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In the Bradt travel guide on Mongolia, there's a section about food, and in that section there's a text box titled "In Defense of Mongolian Food." It's a very, very small box. And, as it turns out, it's not so much a defense of Mongolian food as an assurance it's possible to find other things to eat.
No one, it seems, has much nice to say about Mongolian cuisine. Still, I was curious. Mongolia could be called the world's original all organic country--though that doesn't translate to heirloom tomatoes. One percent of the land is arable. Many people still live as nomadic herders. The staples here derive from the milk or meat of Mongolia's "five snouts": horses, camels, sheep, goats, and cattle/yaks--plus the occasional blow-torched marmot.
"Cautionary Note!" reads another Bradt box. "This is not the place to come if you're a vegan."
In February, two friends and I left the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for a journey to Mongolia's far north. Along the way we planned to stop for Tsaagan Tsar--a national feast celebrating the end of another bitter winter. Far removed from the milk-rich days of summer, winter in Mongolia means meat, and, in the days before the holiday, people everywhere were complaining about spending all their time making buuz, or steamed mutton dumplings. How many have you made, I would ask.
Photo by Michael A. Parks
"1,500," said an exasperated teenager. "I was up until five last night!"
"About 3,000," said the matriarch of a large family.
"I hope you like mutton," said my language teacher, ominously, the day before we departed.
Our first stop was a ger (traditional nomad dwelling) in the town of Moren. Inside the round felt structure a half-dozen children, parents, and friends looked on as a woman ladled suutei tsai (salted milk tea) out of a pot set atop the wood-burning stove.
Just behind the stove, the Tsaagan Tsar food was laid out: boov (cookies fried in beef tallow), candy, aaruul (dried curds), homemade butter, the back and tail of a sheep, and the better part of a boiled goat--head included--cut up in a bowl. After tea was served, a man cut me a chunk of fat from the sheep rump. To my surprise, it was good, like a piece of grainy, smoked butter. I realized then that the taste of Mongolian food is proportional to how cold you were before eating it. Outside, it was fifteen below. Sheep fat and salty tea hit a spot I didn't know I had.
Still, the buuz were lurking. When they came out, my initial reaction was that they, too, were tasty. But we made a tactical error. We ate quickly. In Mongolia, where hospitality for wayfarers can be a matter of life and death, a guests' bowl never stays empty long. Soon we were on our tenth buuz, with no end in sight.
The night ended with vodka. One person served, passing and refilling a glass. Before taking a drink, each person dipped their right ring finger into the glass three times, flicking vodka into the air after each dip. According to legend, the practice originated in the days when people killed their enemies (Genghis Khaan's father, for example) by poisoning their beverages. After each flick, vodka trickles down onto the ring on your finger. If, by the third flick, the ring has changed colors, it's probably not a good idea to drink. Bachelors all, we set to.
Technically, Tsaagan Tsar lasts three days. But the feast lasts much longer. Over the next two weeks of our trip we ate so many buuz we began to smell like sheep, and were just as round. Eventually, we developed a conversation to break the ice with locals:
Photo by Brandt Miller
"Do you like Tsaagan Tsar?" one of us would ask.
"How many buuz have you eaten?"
"[Some large number.] And you?"
"At least a thousand."
The truth is that, buuz by buuz, we were beginning to enjoy the countryside cuisine. Perhaps it was the experience of eating it: the boundless hospitality, the slow ritual progression from tea to meat to vodka, the feeling of huddling around a stove with strangers, in outposts surrounded by cold. Either way, we began to say, when hungry, "Man, I could really use some buuz."
We spent our last day driving on frozen rivers in the Siberian taiga, headed, with several Mongolians, for a cabin where an old woman was hosting a Tsaagan Tsar celebration.
That night's feast was particularly carnivorous. Sheep fat! Stuffed beef intestine! Goat's head! Petrified curds, harder than jawbreakers! And, of course, buuz. I ate them all, these foods that not so long ago had my fork shaking. Two bottles of vodka appeared, and were gone. In the corner, a newborn calf slept, then stood up; when it started to pee a boy put a jar beneath it as if it were a leaking roof. A little girl danced to techno music playing from a cell phone. Twenty-three people laid out blankets along the beds and floors of the one room cabin.
Before bed, I went to the outhouse, then stayed a while looking at the stars. Behind the house, mountains rose toward the moon. Behind the mountains, Siberia stretched to the Arctic Ocean. We were at the end of our road. It was the beginning of spring in Mongolia. When I opened the door to the cabin, and the light and voices of all those packed inside spilled out, it felt just like coming home.