I have eaten my fair share of food that some people might label "gross." There was even a time, in my early 20s, when I made quite a habit of it. Pigs' ears or fried crickets? Please. That's kids' stuff. I prefer to test my limits: Pass the duck brains.
It is a test of will, not unlike diving off a high cliff, when you order your hand to put something into your mouth while every instinct screams, "No!" And sometimes a food that looks strange can be quite pleasant in ways you don't expect. I have fond memories of the time I ate a squirming live octopus tentacle in Korea—not only did it taste pretty good, it also brought fond memories of a woman who used to twirl her tongue while French kissing. I wish I could say that snake blood brought on fond memories, but it just tasted like a nosebleed. On the happier side, I can report that deep-fried scorpion tastes just like cricket.
Unfortunately, none of this prepared me for the culinary horrors of Mongolia. I, who consider myself the owner of an iron will and a stomach to match, still shudder when I think about some of the things I ate and drank there. There were times when I longed for a nice plate of deep-fried scorpions.
If you have ever wondered why we generally drink cow's milk, I can tell you: Most of the other types of milk are just disgusting. They get under your skin in a special dairy sort of way, rather like eating a stick of butter every morning might. Forced to choose, I think I'd say the best is yak milk, especially if it's hot. But I would stay away from horse milk unless it's been distilled into alcohol. Camel's milk, I shudder to recall, is musky and feels like drinking bottled smoke. (I think I finally understand why Camel is a brand of cigarettes.) Consider also that Mongolians like their milk heavily salted, and the phrase acquired taste takes on new meaning.
As an all-dairy nation, and probably the world's worst place to be a vegan, Mongolia is very cheese-centric. I am below no man in my taste for what some people might describe as abhorrent forms of cheese. I like English cheddars that have gone rotten and overaged gorgonzola that has turned brown. But the problem with Mongolian "cheese" is that it is nearly as hard as rock and as acidic as battery acid. Eating it is not horrific, but it is rather exhausting.
All this is surely survivable. It is the mutton, the unending mutton, that gets to you. After just a week, I felt like the Troll in The Hobbit who complains, "Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don't look like mutton again tomorrer."
The common complaint about mutton is that it is gamey. Granted. But the insidious part is not so much the flavor as the smell. When I returned to Beijing, Evan Osnos, now at TheNew Yorker, who has done some great writing on Mongolia's gold rush, asked me, "So, do you still smell like mutton?"
To be fair, Mongolian cuisine had certain satisfactions. After a day of hard riding, gnawing on mutton bones seemed entirely appropriate. Mutton dumplings and mutton mixed with noodles can sometimes be good. And after a while, I developed a taste for fermented horse milk, particularly when distilled to a clear liquor—though it may have just been that a few shots did wonders for the mutton.
I can also report that Mongolian vodka did the job, though I wasn't that excited about Bimba's way of preparing it. In the morning, large black beetles would gather under our tent seeking warmth. Bimba thought it a good idea to flavor the vodka with a few of these beetles—their death throes adding a Genghis Khan touch to the whole thing.
On our very last morning on the road, the mutton problem became a crisis. At fault was our dear driver, Bimba, who decided it was time to celebrate the trip by buying a whole sheep and slaughtering it. As we went into a local ger to eat breakfast, I noticed that the sheep's head had been removed, and the internal organs were being poured into a giant pot, the same way you might empty a can of beans.
Surely this was to feed the dogs, I thought. No one really wants to eat the lungs, stomach, and intestines of an aged sheep.
Au contraire. I'm sorry to say that we had to watch the whole mess boiling for a while on the dung fire, yielding bubbles of brownish-gray scum. Afterward, a giant steaming bowl of internal organs was placed before us with some ceremony. Out came knives and a mixture of anatomy lesson and breakfast as we sampled one organ after another. I must stress the degree to which our dear friend Bimba considered this the way to cement our friendship. There was no backing away from trying each and every organ and making a good go of the whole thing. Even fearless Miki looked a little pale.
Comparatively speaking, I suppose the stomach and heart were the highlights. Despite our host's enthusiasm, I felt there was something deeply fishy about the lungs—they had a spongy texture that you had to bite hard to get through. There were many organs that I didn't really recognize but also did not enjoy. And as for the intestines and connecting flesh covered with fat, I felt, for the first time, what 19th-century writers refer to as "rising bile."I said to myself, "This is like a horror film, except I am eating the special effects."
All the while, the sheep's severed head sat off to one side, watching us sadly. Next to him sat his forearms and legs, placed in a small pile. But fear not. We did pack that head into our jeep, and back in the capital, we ate him for lunch. "Omoshirokatta," said Miki. "That was interesting!"