Mongolian Grub: The Good, The Bad & The VERY Bad
He was French, from Paris, and when I met him, I stuttered a little because he looked so much like Johnny Depp. I almost couldn’t keep my cool. But the more we spoke, the more I realised how lovely and nonjudgmental he was, so I was able to relax a little, knowing he actually wasn’t Johnny Depp. We spoke English and French, and even though I tripped over my words in French, he told me my French was good.
Earlier at the hostel in Ulaanbaatar, I had heard a story about him. He sat outside his ger eating breakfast, and two Mongolian men had grabbed a sheep and were carrying it – one by its front legs, the other by its back legs. Without realising what was happening, the Frenchman watched as a third Mongolian man drove a knife into the sheep’s chest and dragged it down, slicing the animal open. The man brandishing the knife then plunged his hand deep into the sheep and clutched the heart, waiting for it to stop beating. The animal made horrible noises until finally, it all stopped. The man then began hauling out the sheep’s organs so that the animal may be prepared to be eaten.
When I met French Johnny Depp, we were in the tiny shared hostel kitchen preparing our dinners. He was eating cheese, cucumber, eggs and bread. He laughed and said he had no appetite for meat anymore.
As I hinted in my last post, Mongolian food was unforgettable, and not because it was delicious. At the best of times, it was passable and even okay. At the worst of times, it was gross. I’m the type of traveller who doesn’t complain about food; often I’m just happy to have something to eat. There are times when food isn’t an option, but when it came to Mongolian food, I was in denial about how bad it truly was until the very end.
I sat there in front of our ger, our home for the next two days, surrounded by the beautiful and imposing rock formations of Terelj National Park. The little boy (who later took us horseback riding) scuttled back and forth between our little outdoor table and his ger, bringing us dishes, cutlery, cups and tea. It was 2:00 pm, and I hadn’t eaten since morning, so I was looking forward to having a meal surrounded by the unbeatable landscape.
When the food arrived, I looked down, and this is what I saw:
I’m not even entirely sure what it is… I know there was some dry white bread. This bread had soaked up some of the juice from the pickled carrot situation beside it and had become soggy. There were potatoes (which were easily the best part) and some sort of cabbage slaw with mutton and those stomach churning blobs of fat. I ate most of it (having been raised to think of the starving children in Africa) but left the white fat blobs untouched.
Later, it began to rain, and we were confined to our ger for dinner. Two young boys came and started a fire for us and brought us our meals.
Again, not entirely sure what this is. There were potatoes and noodles and bits of meat, and ketchup doused on top. Since we had no light in our ger, we ate by candlelight that night. Often, I couldn’t tell what I was picking up off my plate. Sometimes I would think it was a potato. Nope! Blob of fat.
The next day, there was this:
I didn’t mind the beets, and I didn’t mind the rice. But again with the meat! It was at this point that I didn’t think I would be able to eat like this for the rest of my time in Mongolia. And it was this meal, I’m quite certain, that put my friend over the edge and had her flying in and out of our ger that night. See, she ate the meat, and I didn’t.
After this, we began telling our hosts that we were vegetarian.
So we got vegetarian dumplings in Kharkhorin the next night, and these actually weren’t bad. Also, dumplings, guys.
Our next vegetarian dish was the vegetable stew that I described in this post.
During one of our longer journeys, we made a lunch stop at a small, rudimentary restaurant. Our guide ordered “fried noodles” for us. This really could have been anything. It could have been amazing with a vague description like fried noodles. It also could have been less than amazing, which it was. It was this:
There were fried noodles, sure. There were also bits of pepper(?)… I think? and carrot and egg. It was a pile of carbs, really, that was it. The only saving grace was the soy sauce we had at our table. I drowned each bite I took with sauce to make it somewhat palatable.
At our last stop on the edge of the Gobi desert, once again, we requested a vegetarian meal, and once again, we were presented with a plate of food that would make crickets chirp or Gordon Ramsey shout. Yet, I told myself it actually wasn’t that bad. Without the meat, the food was at least kind of recognizable.
Again with the noodles and ketchup. Potatoes (best part? Pretty much). Soy meat (weird? Yep). Beets. All in all, really nothing wonderful, but nothing horrific like the diarrhea and vomit inducing meat we’d eaten only days before.
I asked our guide about the meat. He was the one who told us that Mongolians love the fat, that for them, it’s the best part. He told us that yes, they kill animals like how I had described. I had also met some British travellers who had witnessed a sheep being beaten to death, bludgeoned over the head until it died before it was then prepared to be eaten. My guide also confirmed this is a common method of killing an animal.
“It’s not good,” he said. “The way they kill the animals, it’s so bad. The animal is stressed, you know, and then that stress goes into the meat, and when the people eat it, they also become stressed and you can tell this in Mongolia. The people aren’t relaxed. It’s really hard.”
On my last morning in Terelj, I watched as the father and two others led a cow away from the pasture. I watched, wondering if I was about to witness what French Johnny Depp and the British travellers had recounted. Was I about to witness the slaughtering of an animal? Did I want to see this? In fact, I didn’t, so I went inside the ger, hoping the event would be over by the time I came out. When I emerged through the low doorway after a while, I saw the cow on the ground. Though I couldn’t see details or hear anything because it was all happening too far away (thankfully), it was obvious to me what had just happened. I took a moment to appreciate the cow’s life and that it had died to feed people and the family living there.
Whenever I eat meat, I think about the animal’s life, and I appreciate it.
And now… on a lighter note, let’s revisit the stuff that was actually passable.
When I crossed the border from Russia to Mongolia, and my day consisted, in short, of being hungover, broke, hungry and with a whole lot of hitchhiking, I was very, VERY happy to see this that evening:
At that point in the day, I didn’t even care what it was. From what I could figure it was meat and kimchi. It filled the hole, and that was all I could ask for.
When most people think about Mongolian food, they immediately think of the Mongolian barbecue. My first experience with this type of restaurant was at Mongo’s in Winnipeg, but I’ll admit, as tasty as it is, it does wicked things to my guts. While I was in Mongolia, someone recommended BD’s Mongolian Barbecue, and this was one meal that was tasty and left my guts only predictably unhappy. We went twice to eat there.
Like I said, we went twice:
Still at this point, I was really telling myself that I enjoyed the food. The Mongolian barbecue was tasty enough, and it was leaps and bounds above the grub we’d been eating during our home-stays, but it still didn’t blow me away.
It wasn’t until our final night in Mongolia that we went out for a farewell dinner as a group with our guide and some of his friends that my taste buds really had a party.
Oh wait, I know why I was hosting an Academy Awards after party in my mouth that night. I was eating Indian food…
I would like to say that I understand people were feeding us without having access to running water and often, they were lucky to have electricity. I get that. I also emphasize that at no point did I complain about the food, and some of it was, in fact, okay. I know I was lucky to be eating, so for that I’m thankful. This just doesn’t change that the food wasn’t good, and that’s all I’m saying.
Whenever I talk to other people who have been to Mongolia, they often say that the food was not good. Fellow foodie-travel bloggers, if you ever go to Mongolia (or have been) and have a completely different experience with the food, please, PLEASE, tell me about it! I would like to know the folly of my ways.
Mongolia is no Italy, Thailand or Mexico, attracting people who want to chow down and fill their bellies. Food does not seem to be a selling point for Mongolia and does not bring people flooding to the country to binge. It would seem, however, that Mongolia doesn’t need to have good food to be a great place to travel. In looking back, despite all the unimpressive food that crossed my path, Mongolia rapidly became one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited.
And I can bet you’d feel the same way.