Trying to get through a traditional Mongolian feast.
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.
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.
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.
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.