Mongolicious Mutton: The Real Mongolian Barbecue

Real Mongolian BBQ

REAL Mongolian BBQ – preparing Khorkhog. Photo by Mo Wong

I’m not sure who came up with the restaurant chain BD’s Mongolian Grill, but I’m willing to bet that they’d never eaten a meal in Mongolia.

Because if they had, the menu would NOT contain items like this:

  • Pad Thai
  • Mongolicious Beef
  • Fajitas

And DEFINITELY not:

  • Firecracker Shrimp

In fact, there wouldn’t be a menu at all, because Mongolian cuisine pretty much eliminates the need for one.

You’d walk in knowing exactly what you were going to eat:

Mutton.

And it wouldn’t be cooked in front of you by a troupe of talented swordsmen. No. Instead, a small, wiry man would drag a sheep into the center ring, knock it on the head with a mallet, and swiftly slit its throat.

She spent several minutes trying to feed the unresponsive goat her snack. Photo by Mo Wong

Then a couple of the kids would wander over to help skin it and his mother would squeeze shit out of the intestines before boiling up the innards in a big vat of broth. She would then use your brand-new plastic tea mug to scoop out a serving, and hand it to you with a clipping of intestine that had been filled with blood and boiled. The cup would never smell the same again.

But I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Mongolia. There was actually a BD’s Mongolian Grill in Ulaanbataar, so I had no reason to believe it wasn’t at least slightly authentic. Knowing that it was an American chain, however, pushed us in a different direction.

To the Chinggis Beer Hall.

This place had the feel of a German beer hall, Mongolian-brewed Chinggis beer on tap, and a carnivorous menu. There were three of us, so we ordered a mix of dishes and got to work. The highlight was Jared’s hamburger, a towering pile of meat and bun, the likes of which we hadn’t seen anywhere in our rural Korean town. We gobbled it down and immediately decided that we’d return after our 11-day tour of Central Mongolia.

Chinggis Beer

The only photo from the Chinggis Beer Hall. We were too overwhelmed by food to take pictures. Photo by Mo Wong

There were five of us on the tour; a Dutch couple, our American friend Mo, Jared & me. We were all excited about what lay ahead of us: sleeping in gers, roaming the plains, horseback riding, camel riding, swimming in the White Lake, and soaking in hot springs. We were even excited about our first lunch, served in a one-room restaurant with a couple of picnic tables inside.

“Lunch is mutton,” our guide, Tushig, said.

We all murmured approving noises and nodded our heads. Sure! Why not?

It was a steaming mix of mutton and handmade noodles, with a few oily carrots and onions mixed in. We ate enthusiastically, and when we said it was good, we meant it.

That night we were sitting in our ger when Tushig popped his head in.

“Mutton for dinner. Okay?”

Again, we ate heartily – it had been an eventful day of camel-riding, off-roading, and airag-drinking. We slept, exhausted.

Mongolia - Airag

Drinking airag, a unique brew of fermented mare’s milk. It was…interesting.

The next morning I watched a man butcher a sheep, followed by a goat. It was riveting, seeing exactly how my food got to my plate, and I realized just how far-removed I was from the process. For lunch, we stopped at another family-owned restaurant.

We asked Tushig to help us translate the menu.

“Mutton,” Tushig said, without opening it.

That was when the light bulb went off. Mutton was it. The only option.

One day it was mutton dumplings, deep-fried in mutton fat. Then it was mutton spaghetti, mutton pasties, and boiled mutton. Mutton isn’t a bland meat – it’s strong, with a powerful taste and distinct odor. There’s a reason most people choose lamb, given the choice.

Chopping mutton in Mongolia

The lovely women of a host family prepare mutton on the bed, which doubles as a kitchen counter. Photo by Mo Wong

“Remember that burger?” Jared asked, pushing his mutton noodles around his plate mid-way through the trip. Mo and I moaned in ecstasy.

“Tell us,” Niek and Talien begged.

We described the burger in all its beefy, juicy glory. A solid plan was immediately formed; as soon as we returned to the capital, we were going to have hot showers and head straight for the Chinggis Beer Hall.

The thought kept us going through each subsequent meal, but the girls were the first to snap.

“I can’t eat mutton anymore,” Talien said, pushing her plate away. “Honestly. I can’t.”

But we did. We ate mutton every day for 11 days straight, topping up our precious supply of apples, peach rings and chocolate wafers every time we came across a grocery store.

Camel in Mongolia

Don’t get the wrong idea – we did more in Mongolia than eat mutton. I also let this guy rub his bloody face on my arm.

By the time we returned to Ulaanbataar, we were salivating over the thought of the Chinggis Beer Hall. It had been an excellent trip – worth every uncomfortable minute of bouncing around in the van, eating a never-ending supply of mutton, not showering, and fighting off a horde of spiders while trying not to step on mice.

“Here it is,” I announced as we approached the Chinggis.

“Something’s not right,” Mo said. “It looks…empty.”

I peered through the dusty window. It was totally vacant. Not a single table or chair to be seen. No bartenders, no waitresses. No laughing patrons, and certainly no giant burgers.

Jared tugged on the door handle. “Locked.”

The Chinggis Beer Hall had been shut down, almost as if it had never existed at all.

Speechless and dejected, we wandered into the heart of Ulaanbataar, determined to find a decent hamburger, even if we had to splurge. We passed Indian, Thai, Japanese, and even BD’s Mongolian Grill, but burgers eluded us.

Finally, we stumbled upon a restaurant called California, an American-style diner.

I’m not proud of our die-hard tourist mentality (must…find…familiar…food), but I’ll tell you what – those were some satisfying burgers.

 

14 Responses to “Mongolicious Mutton: The Real Mongolian Barbecue”

  1. I adore Mongolia. It is such a stunning place and the people are amazing. And then there is the food. Thanks goodness i lived in UB and had access to a larger variety if cilulibary options. And luckilymy host grandma understood that not everyone enjoyed excessive amounts of mutton but my poor friends barely had anything but. Still love the country and still hate the food.

    • It makes me feel better hearing you say that! After I wrote this, I felt bad, like I was giving Mongolia a short shrift. It’s easily one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, with the kindest people, very different than anything I’ve ever seen before. But the food? The mutton did grate on me! I was amazed at the options in UB, though – so much more variety than I expected!

  2. Hahaha oh dear! I wonder if I’d be able to survive on mutton for 11 days straight, too? Hmm…

    There’s a Mongolian restaurant here in Daejeon, I’ll have to check it out. If I’m not handed a menu, I’ll know what to order ;)

    • I had a friend whose guide cooked them an assortment of Thai, Vietnamese & European dishes! Our guide…not so much. I guess it all depends on chance! You’ll make it. Just stock up on peach rings. I’ve never been so obsessed as I was in Mongolia!

  3. My pending trip to Mongolia is going to be so interesting!

  4. Menu fatigue!

    It is something that I have experienced time and again with travels. Yes, it is more than understandable. I have always found my palate to be adventuresome and educated; but yes, sometimes the quest for a burger is the vacation within a vacation that is a necessity to move on.

    Yep, sometimes it just happens.

  5. Menu fatigue happens to the best of us. I tend to think of myself as well traveled, but everyone needs a vacation within a vacation every so often. I’ll chase a burger every once in a blue moon if I’m somewhere long enough. It happens.

    • I’m in Japan now and it would be a lie to say I wasn’t tempted by all the Vietnamese & Thai places I see. It all depends on where you’re coming from!

  6. Reading this brings back some great memories… well except for all the mutton. I can still vividly remember what those plastic cups smelled like after we used them for mutton “broth”. I shutter.

    During our last weekend in Seoul, the three of us went to a Nepalese restaurant for dinner. I think it was Peter who wanted to try the mutton curry. I tried a bit of it and all the (bad) mutton memories came rushing back! I just ate the chicken and paneer curries.

    Great articles, Lauren! Keep them coming!

    • There is a mutton restaurant right by our guesthouse here in Kyoto, and all I can think is WHY?! But I guess we liked it the first time, didn’t we?

      The broth. Who knew cups could remain oily after multiple washings? That was such a great trip, mutton and all!

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  1. Capture The Color | Lateral Movements - August 10, 2012

    [...] driver. We instantly filled all available seats. There was no menu, but after hearing that we were a bit sick of mutton, she whipped up a steaming pot of vegetable soup. I’m not sure what cast the blue glow over [...]

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