Photo by Michael A. Parks
Because we'd helped him fix his car, the man wanted to give us something. He reached into his trunk and produced...a fish, still wet. We were standing in the middle of the largest contiguous stretch of grassland on Earth, 200 miles from the nearest lake. Thanking us again, he tucked a loose fin back into his trunk, and disappeared down the long dirt road.
It was spring in Mongolia, and I had no idea what to expect. I'd already experienced the country's winter cuisine, but knew little about spring, save that many herders consider the season--with its droughts and dust storms--the worst of the year. Now, looking back, I realize the fish was an omen: food-wise, spring was to be a time of surprises.
In mid-April, I'd set out for Choibalsan, Mongolia's easternmost provincial capital. There I met Dondug, a driver who's spent the past ten years traveling the country's vast Eastern Steppe with scientists studying the region's white-tailed gazelle population. The son of herders, Dondug knew the Oregon-sized grassland the way I know my backyard. Since he'd started driving, he told me, he'd worn out twelve cars and trucks, plus thirty motorcycles, on the steppe. Along with the occasional translator, we planned to spend a month traveling the Eastern Steppe. And as we went, we'd eat.
To eat borts or orag is to taste the wisdom and stories of a thousand springs on the steppe.
A few days after meeting the fisherman, Dondug and I made it to the Nomrog Strictly Protected Area at Mongolia's easternmost tip, where we found a military base home to a few soldiers. It was a spectacularly beautiful place, a day's drive from the nearest town. When we met the soldiers, I asked what they'd done during winter.
The commanding officer shrugged. "We dug tunnels through the snow and walked back and forth."
Still, they were a cheerful bunch, and thrilled to have visitors. Inside a squat, white-washed building we talked while one of the soldiers prepared a borts (dehydrated meat) soup.
Mongols have been making borts at least since the days when Genghis Khaan's warriors relied on it and the milk of their horses to conquer most of the known world. Nowadays, the soldiers told me, countryside Mongols use borts mostly to bridge the gap between the meat of winter and the milk of summer. Making it is an art; when done properly, the drying process can condense the meat of a cow to the point that it fits inside the same cow's stomach.
I chewed my borts thoughtfully, ruminating. It wasn't glamorous, but I did have to admire its simplicity. For nomadic people, borts must have once seemed incredible--the perfect accompaniment for horse and compound bow. Light, nourishing, and made of sunshine and meat, it seemed to me the epitome of steppe food, the food of movement.
As spring wore on, the grassland began to change. The year's first flower--purple and popular among goats--bloomed. Marmots woke up. Eagles noticed. Herders set to castrating baby animals, then held what must be the world's largest calf fry.