genghis Khan restaurant in Tokyo, the number of restaurants specializing in Genghis Khan grew from only about 20 in 2004 to some 200 today. No doubt about it: Genghis Khan is no longer a purely Hokkaido phenomenon.

Why the sudden surge in popularity? Like so many trends in Japan, this one has been driven by young women who are aware of Genghis Khan's high levels of L-carnitine, an amino acid known to burn fat and improve energy, found in many meats and dairy foods. L-carnitine is especially plentiful in lamb and mutton: in fact, mutton contains twice the amount of L-carnitine as lamb. Both lamb and mutton are also full of nutrients, high in protein, minerals and vitamins, low in cholesterol and rich in iron.

Japan's newest Genghis Khan restaurants are attracting younger customers with chic interior design that only enhances the food's typically low price, which is relatively inexpensive at around 1,000 yen (US$9) per serving. As more consumers experience the subtle taste of fresh lamb and mutton, restaurants are beginning to experiment with the traditional Genghis Khan concept. Diners might be able to choose from either marinated meat or dipping sauce on the same menu, while some chefs serve thicker slices of meat in addition to thin slices.

These variations are distinguished by special "secret" sauces unique to each restaurant. Unlike those used for ordinary barbecue, Genghis Khan sauces were originally intended to mask mutton's distinctive aroma. These sauces are still savory and hearty, often prepared by adding apples and other fruit to a soy sauce base, together with vegetables and wine. Individual recipes are closely guarded; some restaurants boast their own unique sauce flavors, such as salt-based or lemon-flavored sauces.

As this newfound appreciation for lamb and mutton sweep the country, delectable and healthy Genghis Khan looks set to conquer any remaining resistance with very little effort.