A traditional Mongolian feast. Or, the limits of locavorism.

What to eat. What not to eat.
May 25 2011 3:11 PM

Sheep Eats

Trying to get through a traditional Mongolian feast.

Click image to expand.
Sheep: It's what's for dinner

One afternoon in Ulaan Baatar, Otgoo invited my husband and me to a traditional Mongolian feast. Otgoo, a friend of our host family, had given us tours of little-known temples; she'd helped us bargain for belt buckles in Naran Tuul, an enormous outdoor market. Young and fashionable, she'd even brought us to her favorite nightclub—a slick bar where, at the stroke of midnight, a pair of teenagers emerged in 1950s costumes and performed a choreographed swing dance to "I've Had the Time of My Life." She was, in short, an excellent guide. So naturally we said yes.

"Good," Otgoo said, as we nodded from the back seat. "We will get a sheep."

Her phrasing—"get a sheep" instead of "buy some meat" —should have set off warning bells. But even if I'd realized what she was saying, I still would have accepted her invitation. We were in Mongolia, after all.

Advertisement

****

Several days later, Otgoo, Peter, and I set out to meet some of our host family's relatives. A driver took us to the outskirts of the city, where the concrete buildings of central Ulaan Baatur gradually gave way to dirt roads, wooden houses, and white gers—traditional round, felt tents in which many Mongolians still live. Plumes of smoke wafted upward from wood-burning stoves, and outhouses sat in many of the yards. We turned down a narrow, bumpy street and pulled onto the grass outside a home that was indistinguishable from its neighbors except for one important feature: a sheep, alone, tied to the fence, and very much alive. With a black muzzle and cute, droopy ears, it was the type of creature you might find at a petting zoo. But its frightened posture indicated that it knew this was not what its future held.

"There it is!" said Otgoo, happily. Then, in a high-pitched voice, presumably of the sheep: "Peter and Catherine, I am waiting for you!"

Now, I knew from Otgoo's original invitation that the food for the feast was not likely to come plastic-wrapped. And I think it's important to connect animal products, especially meat, to the creatures that provided them. But I'm a city dweller, not a farmer, which means that aside from a one-time experience eating road kill, I don't encounter my bacon until it's arrived at the grocery store. Standing face-to-face with the creature that would soon become my dinner made me realize that everyone has a line of how close they really want to get to their meat—and mine falls somewhere between lamb kofta and the animal that stood before us in the yard.

Click to view a slide show.

After welcoming us inside, the man of the house picked up his knife. It was a small knife, similar in size to what I'd use to slice a peach, and was barely noticeable in his hand as he pushed open the door and walked toward the fence. Meanwhile, the female family members disappeared into the kitchen—women don't usually witness the killing, Otgoo told me. I started to follow her, but then turned around. I felt that I needed to watch—not just out of respect for the sheep, for whose death I was indirectly responsible, but out of support for Peter. Male guests weren't just allowed to see the slaughter; they were expected to participate.

I stood in the doorway as our host dragged the sheep to the middle of the yard. With Peter holding one rear leg and the family's driver holding the other, he plopped the sheep on its haunches and ripped out tufts of fur from its stomach—a pre-surgery shave. Then he cut a deep incision just under its ribs and plunged his arm elbow-deep into its chest.

In Mongolia, blood is considered a valuable food that should not be wasted. Hence their preferred method of slaughter: cut a hole under the ribcage and, with your arm deep inside the animal's body, use a finger to sever the aorta. The heart, unaware of what's happened, continues to pump blood into the chest cavity until the animal dies. It is difficult to watch—especially if, like me, you mistakenly believe the goal is to actually pull out the heart, Temple of Doom-style, and thus feel horrified when your host's arm emerges empty-handed. But as grisly as the technique may sound, it is surprisingly efficient: Within 10 seconds, the sheep was dead.

Part of me hoped that the sheep's body would be taken somewhere out of sight for butchering, emerging hours later as part of a savory potpie. Instead, the host used the same small knife to cut up the body right there on the lawn. He started by pulling off the hide and chopping off the sheep's hooves, leaving the skin on the ground as a drop cloth to keep the meat off the grass. A neat and methodical disassembly followed, with nearly every organ carefully preserved. With the exception of our host's 2-year-old daughter (who was watching from the car), the entire family participated: The women brought out buckets of water and scrubbed the grass-filled stomach; the men used a funnel to flush out the small intestine, then coiled it into a neat bundle and tied it to itself like a climbing rope.

The effort the family put into cleaning the colon made it clear that Mongolians and Americans have very different tastes—items that seem exotic to us (sweetbreads! pork jowl!) barely qualify for the kids' menu. Whenever I asked Otgoo about what I considered an unsavory body part—the snout, for example, or the hooves—she would proclaim it to be "delicious." Heart, lungs, kidneys, all delicious. Her favorite part was the stomach; I felt like I'd given her a gift when I taught her the English word tripe.

Once the organs had been removed, our host sliced through the tissue separating the chest from the abdomen. Blood poured into the emptied cavity, which the family scooped into a painter's bucket with a plastic bowl. The process was gruesome, but impressively neat—not only was nothing wasted, but there was no mess. When the butchering was done, there was no blood on the grass, or even on anyone's clothes.