XIX: Eating in Mongolia

Taking a break from the narrative monotony to share notes about Mongolian food and the intestinal cementing it causes.

The main food group is meat. Dough and dairy are dietary add ons. A potato, carrot, or onion will make an appearance now and again, but meat is the standard. Salt is the only additive. There are no spices. This absence is noticeable, as is the absence of acid and fiber. No diner will ever grasp to describe the subtle hint of flavor just beyond the palate’s identification because there is no such subtlety. For a visitor, the fact to confront is that Mongolian cuisine is derivative of Mongolia’s harshness, and that harshness has created a cuisine where calorie is paramount. This calorie is not often diced, rarely cubed, never flambeed, simply butchered, and certainly not sauced into a medium that is pleasant, presentable, or even palatable (for a non-native). Think nose to toe cooking in its most literal sense.

I do not shit for a week.

Dairy

Suit tsai, milk tea, is a prelude to a social gathering or meal. The first milk tea we have is at a road stop outside Ulanbaatar. A waiter places five cups down and Tuvshin explains, “Water, milk, tea leaves, and salt.” Once tasted, milk tea is a taste one does not soon forget. It is strong and lactic. The salt intensifies the milk, which is, to begin with, extra gamy. It’s never been cold, just tit to tooth, and one wants to, but cannot, rub the taste of cow mammary off the tongue. This is a reminder that commercial milk has deluded us from the truth that milk is from inside an animal. The tea adds an undertone of bitterness, and Tess sums the flavor by likening it to a certain male excretion I’ll not detail.

“Every place makes their tea different,” Tuvshin says. Restaurant milk teas have a more generalized taste, whereas homebrews are unique since their herd determines the flavor. Goat or cow or sheep. Homes use less salt as well, which is a blessing.

While at the Kazakh home, we pull in for breakfast and Tuvshin brings to hand a glass crock filled with butter. He dips hard lumps of fried dough. “Old goat’s butter,” he explains. He relishes the taste. Upon tasting it, I realize old means fermented. Cultured. It has intense funk, reminiscent of blue cheese, and is the most borderline rancid yet still edible thing I’ve put in my mouth. Tuvshin encourages me to have more, but this butter is a hard thing to make pancake ready taste buds yearn for.

Dough

The national fried dough is boortsog. I’m watching a home production of a few hundred. The dough is flour, water, yeast, scant sugar, and fat. For this production, the fat is butter. From what animal I don’t know, but the raw dough is yellow and has no eggs. A bench is covered with a few hundred uncooked pieces, each one the size of a stretched gnocchi. A metal pot atop the stove fries dozens of boortsog at once. Some families fry with tallow, but here it is vegetable oil. A smaller bowl, warm next to the stove, holds finished pieces, which are the color of dark honey.

When warm, boortsog are feathery and buoyant. When cool, they are hardtack. “Very tasty when you add jam or butter.” Tuvshin says. The sweetness is a reminiscence rather than flavor, and I find the best use for them is soaked in milk tea to soften or dipped into a jar of sour cherry jam.

 

On our second night, staying with the family of three, the husband returns from herding. His fingers are the black of burned matches, and he’d need a needle to clean the grit from his cuticles and nails. His tunic is sketched with long streaks of black in patterns like one could make on shower glass condensation.

The family has too little water to make use of it to wash. Tess, Vans, and I are a bit more fastidiousness about cleanliness. I have wet ones and Tess has an antibacterial. We share to clean up. Cleanliness is no sacrament to this family; they bathe once a week.

The wife has prepared a soup with mutton, potatoes, and long hand rolled noodles. She ladles our portions into shallow bowls, and we have spoons that are too small for the pieces we’re meant to eat. The men slurp up. I need no more than a bowl to be satiated, but as I near the end and the pot remains half-full, the husband goads me to consume more. The same happens for Tess and Vans. We shake our heads. He dips his blackened hand into the pot and grabs fistfuls of noodles and meat. He plops this second helping into our bowls and we cannot but eat the entirety.

Since there is no refrigeration, and since leaving the soup remnants outside would be an invitation for the dogs to feast, the wife leaves the uncovered pot near the door. By morning, a few coins of fat have floated to the surface. She re-heats it and the meal is their breakfast.

Meat

There was no meat left in that pot by morning. The men made sure of it.

When I was a kid, my grandfather would make pork ribs and excoriate me for not fully eating the meat from the bones. He’d hold up his own rib bone, believing it to be the ideal by-product of a healthy appetite: near clean, nothing but a few hard bits of meat and tendon.

A Mongolian would scoff at this ideal.

Meat is very often boiled to be stiff like a new catcher’s mitt. Meat is bone-in, but no French. The men I ate with ate with their pocket knives. With no plate for a backstop, they sawed off chewable bits and ate from the blade. When the bone reached the pared-down point at which my grandfather would have declared success, the Mongolian men took their knives to scrape the bone, curling off the last small bits of meat until the bone was as smooth as polished scrimshaw. If there was a crevice, the men would pick it. If there were none, the men would crack the bone and incise the marrow.

One product of this tedious scraping and clawing and cracking is a clean anklebone. These are used as pieces in a game called shagai. Shagai is a universe of games, like cards where the deck is but a tool. The anklebones must be from a sheep or goat because of the shape. Just as a card deck has variations (Jack, Queen, King, Ace…), so too does an anklebone. If you squint at an anklebone hard enough (or are told what to see), you’ll see four possible shapes: camel, horse, sheep, or goat. What shape you see depends on how that anklebone lies on the ground. The shapes are distinct enough, but not so distinct that a newcomer could look and discern one at a glance.

We learn two games: a horse racing game where luck is paramount and therefore I do horribly. The other is a shooting game where you disperse a sack of anklebones across the floor and “shoot” the various animals, using your finger as the trigger and an extra anklebone as the weapon. I fared better and saw Tuvshin fret at times when I put him on the brink of a loss. He has had ample time to hone his skills though, so he beat me with remarkable legerdemain: crouching on the floor, hovering over the bones and gently flicking at a soft angle, flouring his hand above the kill. He beat us in every game.

 

I do not see our meals slaughtered, but hear them. One morning, I wake to stomping. Peaking out the gur’s door, I see sheep lined against the railing of their stable. The two Kazakh brothers sit upon the fence, swing their legs, and watch something happening within the stable. The men are there. One pins a sheep to the ground while another pulls a pinkie-sized penis from the animal’s groin. The vas deferens are yanked out as are the testicles. In the kitchen, the wife sits next to a bowl of these of severed cocks and balls. She’s peeling from them a translucent skin and drops them into a pot already filled with milk tea. She cooks the strange soup until it boils.

This is breakfast.

“Traditional Mongolian soup. Good for fertility.” Tuvshin says as he runs his spoon through the bowl, creating an eddy that gets filled with stirred up testes.

The Effects

The meat, dough, and dairy trifecta is a thumb up my ass. The undertaking and location of shits inevitable but hypothetical become a topic of earnest and strident discussion among Vans, Tess, and myself. Toilets are such wasteful contraptions that they’re an indulgence and so not in commodity. Relief is to be found in long drop holes with wood and metal outhouses erected over them. If there is a door then inside you face one of your life’s more rank experiences.

The first such stall was at that roadhouse with the milk tea. Twenty meters away I could see that it seethed with black flies. Not often can one live a metaphor, but I understand “Thick as flies in a shithouse” in a visceral way. These were not flies, though. They were corpulent, ebony monsters. They were so obese that they could be snatched from the air with drunk aim. Inside were two wood planks set over a long drop, which was near the brim filled with feces. Never would I put so much trust in such thin planks of wood. There was a stiff wind outside, and standing on the wrong end of it would make a person vomit.

No other outhouse was quite as bad, but that was the introduction. Our sphincters tightened in fright. After a week of us wondering where and when our first colon composition would be performed, mine came like a falling meteor whilst I stood on the slope of a mountain overlooking a monastery. It felt as if I was moving hard masonry and I about clotted my blood and passed out from the pressure. Having completed the latest work of my oeuvre, I shared news of it with Tess and Vans, who congratulated me. Vans lamented that he, too, was looking forward to when his big break would come. When it came, it came with a similar announcement and similar congratulations.

After our last meal—a pizza that Tuvshin topped with cucumbers—we agreed that we very, very much were looking forward to a hamburger followed by a massive bowl of oatmeal.

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