Trying to get through a traditional Mongolian feast.
With night falling, the family lit a fire under the kitchen stove and invited us into the living room to watch basketball beneath a tapestry of Genghis Khan as they prepared dinner. (Genghis Khan may have died in the 13th century, but his name still graces everything from beer and vodka to cigars, clothing, restaurants, hotels, universities, and the country's international airport.) I was relieved that the slaughter was over, but as smells drifted toward us from the kitchen, my apprehensions returned.
We weren't sure what to expect for dinner, but we did know that much of traditional Mongolian cuisine is not for the faint of heart. Strongly influenced by the country's nomadic culture, it tends to be seasonal and animal-based: dairy products in the summer and lots of meat and fat in the winter. Nomads, who move their gers at least twice a year, don't usually plant crops and often view vegetables with suspicion—a food more appropriate for livestock than for people.
Up to that point, our most notable Mongolian culinary experience had been drinking a nomadic staple called airag, which translates to "fermented horse milk." We'd also tried some other nomadic treats, such as aaruul—rock-hard dried cheese curds that taste like parmesan that's done hard time in a barnyard—and Mongolian milk tea, a weak concoction of low-grade black tea, milk, and salt. (Luckily, we'd avoided boodog, a goat or marmot carcass stuffed with hot stones and then blowtorched—a bold dish for a country that has outbreaks of marmot plague, aka, Black Death.) I didn't mind Mongolian dumplings, and I actually liked öröm, clotted cream that nomads slather on deep-fried bread. But I wasn't eager to re-create any of the recipes at home.
Nevertheless, we remembered our manners and didn't alert our hosts to our squeamishness. When Otgoo emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of what looked like cheese-covered rubber, we responded with as much enthusiasm as we could muster.
"Oh wow," I said, as the mystery substance glistened in the room's overhead light. "What is that?"
"It is the liver," Otgoo replied. "And this," she said, pointing at the coating I'd hoped might be melted mozzarella, "is special fat, from the belly." She set it down on the table.
As I took a bite, the flavor that greeted me revealed another important distinction between American and Mongolian cuisine. In America, even a dish as straightforward-sounding as "Fat-Wrapped Liver Chunks" would probably include a few unnamed, yet complementary ingredients like onions, or salt. But in Mongolia, the title says it all. Like everything we ate that night, my first bite had not been salted. It contained no herbs or spice. It was exactly what I knew it was: the liver of the sheep I'd just watched die.
Next came a purple plastic bowl filled with a larger selection of boiled organs: colon, kidneys, lung. As I nibbled on the latter, Otgoo began by slicing into the bloated stomach. Skin stretched taut like a water balloon, it was filled with a dark brown, firm substance that could have been mistaken for dense chocolate cake, but was actually boiled blood. (The colon had been similarly prepared, with extra intestine stuffed inside for good measure.)
"Here," said Otgoo, as she served us both thick slices of blood-stuffed stomach, each roughly the diameter of a grapefruit. "It is delicious."
By the time I'd tried the intestine-stuffed intestine, I'd concluded that, when it comes to the question of deliciousness, Otgoo and I have no choice but to respectfully disagree. I also was getting a bit desperate, caught between my desire to be a good guest and my inability to stomach the delicacies I was being served. As family members popped in and out of the room to deliver new organs, I scanned the table for something, anything, nonvisceral to chew on. I found it among the beer bottles: a jar of pickles, which I began cramming into my mouth with a ferocity that would make a pregnant woman proud. The good part was that I could mask the organs' taste with pickle brine; the downside is that from here on out, I'll associate gherkins with sheep intestine. Worse, my enthusiasm for the pickle jar made the grandmother of the family think that I hadn't gotten enough food. She emerged from the kitchen to slide a few more slices of blood onto my plate.
By the end of the evening, I'd developed a lot of respect for the Mongolian approach to a dinner party—it embodies the connection to the land that American foodie culture preaches yet rarely practices. And yet I have to say that, having met my meat, I'd prefer never to do so again. One photograph from that night best captures my true reaction to the meal. I am sitting on a couch in front of a table covered in serving dishes and bottles of Mongolian beer. There is the bowl of ribs, the plate of blood, the box of tissues we used to wipe the mutton grease off our chins. The pickle jar rests incriminatingly beneath my elbow; on the wall hangs the tapestry of Genghis Khan. Mouth full, slightly sweaty, I am staring straight into the camera as I hold aloft the food that I, the adventurous eater, had found the most delicious: a boiled potato.