Throwback Thursday: The curious history of the lamb shank

Throwback Thursday: The curious history of the lamb shank
Tony Jackman’s slow-braised lamb shanks. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Once upon a time, lamb shanks were ignored and unwanted, the wallflower at the edge of the dancefloor, the Cinderella left at home while the Ugly Sisters danced at the ball. Then, one day now long forgotten, Cinderella came in from the cold.

Would you believe there’s history behind a lamb shank? Well, not a formal history. It has, in fact, to do with it being ignored and an afterthought. Something for a cook to be ashamed of, and for supposedly refined palates to snicker at.

The lamb shank used to be a cheap cut, regarded as hardly any more interesting than offal. Imagine that: a cut of meat now prized, but once dismissed as unappetising, second-rate, a discard.

If you’re of an older generation, who grew up with an occasional leg of lamb being roasted on a Saturday night or for Sunday lunch, you will remember the sigh from anyone at the table who had popped into his mouth a piece of the strange bit of lamb meat found right at the base of the leg, where it would have met the shank, had it still been there.

That was your first taste of this oddly “other” lamb meat. The texture is different, the appearance hardly like that of the leg meat right next to it. And the flavour; there’s just something about the taste of shank meat.

As a kid, I would grab that morsel of meat as soon as I could, lest anyone else at the table get hold of it first. I loved everything about it: the voluptuousness of this shapely muscle, the satin-smoothness of its exterior, the texture of its connective tissue, the unexpected gaminess of its flavour, and the apparent grassiness which, you suppose, must come from the animal’s diet. Nobody else seemed to have cottoned on, so they were mine, mine, mine.

There must have been other kids just like me, pouncing on these treasures when their parents were looking the other way. Because, over time, these tiny morsels of delight grew in the collective mind, or on the collective palate, until shanks were being sought out as entities in their own right, and slowly the lamb shank came to be recognised as the grand thing it is today.

The perfect hunk of lamb.

Luckily, as an adult I seem to have developed a knack for cooking them to bring out the maximum impact of their innate deliciousness. If there’s one thing I get lavish compliments for, it’s my lamb shanks.

Here’s one of the ways I like to cook them. Nothing too complex either: mainly, it’s just a matter of time.

To go with the shanks, I cooked glazed carrots and creamed Swiss chard, which I confess to having called spinach all my life, and it’s a hard habit to break. I plucked it straight from my spring garden. I’ll write their recipes at the end too.

(Serves 4)


4 lamb shanks

4 Tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 fat garlic cloves, chopped

3 small rosemary sprigs

1 x 400 g can chopped tomatoes

100 ml lamb stock (I used a glug of Nomu lamb stock, dissolved in 100 ml water)


Black pepper

For the glazed carrots:

4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced

Beef stock to cover

Raw honey


Black pepper

For the creamed chard:

8 large Swiss chard leaves

200 ml cream

A few gratings of nutmeg

½ tsp crush garlic powder

Salt and black pepper to taste


Preheat the oven to 200℃.

Choose a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid. Put it on the stove top, add olive oil, heat it up, and brown the shanks well on all sides. This is important, because you want to get that rich umami flavour of the browning right at the off, and then build up the flavours from there.

Remove the shanks to a side dish while you cook the onion and garlic.

Add a dash more oil, the onions and garlic, and sauté at a low heat, stirring, until the onions have softened and taken on a hint of colour.

Add the rosemary sprigs, lamb stock, chopped tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a rolling simmer.

Put the lid on and pop the dish into the oven.

After 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 170℃ and let it cook slowly for about two-and-a-half hours or until the meat is tender without disintegrating.

Put the dish on the stove top and remove the lid. Carefully remove the shanks to a side dish, and cover them. 

Let the oven dish stand for a few minutes for the fats to rise to the surface. Using a ladle, spoon off any excess fat.

Taste, adjust seasoning if you need to, and do one of the following: either reduce the cooking broth down until it is of a good consistency for a sauce, or stir in 1 heaped tsp cornflour, dissolved in a little water, and continue stirring while it thickens.

For the glazed carrots: 

Peel and cut int0 slices. Put them in a small heavy pot and add water to cover, plus a little more. 

Add a good dollop of Nomu (or other brand) concentrated beef stock and stir. 

Pour in a healthy glug of raw honey and stir. 

Cook at a high heat until the liquid has almost entirely cooked away and left only a sticky glaze. 

Season with salt and black pepper.

For the creamed chard:

Wash the leaves in a sink of cold water. Drain and rinse again under running water. Shake off excess water over the sink.

On a board, slice all the way through on both sides of the spine and discard the spines. Please ignore anyone who says the spines should be cooked as well. They add nothing, and they spoil the final flavour. You can cook them, but it will not be as good.

Roll the pile of leaves into a ball and slice through the packed leaves as many times as you can so that you have finely shredded leaves. Put them in a pot on the stove. Don’t add anything, not even water; the residual water from rinsing them is all you need. Chard is packed with water, which is why there’s hardly any left once you’ve cooked and wilted it. Which is why you need to use what appears to be far more than you’ll need. Expect it to turn into a fifth of its volume.

Put the heat on fairly high and toss the leaves around with a wooden spoon while its waters cook away and the shredded leaves wilt.

Season with nutmeg, garlic powder, salt and black pepper and pour in the cream.

Let it cook away until you’re left with dreamily creamy chard.

Serve the shanks with sauce poured over and the chard and carrots on the side. If you must have a starch, I suggest either couscous or mashed potato. But it’s a hearty enough meal as it is…. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

The sides for this dish are in cobalt blue bowls by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • quentin says:

    Interesting to learn one of my favourites was considered to be offal.
    Same with oxtail. In some countries it still is considered as that. That is why SA import a lot of oxtail from South America.
    Thanks for the recipe, I will give it a try.

  • Ivan Overton says:

    An old favorite. Thanks for the prompt – I’m making this tomorrow night!

  • John Weaver Weaver says:

    When us 4 boys each reached about 12 years old it was time to learn to carve. My Dad would teach us as “a man must know how to carve”. We eagerly learnt, as the carver had “first choice”. In those days the leg of lamb always came with the knuckle bone (now known as shank) and half a tail. Always an agonising choice between either the knuckle bone or the tail.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options