This account of our trip to the countryside would not be complete without a record of its culinary aspects, which certainly expanded my horizons. Many of the dishes our host families prepared for us were things we’d had before: цуиван (a noodle dish with mutton and the standard set of Mongolian vegetables: potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, and sometimes beets), бууз (steamed dumplings), бутаатай хорга (meat and vegetable stir-fry with rice), meat and vegetable soup. But the шөл (soup) and бууз were prepared with бурц, or dried meat, a new variation for us. Sunigel insisted this was a luxury, a demonstration of our hosts’ generosity; in the city, where she’s from, drid meat is more expensive than fresh.
But here in the countryside, I thought it more a matter of practicality. Traditionally, Mongolians don’t eat meat in the summer, subsisting instead on the many dairy products they create from the daily milking of their cows (and sometimes, horses). Summer is a time for fattening the animals, not slaughtering them. And while gers might have solar pannels and electric lights these days, few have refrigerators; thus, the only good ways to store meat are the old ones – smoking and drying. In winter, the entire country turns into a giant walk-in (or rather, walk-out) freezer, so spoilage isn’ta problem; they just put the meat outside. So it made sense to me that unless it was freshly-slaughtered, any meat this family served us would be dried.
I was eager to help with food preparation where I could, so they gave me vegetables to peel, and one эгчээ (the term of address for an older woman) let me help her make бууз. My attempts to gather the dough properly were laughably bad – a trend, it seems, for all my attempts at traditional Mongolian pursuits. I did somewhat better with what she called залхуу бууз, or “lazy dumplings,” which she made by rolling out a large round of dough, cutting it into quarters, spreading it with a thin layer of filling (a finely-minced mixture of meat, onions, and cabbage), then rolling each piece up like a jelly roll and pinching the edges closed. Саруул still had to show me the right way to do the pinching, but she did so with a laugh and a smile.
Lazy or no, they were the best бууз I’ve eaten, and I wished I had room for more of them. But the other family had just fed us, and I was already very full. So it went at almost every meal during our entire stay. It was like having two sets of parents who both want to feed you and take it personally if you don’t finish what you’re given. We’d been told the meals might be skimpy during our stay, but if anything, we were overfed.
But there was one meal that undoubtedly took the proverbial cake. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the three charred lumps when I first saw them on a board on the floor. They were blackened and slightly smaller than a football, and were each trailed by an eight-inch-long ribbed cylinder. “Are those – ” I began, examining them as I walked around the board. Then I saw the teeth. And the eye sockets. Yep, those were indeed sheep heads. Charred and earless, but sheep heads nonetheless.
Their appearance was a lot less grotesque when the smiley эгчээ washed off the soot and blood, though I still wouldn’t exactly call them “appetizing.” But appetizing or no, they were apparently destined for our dinner plates; she tossed them in a pot with a few potatoes and set it on the fire. It bubbled merrily for the next three hours, filling the house with the distinctive (and not entirely enjoyable) scent of mutton. Lisa and I escaped it by going outside to play with Ану.
My hopes were not exactly high when I was summoned inside for dinner, but I steeled myself ot at least try it. эгчээ #2 handed me a bowl, which she had filled with pieces of meat pulled straight from the skull, chunks of potato, and a few pickles, and indicated a bowl of chili sauce to dip it all in. Gingerly, I scooped a piece from my bowl and bit into it.
It was the best mutton I’ve ever eaten: juicy, flavorful without being overly gamey, and delightfully lean. Mongolians don’t trim most of the fat away from the meat before the cook it like we usually do, and I spend a good part of most meals cutting off fat and spitting out gristle. This needed no such treatment, and the pickles and chili sauce added complexity absent even from many of the restaurant meals I’ve had here. I also tried some of the greyish, pebbly-textured хил, or tongue. It didn’t like it nearly as much as the cheek meat, but it wasn’t half bad. I even managed to drink most of a cup of сүүтей цай when one of the older girls handed it to me without asking if I wanted any – a real feat for me.
Sheep’s head is delicious. Who’d’a thunk?