When you have a head cold and someone offers to bring you soup, what kind is it? In the US, it was always chicken noodle. In Mongolia we’re more likely to be offered horse soup (flavored with garlic and ginger).
Meat is a HUGE part of the Mongolian diet so, not surprisingly, there is more variety in eatable animals here than I was used to in the US.
Last week Cory and I, along with our friend Mindy, went to a restaurant to order burgers. Our plan was to order different kinds of meat, cut them in quarters, and taste-test.
So we ordered beef, camel, and horse bacon cheese burgers. Quartered them, distributed them, and enjoyed.
They all had a little seasoning, all tasted like burgers, none of them were bad. It was difficult, for me, to get over the mental block of eating meat that’s not “normal” for me. Cory and Mindy dived right in.
The camel meat (generally, a less expensive meat) tasted more like beef than the horse meat did. Cory’s would have preferred a mix of meats. Mindy’s favorite was the camel.
Warm Meat. Cold Meat.
In Mongolia, meat is seasonal.
For example, you only eat horse meat in the fall and winter because it is a “warm” meat. You eat warm meats during cold seasons because they warm you up. Mutton is also a warm meat.
There are a lot of cool meats: goat, camel, fish, pork, and chicken. These are meats you’d eat in the spring and summer because they don’t heat you up like the warm meats. However, these aren’t very common meats. Most often a summer diet is focused on dairy products: yogurts and cheese curds. Elder Mongolians probably aren’t going to eat pork or chicken at all, those aren’t really Mongolian meats.
There are a couple neutral meats (beef and reindeer) that are eaten year round (though, again, really not much in the summer).
The strictness to which one adheres to these customs varies from person to person. I ordered mutton soup at a restaurant last week even though it’s been “spring” since mid-February and I’ve been served fish by hosts in the fall. There doesn’t seem to be morality attached to these divisions, simply custom and tradition and “We just don’t do that!”
During the winter, many people store their meat outside on their porch or in a shed. With temperatures as cold as it gets here you don’t really need a large deep freezer. Of course, when the outside is your freezer a random warm snap can be devastating.
Eat It All
Mongolians don’t waste meet. Young children are skilled in the art of cleaning off a bone. That means eating all the meat, fat, and tendons and whatever else is attached to the meat. A friend told me yesterday that she recently discovered how tasty the marrow is when you suck it right out of the bone.
I am not good at cleaning a bone. I want to be the kind of person who is good at eating all kinds of meat from all kinds of animals without batting an eye but I don’t like the feel of tendons or large bits of fat as I chew them and I still have pretty strong mental aversions to eating meat I’m not used to.
The internal organs (almost all of them) have traditional ways of being cut and cleaned, then boiled or roasted, before being used to make a variety of different foods.
A sheep head is a treat. Dividing up the brains, eyes, tongue, face muscles, etc. can make a great feast. The palette (roof of the mouth) of a sheep is usually reserved for young girls in the home…it is traditionally believed to help them to become better at hand crafts like sewing and embroidery.
The Price of Beef
The price of beef, along with some other meats, drops in the fall because families bring animals in from the countryside to butcher and sell to pay school fees. The market is flooded so the price drops. Now that I know this, I might stock up more in the fall…but the power outages are frequent enough (every other month or so for an afternoon or longer) that I’m not sure it would be worth it if I lost everything in my freezer.
Our family actually eats less meat here than we did in the US. We have ground beef every week for Taco Tuesday and chicken a few times throughout the week. But the boneless skinless chicken that I’m used to cooking with comes in blocks of 8-10 breasts frozen together…which makes thawing one or two for a meal very difficult. In the mean time we’ve discovered how much we love curry without meat and other meat-less versions of food we’re used to.
We have not yet braved the meat markets where we could get meat for cheaper. Someday we’ll take some pictures or videos and that might help explain why we’ve not jumped in the deep end there.
What else do you want to know about meat?