Friday, December 2, 2016

Монголд Мах (Meat in Mongolia)

            Meat is a big deal in Mongolia. Most Mongolians consume a lot of meat and vegetarianism is almost unheard of. Traditional Mongolian cuisine that has been described in earlier posts revolves around meat, and even нөгөөний хуурга (vegetable stir-fry) always comes with a health portion of meat. One Mongolian phrase captures the public opinion of meat, “Махгүй хоол хоол биш ээ!” (A meal without meat is not a meal.)

            In this post, I will detail the types of meat commonly consumed in Mongolia, taste, texture, cuts, and ways to prepare for a more flavorful western cuisine. The purpose is slanted a little toward PCVs or future PCVs in Mongolia. That being said, it may also be interesting information for folks back home. Usually I don’t photograph raw meat, so instead the pictures in this post shall be the cutest version of these animals I can find for my own humor.

Тахианы мах (Chicken meat)

A lot of the chicken in Mongolia is imported, but there are still some chicken farms on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. Chicken remains Mongolia’s most expensive meat outside of imported canned delicacies. The price range falls between 6-8,000a kilo. (3 to 4 dollars a kilo).

Үхрийн мах (Cow meat)

Beef is domestically raised in Mongolia. It is not uncommon for wealthier families to buy a cow in autumn for the purpose of butchering for winter. The price of beef is usually a little less than chicken. Buying beef in stores can be problematic, because Mongolian butchers don’t always pay attention to cuts of meat, and the standard practice is to tightly wrap the meat in plastic before freezing it. One could buy a cut that looks good in cellophane only to find that it has fascia or organs of the abdominal cavity still attached, which can significantly alter the taste of the meat. When it comes to cows, Mongolians tend to let the animals lead a life into maturity if not old age before butchering. This also changes the texture of the meat. An old cow just doesn’t always taste the same as the younger beef found in America. However, as you are chewing through grizzly cuts of meat you can rejoice that your dinner led a long and peaceful life.

Most provincial capitals (aimag centers) have open air markets where freshly slaughtered meat can be bought by the kilo. This tends to be the better place to buy red meats, because it is easier to avoid the “surprise” of a frozen package. However, the open air markets can be unsanitary during the warmer months of the years. This is not due to changes in sanitary practices in the winter, rather it is easier to avoid spoiled meat when the entire country is a refrigerator or freezer. Open air markets also usually have meat grinders where, for a small fee, a cut of beef can become loosely ground beef.

When preparing Mongolian beef, I do many of the same things that I would do in America as far as seasoning goes. While the texture can be tougher, the taste is not much different. Since the meat is butchered in such a different way, a lot of my pre-meal preparation is spent cutting away excess fat and connective tissue that surrounds the tastier muscle. This preparation can take a lot of time, because even the smallest piece of connective tissue in a stir-fry can lead to an un-chewable piece of grizzle. Butchers in American spend a lot more time preparing cuts of meat and separating muscle for the consumer.

Адууны мах (Horse meatадуу being male horse, but used for food and as a mass noun, where as 
мөрь often refers to a single horse)

I recently bought a half kilo of horse at the open market. The price for kilo runs at about 6,500for kilo, so a little less than three dollars. When I was preparing this meat, one of the first things I realized is that it is bloodier than beef. This blood seems to be embedded in the muscle which is stringier with larger fibers than beef. The blood leads to a distinct taste that is more iron tasting than beef, and while you can cover the taste with a lot of marinade and seasoning, it is still obvious that the meat is not beef.  Horse contains all the risk that beef or any other red meat in Mongolia has in that you must carefully select your cut.

While I am glad for the opportunity to eat horse (something that is illegal in much of America) I can see why we don’t. There are many Mongolians who don’t like horse, so as a meat its flavor is an acquired taste.

Хонины мах (Sheep meat)

Mutton is a favorite among Mongolians. Perhaps the main reason why Sally and I don’t buy it much is because we have been saturated from getting it in so much Mongolian cuisine. It is cheaper by far than horse at about 4,500-5,500 per kilo. Mutton has a very pungent meat with a distinct flavor, but a lot of this flavor comes from fat and oily glands located around the fat tissue. Removing the fat prior to cooking and seasoning the meat copiously can reduce a lot of the unwanted flavor of the meat. This is almost never done in Mongolian cuisine since the fat is perceived to be essential for body heat in the winter, and many Mongolians enjoy the taste of the fat. Nonetheless, I have had a number of absolutely amazing experiences with mutton here in Mongolia. Experience has taught me that anytime Mongolians are doing a traditional barbeque (khorkhog) the outcome is always great. I also had the equivalent of a mutton T-bone steak that was boiled to perfection. 

Ямааны мах (Goat meat)

This is often the cheapest of the red meats in Mongolia. Goat has a gamier flavor than mutton, but also lacks some of the pungent flavor of mutton. Goat also doesn’t have as much meat as mutton does. In the market, goat can be easily identified because of the skin which is often left on the meat after being blow torched.  With lower muscle content, goat is sometimes difficult to work with and is usually left out of most Mongolian traditional foods; however like the sheep, goats are often used for khorkhogs. I am not a huge fan of the flavor of goat meat unless it has been seasoned appropriately.

Тэмээний мах (Camel meat)

Camel is not something that is eaten often in Khentii. We are not close to the Gobi, so there are fewer camels which are more often used for cashmere. I have only had camel once; it is by far the worst tasting of the meats I have had in Mongolia.  It is stringy, chewy, pungent, and gamy all in one. I am not sure how much camel cost, because we do not often have it, but I would expect it to be in the same range as horse.

Гахайны мах (Pig meat)

There are pigs in Mongolia, and sometimes Mongolian pork is sold in grocery stores. It is also possible to find imported pork in the form of bacon or sausages in many provincial centers. Imported pork is naturally quite expensive (11,000/ $5 per kilo). Imported bacon can be extremely salty. I usually cook it in dishes where it is boiled or baked, because pan frying seems to make it even saltier. Domestic pork is usually around the price of beef. Pork that is slaughtered in Mongolia is usually in the form of cuts with a lot of fat on them. Sometimes the skin is left on the cut as well. Korean food is quite popular in Mongolian, so many cuts of meat are in the style of Korean pork. This is a marbled slab similar to bacon, but thicker with more fat.

Тарваганы мах  (Marmot meat)

Marmot in Mongolia is a large ground rodent similar to a groundhog. Mongolians consider marmot to be a delicacy and deeply enjoy doing a marmot khorkhog called Боодог. Most khorkhogs involve pressure cooking meat with hot stones. This particular style involves gutting the animal through the neck and then cooking it from within by placing hot stones, spices, and water inside the skin. The whole rodent is then placed on a table and slit open to be devoured by an excited group of Mongolians. The meat is light and rather savory, somewhere between a cow and a chicken in flavor. I found the little humorous and scapula to be quite “cute” for lack of a better word. 

It is vital that marmot is cooked completely (something that is not usually a problem in Mongolia), because the rodents have been known to carry the bubonic plague. It is also illegal to hunt marmot in Mongolia, because it has become an endangered species, but this does not stop it from being consumed. I would recommend that PCVs are not involved in the cooking of this particular animal and only eat it in blissful ignorance when everyone else is too.

             This sums up most of the meats consumed in Mongolia from a western perspective. I should mention that most Mongolians consume almost the entire animal that is slaughtered, so it is not uncommon to eat tongue, testicles, innards, or the delicacy of sheep head. To say that this is an acquired taste does not accurately capture the sensation of biting into boiled intestine with boiled intestinal juices.  I have adopted a policy of being open to trying anything once; still it is possible to avoid many of these dishes as they are usually only served in a home setting.   


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