Some “Bizarre Food” in Mongolia10 May 2010, by Culture in
“It’s a far away land of meat, meat, and more meat!” That’s how the host of The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” started out this week’s episode about Mongolia. I admit, I was both excited and a little apprehensive about watching. I’ve watched Mr. Zimmern eat bugs, intestines, stinky tofu, worms, and more bugs the world over. And since I know that the Mongolian diet is all about meat and serious resourcefulness, I settled in for an hour of blood and guts…my soon-to-be diet.
The show started out in Ulaanbaatar and the gigantic “Black Market.” On a busy day 60-100 thousand people shop there for anything from clothing to food. The animals are slaughtered just on the edge of the city and trucked in to the market where people buy the whole carcass and carry it home over their shoulder. Sheep’s head is quite a treat, just like a turkey dinner is to Americans, and you’ll conveniently find a whole pile to choose from in the back of the market. Not so easy to find are vegetables and if you do find them they are smartly pickled for long storage. In fact, a few pieces of pickles veggies will cost you about $0.40 which is about the cost of an entire sheep’s head! As this meal is reserved for special occasions and guests, here are a few tips for all my fellow Mongol Rally adventurers if you’re so lucky to be invited to partake in a sheep’s head dinner:
(1) After the hair is burned off, the head will be boiled for a few hours in a pot of root vegetables, which will probably be the only vegetables you’ll see the entire time you’re in Mongolia.
(2) The group elder will divvy up all the goods.
(3) Don’t be a pansy and ask for utensils. Just dig in with your hands. The only way to really get all the good bits is by gouging away at the crevices with your fingers.
(4) If offered the eyes, you must eat them both. You can’t share, it’s really not proper.
(5) Sorry boys, the palate is always given to girls. Apparently you’ll really miss out, but you can have some of the tongue.
Mr. Zimmern then took to the Gobi – in a rather comfy looking Toyota Land Cruiser (what the…?) – to experience real country fare. Upon arriving at a gracious family’s ger he was offered the traditional fermented mare’s milk. Who needs refrigeration when you have fermentation? According to Mr. Zimmern, who quite liked this drink, it tastes like thin sour cream mixed with lemon juice; good to know. This was followed by snacks made of cheese in just about every form imaginable. They even had crunchy cheese curds fried in their own fat. This particular munchie was something soldiers thew in their packs before heading off on a campaign, and it’s still carried by today’s herders for a long day on the steppe.
But even more ingenious was the lunchtime meal preparation. Okay, this was a little gory, but I found myself marveling at this perfect example of how resourceful the Mongolian people are. A goat was slaughtered and cleaned out reserving the body cavity. All the innards were rolled in the goat’s fat and then wrapped and tied with intestine. The hot stones were placed alternatively with the little packages of goodness inside the body cavity to cook, like an oven. After the final touch of burning the hair off, the whole goat was opened up and devoured. Everyone in that ger, including Mr. Zimmern, happily feasted with nothing going to waste.
Of course this isn’t an everyday Mongolian meal. A family might go 1-2 years before preparing and eating an entire goat in one sitting like this. But again it is this resourcefulness, even during an apparent day of gluttony, that is so intriguing. And for a few minutes I traded my Western tendency to be squeamish for the great respect the Mongolians pay to the land, their animals, and to each other. Their tradition of not having stakes for their gers or heels on their boots so that they don’t pierce the land is both a wise philosophy and a beautiful metaphor. In a few months I’ll excitedly be packing my bag. And although I’ll be sure to bring along wet wipes and Lactaid, I will leave my heeled shoes at home.