We are walking down the main drag, heading to or from a bar. A man is standing by the roadside. he is a dark shape revealed only in the passing slices of headlights, wearing a shirt that was once white, but is now streaked with red. Presumably blood. His face, also revealed by the headlights is similarly painted — and wears a timid grimace.
He is trying to get home; with one hand struggling to pathetically hail a passing car, as he hunches over into himself.
Don’t go to Mongolia for the food. Unless you like three things: Mutton, Salt and Fat. Then you should rather enjoy the cuisine.
The American doctor at the local Korean Christian hospital thinks Mongolians have high rates of kidney disease from not drinking any water. In the countryside, they drink _suutei tsai_ (literally, tea with milk). Perhaps a more apt name would be _davstai tsai_ (tea with salt). It is the beverage of choice when you’re not drinking _airag_ (fermented mare’s milk, or _koumiss_), and can be conveniently used as broth for any soup or noodles.
You have the infamous _buuz_. Buuz are like Tibetan _momos_ — little mutton-filled boiled dumplings. Except _momos_ are smaller, and have spices and vegetables. _Buuz_ have four ingredients: Mutton, Mutton Fat, Salt, and Onions. For cultures from the colder regions, the highest of culinary achievement is glorious lard.
Put the onions, mutton and fat in a dumpling wrapper. Make into dumpling. Boil. Eat with _suutei tsai_. Your first bite may be dangerous, you bite into the familiar dumpling shell only to receive an onslaught of flooding “juice”. Your mouth fills with mutton grease and the uniquely pungent taste of mutton itself.
Mutton is a uniquely fatty red meat, so bad for you that the Mongolian government runs a health campaign, promoting BEEF as the heart-healthy “other red meat”!
Up next, _khuushuur_. These are like _hot pockets_ (maybe the calzones), but filled with one thing: mutton — and then fried to oblivion.
_Tsuivan_. This was my staple dish when eating at the only restaurants that exist outside the city (the capitol). Zoogiin Gazar, Buuz-eria, “Mongolian National Fast Food”. they serve several dishes, most which are randomly sold out at any particular moment.
I always order Tsuivan. it’s a simple dish — a safe choice mostly, though a few times I was served it with ketchup. Which threw me off a bit. Essentially it’s Mongolian lo mein. take flat wheat noodles, fry lightly with a generous amount of oil, slivers of mutton, and maybe a few veggies. even the noodles will take on the pungence of mutton, absorbed into the oils.
I arrived in Mongolia approximately August 23rd.
On August 29th, I recorded in my journal that “maybe I just don’t like mutton”.
I had just finished my first week.
First of fourteen.
One would think, given the number of livestock (35 million) and their centrality to Mongolian culture and lifestyle, and that all the main livestock varieties produce milk fit for the purpose (sheep, goats and cows) that Mongolia would have developed a robust cheese-making tradition. But no. There are two types of Mongolian cheese: _aaruul_ and “Mongolian Cheese”. _Aaruul_ is the traditional cheese made in the countryside and dried for weeks in the sun on the roof of the _ger_. It is hard. As a soft stone. Sure, you _could_ bite it, but you’d be risking a ticket to both the dentist and world of pain. one of my buddies’ host mothers made this mistake. She must’ve been lving in the city so long she lost touch with the culture and forgot how to eat _aaruul_. Though city dwellers don’t drink as much _cuutei tsai_ so maybe she was calcium deficient (thus the broken tooth).
So _aaruul_ is a hard and very strong-tasting cheese. very salty.
Cheese #2/2 is textured pleasantly, between mozzarella and cheddar. It’s a bit rubbery. looks delicious until you take a bite. And realize it has no taste. Who knew it possible to make cheese with utterly no taste? i always figured cheese got most of its flavor from the cheesiness. y’know, milk (ie. goat vs. sheep vs. cow… all the cheese taste different) and the cultures…
But here was proof of the futility of my self-delusions. Stark in its blandness. My host family laughed when i bought some, and referred to it as _davsgui byslag_ — cheese with no salt. So the one place I would gladly have welcomed a bit of salty tang, of course it is utterly absent.
The one thing that is wrong with _all_ Mongolian Pizza is the cheese — and understandably so. When mozzarella is $15/lb, and you earn $400/month if you’re rich, then Pizza just ain’t gonna be the same.
Not that they don’t try… (Pizza King… )
I stared at the metal bowl placed unceremoniously before us. It was a matte-gray metal pot — like a wash bin – the standard vessel for all cooking outside the “apartmented gentry”.
I only got sick once in Mongolia. No, twice. Neither were especially severe – as in, long lasting – but rendered me physically weak, emotionally drained, and gastrointestinally anarchic.
Sickness, such as this reminds you of how connected and unified your GI tract really is. We tend to separate at the stomach. The top is for eating, the bottom for pooping. Yet once food passes the halfway mark, it falls under the realm of the nearest escape route. So on that fateful day when I drank a glass of Mongolian Coca-Cola with breakfast (my host father later told me my illness must have been due to that) the contents of my GI tract decided to riot and collectively exited my body.
Luckily (or unluckily, depends who you ask) I never experienced a majestic GI phenomenon known as the _Wind Tunnel_. When both sides of one’s GI tract decide to exit simultaneously, one is left in an interesting logistical quagmire. Then, a state of vacuum is created in the center of the body as you spew digested and undigested food simultaneously into the nearest drainally-able vessel.