Friday, October 21, 2011

I almost forgot the airag (fermented mare's milk)

Airag - 1

Whoops! While I was putting up the other Mongolian food posts, I very nearly forgot to include the airag, fermented mare's milk. It's a thin, relatively sour and acidic beverage with a flavor that seemed closest to an extremely tart yogurt. It has a good fizz and a light but noticeable alcoholic kick. The first sip is awful; the second is mildly disturbing. The third is awesome.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Mongolian Food: Khorkhog (Real Mongolian Barbecue)

The first time I had "Mongolian barbecue" I was in Indianapolis at what was basically a build-your-own stir-fry joint. I don't remember if it was good or bad, just that there was a buffet line of vegetables and sauces, and some nice gentleman cooked it all in a giant novelty wok.

It turns out there's nothing Mongolian about that (you can tell by all the vegetables. My entire time in Mongolia, the only vegetables I saw were cabbage and potatoes). On the last day of our trip, Minde said he'd cook Mongolian barbecue for a special treat. According to, the dish Minde was calling "Mongolian barbecue" is khorkhog and consists of mutton cooked in a container with hot stones.

That night we were staying in a ger with a nomad family that used dung for their fires instead of wood. At first I was disturbed by the idea, but I found it kept the ger warm much longer than the wood fires did. I'm a dung-power convert. While Minde and the family built the fire, I noticed them adding a bunch of flat, oval-shaped stones to the stove with the cow dung. I hadn't noticed them doing that at the other ger we stayed in, so I figured it had something to do with the heat source. I was wrong; it had to do with the menu.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 01

When the fire was hot, Minde brought out his large cooking pot filled on the bottom with water and salt. He laid in a couple mutton ribs.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 02

Then pulled one of the stones out of the fire ...

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 05

... and added it right on top of the meat. (Yes, the dung-rock was touching the food-meat).

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 03

It got very smoky very quickly.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 04

Minde continued to layer mutton ribs and rocks until he was out of mutton. Then he began fitting some new potatoes in between the stones.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 06

Finally he covered the entire thing in cabbage leaves and covered the pot.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 07

The pot was then hefted back on top of the stove, where it was allowed to sit for an hour.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 08

After letting the barbecue stew for 60 minutes, Minde unveiled it:

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 09

Then he used a fork to separate the barbecue into two bowls: one with potatoes and cabbage, and one with meat.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 11

We ate the cabbage and potatoes with forks, and the mutton with our hands right off the bone.

 Real Mongolian Barbecue - 10

I did my best, but no could match our host, who pulled out a small knife and cleaned the ribs and shoulder bones so thoroughly of any meat, fat or gristle that they looked like they'd been made from Plaster of Paris for a 3rd grade science class.

Later we threw them to the dogs, who raced right to the Americans, where the bones were covered in delicious little flecks of smoky meat. The slower dogs were left to sniff around at the clean, dry, white bones left by our hosts. I have to admit I felt a little sorry for those dogs; they looked utterly disappointed by the whole affair.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mongolian Food: Khuushuur (meat-filled fried pancakes)

Blue skies, horses, Genghis Khan: Mongolia is known for a lot of things, but food generally isn't high on the list. Meat and dairy dominate to such an extreme that Lonely Planet optimistically suggests vegetarians might still have a good time in Mongolia on the condition that they're willing to cook for themselves. Vegans are flat-out advised to reconsider their travel plans. That's still a significant step up from the first edition of Lonely Planet's Mongolia guide, which I'm told began with the sentence, "Do not go to Mongolia."

That book was written in '91, however, and the advice no longer holds. I had a wonderful time. I'm not a vegetarian and certainly not vegan, so everything was pretty idyllic to my tastes (including the time the host family slaughtered a goat immediately outside my door. It turned out to be a gift for the shaman staying two ger down).

Most things you'll read on Mongolian cuisine describe it as "practical." That's true, but it's not necessarily a bad thing, as simple food can have a lot of flavor, and it makes for an easier blog post when a person is only including meat, salt, and fire. I found that people in general were eager to talk about their food and tell me about the different ways of eating meat, dairy, and certain incarnations of flour. Near the end of the trip, we stopped in at a ger near the side of the road and our guide, Minde, asked the proprietress, a woman named Bolor, to make us some khuushuur, meat-filled fried pancakes. (You can also get them stuffed with other things. Cabbage is delicious.)

 Khuushuur - 01

She started by mixing up a dough of about 250g of flour and 150g of water and kneading it until it formed a large, tacky lump.

 Khuushuur - 02

Then she put the lump in a large bowl and covered it with a damp cheesecloth while she took care of the filling.

 Khuushuur - 03

I saw a lot of this particular cut of mutton during the Mongolia trip. She stripped the meat from the bones with a knife and diced it.

 Khuushuur - 04

 Khuushuur - 05

 Khuushuur - 06

She took the resulting 350g of minced meat and put it in a bowl. She then added three teaspoons each of salt and pepper.

 Khuushuur - 07

She chopped one small yellow onion and smashed two cloves of garlic and added them to the meat. With her hands, she kneaded the meat, onions and garlic until it was well mixed, then she sat the filling aside.

 Khuushuur - 08

Back to the dough! She kneaded the dough with flour until it was smooth and uniform.

 Khuushuur - 09

She rolled out half the dough into a long tube about two inches in diameter.

 Khuushuur - 10

Then she cut them into little chunks, about 1.5" tall. She pushed a little divot into the top of each and set them aside.

 Khuushuur - 11

 Khuushuur - 12

Each of the dough chunks was rolled out into a wide, very thin round pancake.

 Khuushuur - 13

She'd roll out four or five pancakes, then fill them with meat, fold them over and pinch the edge closed.

 Khuushuur - 14

 Khuushuur - 15

 Khuushuur - 16

While she filled the Khuushuur, her husband would take them in batches of four or five and slip them into a pot of very hot cooking oil.

 Khuushuur - 17

For good luck, eat the khuushuur by holding onto the two ends. One end at a time is bad luck. It's served with suutei tsai, Mongolian salted milk tea. (There's no actual tea in this one, it's just hot milk, water, salt and some butter. The best version I had in Mongolia was at a tourist camp on the second day where it was made with fresh yak milk).

 Khuushuur - 18


 Khuushuur - 19

The recipe is the same for many Mongolian dishes. If you stuff the pancake into a round dumpling shape instead of a half-circle, then it is a buuz if steamed, like so:


Buuz is pronounced like "booze," which resulted in one or two mildly disappointing lunches. "Hey Liz, want some lunch?" "Yes." "Want to get some buuz?" "Hell yes!"

Then I realize my friends wanted dumplings, not beer.

It's called a bansh if boiled.