With a penchant for clear liquor that rivals even the Russians, a Mongol party isn’t really a party until someone brings out the communal vodka bowl
Tayla Gentle travels to the Steppes to try some of the country’s most famous delicacies
As after-dinner games go, it was probably one of the most unusual I’ve ever tried. It involved a cow patty and a bow and arrow. A single piece of dried dung had been hurled through the big blue sky and it was now my turn to try and hit it with my homemade arrow. I was never going to hit the target. I knew it, my 10-year-old opponent knew it – even the local goats who threw me a bemused look seemed to know it… But I was in Mongolia to immerse myself in nomadic culture, so I drew back my make-shift bow, squared my shoulders, set my eye and let it…fall.
As I thought, Mongolian archery isn’t my strong point. I couldn’t even blame my lack of hand-eye coordination on the elements; it was a still summer evening on the central steppe. And by Genghis, it was beautiful.
With a population of just three million spread across an untamed landscape that stretches to the borders of both Russia and China, you can go weeks on the road in Mongolia without meeting another human. A solitude that I quickly embrace while cruising the hinterland in a Russian ex-army van.
Two days earlier as we bumped along the route to our homestay I asked Tem, my local guide, to translate the song on the radio. “This song is about a horse,” he said. “All songs in Mongolia are either about a horse or loving your mother”. Sansar, our driver, nodded his head in agreement and gave a little ‘neigh’.
Horses are an incredibly important part of nomadic life here. Not only are they a means of transport and livelihood, but it’s even rumoured Mongol wrestlers will power up for a big match by chowing down on a couple of boiled horse testicles.
For the most part, I pride myself on being game for local cuisines. Tarantula in Cambodia? Done. Fermented duck eggs in Chile? Tick. Scorpion in China? Don’t remind me. That said, I’d have to draw the line at Neddy’s private parts. However, during this road trip my guides persuaded me to try a goblet of Airag (traditional fermented mare’s milk).
When we pulled up outside the dusty airag tent, we found just one wrinkled old man sporting a cowboy hat waiting for inside. He was stirring what appeared to be a cauldron of semi-translucent baby vomit. I was told that airag is a seasonal milk speciality that’s only available in the summertime, and was a big hit during Nadaam festival. This was my chance to find out what the attraction ws.
Tem drank first. He downed his creamy pint in one go, hardly bothering to wipe the milk from his moustache before he reached for a second. The man made it look easy. “The fermentation makes it only a little alcoholic”, he told me. “But you can definitely get drunk if you try really hard.”
Following his lead, I lifted the off-white mixture to my lips, and as the vinegary scent hit my nostrils I kept reminding myself that this is a delicacy. I am a stranger, in a foreign land, and it would be rude to turn down their favourite drink, even if it did look like gloopy baby vomit. But as the yogurt drink slide down my throat, I was surprised to say that it was strangely refreshing and a welcome relief from the heat outside the tent. Good job Mongolia, A+ effort on the fermented horse milk.
Later that day, with a belly full of airag, we arrived on the doorstep of Wednesday and Steel’s family ger. Most modern Mongols still exist as their ancestors once did; herding cattle (be it goat, horse, camel or sheep), packing their entire world into one felted ger and moving across the country with the seasons.
I was invited to sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor as Wednesday passed round a bowl of welcome treats. First up was the goat curd aaruul: tangy, sun-dried, tooth-achingly chewy yoghurt straps that have been dried on the roof of the ger. She told me to dip the aaruul in a neighboring bowl of fresh curd, straight out of the goat bleating outside. Curd on curd? Why not. I’m not lactose intolerant.
Next there was vodka. With a penchant for clear liquor that rivals even the Russians, a Mongol party isn’t really a party until someone brings out the communal vodka bowl. That’s right, bowl. I accepted it from Steel, a small, quiet father whose face is webbed with leathery laugh lines; his hands cracked from years spent working his hundred head of livestock. He watched as I take a gulp, silently appraising my drinking ability. He gave his approval with a curt nod of his head.
With fire in my lungs, I passed the bowl to Wednesday who was breastfeeding her six-month-old son. Instead of drinking, she dipped the tip of her right ring finger into the bowl and flicked it above her head, a gesture to the four winds and an offering to the taste gods. The bowl moved around. My Mongolian became more fluent.
I’m learning that dining in Mongolia is a pretty basic affair. It generally consists of mutton, a lot of dairy and very few vegetables. Given their transitory lifestyle, they eat whatever they can carry and preserve much of their food. Plus, not a lot grows on the volatile plains. Dinner tonight, however, is a celebration in honour of their international guests – we’re having Khorkhog Mongolian BBQ.
Forget whatever imaginations you have of sizzling beef, this was a one pot wonder affair. Potatoes and huge chunks of mutton are thrown into a tall cast iron pot that’s then filled with hot stones and cooked over flame. It’s hearty, it’s greasy in all the right places and it puts me to sleep in record time. Or maybe it was the vodka.
I spent the night bunked down on the floor of the ger. It was very intimate. Throughout the night the baby cried, Steel snored and Wednesday rustled her blanket. Outside, the goats bleated over a wind that rattles the ger walls. In the morning, I woke to a blue sky poking through the open roof, my feet warmed by a freshly lit pot belly fire. We all breakfasted on salty milk tea, straight from the cow.
I spent my first night as a Mongolian nomad, and in doing so, the steppe taught me a few things. I’ve learnt that I will never make it as a professional archer, neither at home nor in Mongolia; I’ve learnt that a herd of goats actually make friendly bathroom companions; and that fermented mare’s milk is surprisingly addictive. Togtoy (cheers) to nomad life!