There may be plenty of vegetarian dining options in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, but if you are planning a trip to Outer Mongolia, make it a short one. Or bring lots and lots of your own food supplies.
Let me take you to Tosontsengel, in Northwestern Outer Mongolia, where we are treated to an old-style Mongolian barbecue – “a feast for kings”.
The sheep is slaughtered using the traditional technique – I’ll spare you the gory details here, but just picture that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you’ll get the picture.
First course is a rich mutton broth made from the water in which the internal organs have been boiling away for the last three hours.
Second course, you guessed it, the organs are presented to the guests of honour first – slopped into a steel bowl and placed at your feet with the handle of a large, sharp knife that has been made for meat-eating pointed in your direction. Dive in and carve off a piece of lung, kidney, or heart for your dining pleasure.
The organs are the most nutritious, and therefore the most highly prized part of the animal. Mongolia freezes over during their long, harsh winters, and the nomadic herding lifestyle has evolved in response to act as a family’s energy store through the cold months; hence Mongolians’ love of meat, meat, and more meat.
Third course? Another version of mutton broth, to cleanse your palate – this one richer than the first, if that is possible, made from the water the rest of the carcass has been simmering in for the last three hours.
Don’t forget the condiments! Pickled green tomatoes, potent wild onions, zesty pickled beetroot, and perhaps some baby boiled potatoes. Mongolia’s growing season is short, and conditions harsh (you try growing vegetables in the Gobi Desert), so if you are lucky enough to be served veggies in the countryside then know that you are truly being treated as royalty.
Thankfully, the fourth course is not a boiled carcass – rather, more recognisable cuts of meat served up in another bowl with more knife handles pointed at your belly so that you can hack a chunk of meat from the bone you’ve picked. Wipe the grease from your hands on a leather bridle, which is passed around the yurt; clean your hands and keep your hosts’ riding equipment soft and supple at the same time!
Take another sip of the traditional, ubiquitous salty milk tea called ‘tsu te tse’, and brace yourself for the next course. Milk is another highly nutritious product of the nomads’ animal herds, and is preserved by making it into cheeses and yoghurts; diluting milk in tea is another way to stretch this precious resource further.
The fifth course you will not have seen before: the boiled sheep’s stomach, bulging with its mystery contents, is presented on a platter. Your host produces his knife with a flourish, and deftly opens the sac to reveal… the sheep’s head, whose lips have been drawn back into a macabre smile when its hair was singed off in preparation for your meal.
A couple more deft slices of his knife, and the tripe bag opens to reveal the sheep’s shins and hooves, which have also been singed, and stuffed in along with the happy head, whose jaw now drops open with a dull thud, turning its grin into a toothy guffaw.
But wait, there’s more! The fatty tail pad has been scooped out, filled with minced meat, sewn shut and boiled next to the stuffed stomach for the last three hours – it is this part that was considered to be Ghengis’s favorite meal – A Feast Fit For The Khan.
Vegetarian survival guide to Mongolia:
- 1. Cling to the first piece of meat offered to you and nurse it through your entire meal. If you pick this bone clean your hosts will only offer you more.
- 2. Hold your breath when sipping the organ stew. Have some bottled water or fruit juice nearby in your canteen to wash the taste out of your mouth.
- 3. Beam with delight when offered pickled veggies or (on the very rare occasion) green salad to encourage your host to offer you more.
- 4. Sit next to a friendly carnivore whom you can offload your meat dishes on to when nobody is looking.
- 5. Clap your hands like a madwoman when the yoghurt appears. If you do this well, it will be lovingly prepared with clotted cream and sugar as you swallow back your drool. Your belly will thank you for this.
Need some Mongolia travel survival tips?