Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Buuz, khorkhog, boodog, boortsog, and airag.


W
ell, over my years of travel, I have survived on bat in jungles of Borneo, nibbled on widgety grubs (giant Australian tree maggots) in the Australian outback, dined on cuy (guinea pig) in the Peruvian Andes and had seeminlgy endless meals of yak meat, butter and cheese in towns and villages in Tibet. But I think Mongolia might be the most challenging place of them all!

Mongolian Barbecue and Mongolian hotpot are dishes that those of us who live in the western world associate with Mongolia. Well, I hate to be the one to disappoint you but apparently these were dishes concocted by enterprising Chinese for the American palate.


Nope, Mongolian cuisine is far less glamorous...or may "rustic" is a more appropriate and diplomatic way to describe it :-)

As with many cuisines, the food of Mongolia reflects its heritage which is nomadic. The Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat and dairy and includes a large proportion of animal fat which is necessary for the Mongols to withstand the cold winters where temperatures dip as low as -40 °C and to be able to survive daily life on the steppes.

I decided to do a bit of research to learn more about the dining experiences I'll be in for. I think I'm going vegetarian again :-(

The Mongolian meat of choice is mutton which is old sheep i.e., more than 2 years old versus lamb which is sheep less than a year old. The mutton is either cooked, used as an ingredient for soups or dumplings, or dried for winter ("Borts"). Most commonly, mutton is simply boiled and served plain. The only spices used for cooking are salt and pepper....which is bad because there won't be anything else to mask the strong, gamey smell of mutton. Stinky meat.

According to the travel guides, buuz which are steamed dumplings filled with mutton are popular on the streets in Ulaan Baatar. I will definitely try these. Can't go wrong with meat and dough...I hope.

Khorkhog is mutton cooked together with vegetables in a closed container. Heated stones are mixed in with the raw ingredients. Heat from the stones combined with the steam that is trapped inside the container cook the food. Sounds like a stew to me and could be flavorful and palatable since there some veggies thrown into the mix.

Boodog. This could be the challenge. The meat is cooked inside an empty abdominal cavity. In the countryside, the meat of choice is marmot - now there's an animal I've not eaten before! I found a recipe for boodog on-line. Here are the cooking instructions. Not appetizing sounding at all.
Hang a marmot or a goat at the head, and cut the skin around its neck. Now it is possible to pull the skin and most of the meat down over the inner skeleton. Break the legs at the knee, so that you only need to pull out the upper leg bones. From the innards, keep the liver and kidneys, which can later be inserted again.

Turn the removed skin and meat back, so that the hair is at the outside again. Fill the resulting "sack" with the following ingredients: Some salt, one or two peeled onions, and a number of stones, that have been heated up in a fire for about an hour. The stones must have a smooth and round surface. The smaller ones go into the upper legs, the larger ones into the abdominal cavity. At the end, the neck is closed with a piece of wire.

Now you need a strong flame (eg. a blowtorch) to burn away the fur. Then scratch the remains off together with the uppermost layer of the skin. During that process, the meat gets cooked from the inside and the outside. If the steam forming inside causes too much pressure, then you need to cut a few small holes into the skin to avoid an explosion. The meat is cooked enough when all of the skin surface leaks with fat.
Boortsog. I might have to hoard these...especially if they are tasty. These are deep fried butter (hopefully, cow butter) cookies. Fried, sweet, buttery dough. How can you go wrong?

Airag is the nationl drink. In a nutshell, it's fermented mare's milk and typically served in a L-A-R-G-E bowl. The Mongolians, like many Asians, are lactose intolerant. Mare's milk has higher fat and lactose levels than cow's milk so it's health food for the nomadic Mongolians. Fermenting the milk reduces the lactose level to the point that Mongolians can tolerate it. Of course, the trade off is that they're drinking alcohol. Apparently, airag is often offered to visitors as a sign of hospitality. Wonder if I can get away with just a sip to taste since I don't drink alcohol?

Yeah....no two ways about it, Mongolia is going to be rough dining trip. I see a lot of snacks filling up my backpack. :-(