We returned to camp eager to eat something that wasn’t another uninspiring ham sandwich. Though only Day Two of the hunt, the heavy gambrel next to the cabin meant venison on the menu. Hungry as we were tired, it was easy to decide on supper. South Dakotans know the right way to do it.
As I peeled a backstrap from the mule deer, Logan dumped some olive oil into a Dutch oven. The pot was crackling as I cubed the loin. I sank the small chunks of meat into the oil not long after. In about the time it takes to nuke a bowl of ramen, the meal was served.
“Chislic is the food God eats. We’re just fortunate enough that he shares some with us,” Logan muttered as we sat by the fire.
Chislic, typically fried mutton on a stick, is only known among the select few who call South Dakota home. Although unheard of elsewhere, it is wildly popular in my home state. So much so that the area’s largest newspaper declared it “South Dakota’s favorite food.” The region’s largest magazine deemed the southeastern corner of the state “Chislic Circle.”
It’s within that Chislic Circle that the dish arose. The name comes from the Turkic word “shashlik,” meaning cubed red meat on a stick—the same root as shish kebab. It’s believed that chislic was first prepared here in the 1870s by an immigrant from the Crimean Peninsula of Eastern Europe. Since then, it’s become the “state nosh” and a bonafide staple in the land of Rushmore.
In Freeman, population 1,300, sticks of chislic are served by the dozen, and the the town literally goes through hundreds of thousands of sticks a year. One bar, Papa’s, estimates that they sometimes serve up to 3,000 sticks a week. Not far away is the Turner County Fair, which sells nearly 10,000 sticks a day during the five-day gathering.
Chislic is almost always served as mutton or lamb, but what small town you’re in plays a role in how your chislic arrives. In Yankton, chislic comes with a side of toast. In Menno, it’s served with saltines. In Freeman, it’s deep fried with slices of onion. In Sioux Falls, it’s grilled on a set of small kebab sticks.
Cooking chislic is so simple that it barely requires a recipe. That’s why it became a regular in my rotation that consisted of venison burgers and venison chili in college.
There are some chislic sins that Dakotans are mindful of: You shall not marinade it, overcook it or leave any leftovers. Marinating chislic takes away from the simplicity and trends away from the 1870s-inspired meal. Overcooking it robs the meat of tenderness, which is easily done with such small portions. Leftovers won’t do justice the second time around, as flavor and juiciness are unmatched with fresh, hot chislic.
Although chislic is almost always made with sheep in restaurants, some people use beef or venison. In those rare instances, it’s vehemently referred to as “beef chislic” or “deer chislic.”
Deer chislic is as versatile as mutton, which is what makes it such a great camp meal. Any deer lodge or tent site should have access to a grill, stove or fire, making this dish ideal for the culinarily limited places hunters often find themselves.
Chislic should be sliced into small, un-uniform pieces that are roughly as wide as a quarter and thick as your thumb. The best cuts for venison are the backstraps and round roasts, as these offer the biggest hunks of meat that require the least amount of trimming. Like mutton, it’s acceptable to serve it loose or on a stick.
Either way you do it, deer chislic is so simple and delicious that it’s sure to be a hit at any deer camp. In my opinion, it’s about time for this secret dish to make its way beyond the borders of South Dakota.
Half of a backstrap, cubed
Two onions, sliced
Half of a backstrap, cubed
Cavender’s Greek Seasoning
Also works with
Any big game
Fried Deer Chislic
- Fire up a deep fat fryer to high heat. You’ll want it hot enough that it will “pop” if you flick water at it.
- Drop the onions in for about one minute. Raise the basket and drop the cubed meat in for about two minutes. Cook time can vary, but you want a hot exterior with a pink interior.
- Remove the onions and chislic from the fryer and place on a plate with a paper towel. Blot dry the meat to remove any excess oil.
- Generously apply garlic salt, black pepper and salt. Serve with toothpicks and saltines while still hot.
Grilled Deer Chislic
- Place chislic on small kabob sticks to where they’re almost touching.
- On a hot grill, cook the chislic for about three minutes, or until the sticks start to char. You want the outside to be seared with a pink interior.
- Remove from the grill and generously apply Cavender’s. Serve while hot with saltine crackers.