A Third Mutton and Lamb Boom Underway

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Students at Hanamaki Nogyo High School in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture, boil sheep meat sausages in June.

They’re baaaah-ck. Lamb and mutton were big in Japan in the 1960s, and again in the mid-2000s. Now Japan is having a third sheep meat boom.

Thanks to advances in storage technology, the off-putting odor that some associate with the protein- and mineral-rich meat can be minimized. While beef, pork and chicken have long been the mainstream of meats, mutton and lamb might soon be giving them a run for their flavor.

In mid-November, students, couples and others were seen cooking lamb and vegetables on tabletop grills at the Okachimachi branch of Taishu Jingisukan Sakaba Ramuchan in Ueno, Tokyo. The restaurant chain’s eponymous dish, jingisukan, is named after Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan.

A 32-year-old company employee eating at the restaurant said, “I’ve become interested in low-fat lamb meat.”

The Ramuchan chain opened its first restaurant in July last year, and now operates nine restaurants in the greater Tokyo area.

“It is now easier to get highly fresh meats,” a company official said. “And so people now know that sheep meat is delicious.”

The meat’s rise in popularity has not only been limited to specialty restaurants.

When family restaurant chain Saizeriya added Arrosticini spit-roasted lamb to its menu in December last year, customer response was tremendous. It became so popular that the chain had to temporarily suspend selling it.

The Aeon supermarket chain has doubled or tripled its shelf space for lamb since June 2017. The stores sell six kinds of lamb meats, including shoulder cuts priced at ¥267 per 100 grams.

Most mutton and lamb consumed in Japan is imported, with more than 60% originating from Australia and about 30% from New Zealand.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Parents and their children taste freshly cooked lamb at a promotion event in Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture, in August.

According to Finance Ministry trade statistics, the import volume of mutton and lamb surged from 18,168 tons in 2013 to 24,154 tons in 2018, increasing by around 33%.

In 2015, the Year of the Sheep, there were numerous events to promote mutton and lamb, which may have helped trigger the current boom.

Household demand for mutton and lamb has also seen an uptick, as recipe books and seasonings for the meat have become more commonly available.

Odor-reducing technology has also helped promulgate the meat across an increasing number of taste buds in Japan.

Hitsujikajiri Kyokai is one of the entities that promotes the consumption of mutton and lamb. In fact, its name can be translated as the “sheep-biting association.” Kazuhiro Kikuchi, the association’s representative, described the meat as a highly delicate substance. It is said that the quality of mutton and lamb can change if the temperature rises or falls by as little as 1 C.

He said that keeping the meat stable became possible after it was imported and stored vacuum-packed at around 2 C.

The association has been organizing mutton and lamb festivals, and the number of attendees has exploded from about 500 in 2014 to about 30,000 in 2019.

There have been two other major mutton and lamb booms since World War II.

The first one took off in the 1960s, when low-priced frozen sheep meats became available across the nation because of the liberalization of meat imports. This boom made jingisukan take root as a Hokkaido specialty.

The second boom occurred in the mid-2000s, when demand for sheep meat increased as an alternative to beef due to an outbreak of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), also known as mad cow disease.

Both booms were short-lived, and mutton’s malodorous reputation has lingered.

Its current popularity, however, is backed by the improved storage technology. If such advancements can dispel concerns over smell, then mutton and lamb providers and those who wish to add another mainstay protein to their plates may enjoy a long-lived third boom.

Kikuchi expressed his hope that biting into mutton and lamb has “begun taking root as a dietary culture, beyond a mere boom.”