Lamb Shanks, Japanese Style

Lamb shanks so tender you can eat them with a spoon make a noteworthy meal without requiring a lot of attention, only a block time for a slow braise. Because they can be prepared a day ahead, lamb shanks can be part of a dinner for guests even the hostess can enjoy. The rich and savory flavor of lamb harmonizes with the spices and sauces from cuisines all over the world. While lamb is not widely eaten in Japan, this recipe illustrates how well basic Japanese ingredients (sake, mirin, shoyu, miso), and Japanese cooking techniques can make this dinner unique but familiar enough to be comforting.

Australian lamb exports to Japan increased slightly in 2012, to 7,687 tonnes swt, which made it the seventh largest individual destination. Most of the trade is destined for the north of the country, which has a long history of lamb in its diet.The lamb trade to Japan is dominated by shoulder meat and various shoulder cuts, which are used in Genghis Khan BBQ-style cooking, although there is also a notable trade in rack and leg cuts (in Tokyo).

from Meat & Livestock Australia

The best way to cook lamb shanks is for a long time in low heat with a flavorful liquid. My cast iron nabe would be perfect for braising lamb shanks; unfortunately it has a round bottom and three little leg and it won’t work on a glass cooktop. The cast iron nabe came with a lovely wooden lid called an otoshibuta, or drop lid, which fits partly inside the pot. The lid floats on the simmering liquid and holds the food in place as it gently cooks. The cooking liquid circulates below the lid providing even heat to all the contents inside. I wanted to braise the shanks in the oven and don’t think the wooden lid would hold up well so I made a substitute. Crunch up a wide rectangle of aluminum foil to make pillow-y poof in the center. Gently fold and seal the corners of the foil over the rim of your pot lid, then work the edges into place pressing to secure them firmly. As the liquid in the pot simmers, steam rises to the top and condenses on the foil, falling back to bathe the meat. You can also use parchment paper to cook fragile vegetables without crushing them as I illustrated in an earlier post.

Lamb shanks are very rich and exude a lot of fat as they braise.

Braising as a means of getting rid of fat works especially well if you let the food cool so the fat rises to the top, then chill it so the fat solidifies. This method takes time and requires planning ahead. What to do if you want to eat right away?

Use a fat separator! It looks like a pitcher, or a glass watering can. It looks comical because the spout opens from the bottom of the pitcher. When you pour your hot broth into it, the liquid fills both the container and the spout. Wait and you’ll see the fat rise to the top!

Carefully tip the pitcher over an empty can and let the bit of oil in the spout pour off. Over a pot or bowl, pour slowly and watch to see when the bottom of the fat layer reaches the spout. Stop! Pour that fat into the can and dispose of it. It’s a neat trick that will save hundreds of calories!


Lamb Shanks Japanese Stylejapanese-lamb-shanks_3759

  • 4 lamb shanks, about 1¼ pounds each
  • flour for dusting
  • a small amount of oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  •  ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, smashed, diced
  • ground coriander
  • cumin
  • red pepper
  • 1 cup saké
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup mirin
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • miso, a small amount

Dust the lamb shanks with the flour, shaking off excess, and arrange in a single layer on a foil lined jelly-roll pan (cookie sheet with short edges). Place under a hot broiler and brown them on all sides.
Heat a heavy pot (I used the same pot for braising) and add some of the fat from the lamb or a bit of vegetable oil to shimmer on the bottom. Slip the diced onions into the pot, sprinkle with the salt, and give them a quick stir. Adjust the heat to low or medium. Stir the onions occasionally as the salt draws the liquid from the onions and begin to wilt. They will slowly begin to turn golden and brown as they caramelize.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 275°F. Prepare your otoshibuta.
Add the garlic and spices and heat until the fragrance fills the room.
Place the browned lamb shanks in the pan, turning so the onions are mixed top and bottom. Ideally you want them in one layer. Add the saké, water, and mirin.
Bring to just a bare simmer, then cover with the prepared lid. Press down firmly, and if necessary use strips of foil to seal the pot.
Pop the pot into the oven, set a timer for about 3 hours.
Remove the pot and check the seasonings, check if the shanks are tender. Adjust the spices as you like. If the meat is not falling off the bone tender, seal and put the pot back into the oven.
Cool and refrigerate overnight to remove the layer of fat. Or use the fat-separator: Remove the shanks to a shallow pan or dish; strain the liquid into the fat separator in batches; you can blend the onions smooth or leave them as is; and put everything back into the pot to keep warm while you prepare the rest of the dinner.
oh! and enjoy…
If you liked this recipe, then take a peek at Hiroko Shimbo’s Lamb Stew and Molly Steven’s Braised Lamb Shanks.

3 thoughts on “Lamb Shanks, Japanese Style

  1. Admittedly I’ve never been motivated to cook lamb at home. I do order and enjoy lamb at restaurants.

    My mother occasionally made a lovely lamb consommé soup….the lamb was simmered so long and gently that it deliciously fell off the bone. In soup were dried jujube berries, etc.

    Lamb is found more in northern-central Chinese cuisine– which Vancouver BC does feature some restaurants with such diverse regional choices.

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