Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Mongolia offers a meat adventure

Mongolia is a herding land with nomads and their 44 million goats, cattle, camels, horses and sheep. The favorite food is mutton from sheep. Mutton with noodles. Mutton dumplings. Mutton covered in deep fried dough. Boiled mutton. I am familiar with these.
The first time I noticed sheep’s head as a special food was during my second trip to Mongolia. From my sixth-floor apartment on the outskirts of the capital Ulaanbaatar I heard a loud roar. I looked down upon the wall of an empty foundation below and saw a man aiming a kerosene torch at what looked like an animal’s head sitting on the wall. I grabbed my VHS-C camera and zoomed in. Yes, the whole head of a sheep — eyes and all — was being blasted by fire. The man torched for a couple of hours, turning the head until it was all black. When he turned the torch off I saw him pick up the charred form and walk away.
I am mostly a vegetarian, but often find myself eating meat in this country. Mongolians are not the least squeamish about their meat. They know where it comes from. In that same year of 1995 I walked out the door of my apartment to find a sheep tethered to the rail of the stairway of the fourth floor. When I went to my traditional medicine class it was there and when I came back it wasn’t. This was the city part of my orientation to nomadic life because fifty years before, everyone in Mongolia was a herder.
This summer when my film crew and I are finishing shooting our protagonist, Khongoroo, we want to take her out to dinner. Chimdee, our translator, suggests the restaurant called Modern Nomads. I remember some years ago seeing a sign in the window of that restaurant “Grass is for animals, meat is for men.” The word for “grass” also means green and vegetables. “Men” means men and women. I’m sitting in Modern Nomads with Dune and Marcin, the sound and video directors for our movie. Beside us are Chimdee and Khongoroo with her three-year old daughter. We order from the menu in English. Chimedee orders in Mongolian, so we don’t know what she is getting. The waiter delivers Marcin’s beef dish and my chicken dish. A dish of horsemeat arrives for my adventuresome grandson Dune. And then, a huge platter comes for Chimdee and Khongoroo to share.
I am not paying attention as the food is put between them and they spear the pieces of meat with their forks. I am cutting the chicken slices with my knife and eating the way my mother taught me. Cut a piece. Put the knife down. Put the fork in your right hand. Eat the food. Dune finishes his dish and Chimedee motions to him to share theirs. That is when I notice the presentation of their dish. I say, “Is that a sheep skull?” Dune says, “Sure, Grammie, you can see the eye sockets.” I guess I wasn’t looking for eye sockets. This is Dune’s first trip to Mongolia but he is adapting well. Then he says, “Do you notice the teeth?” The teeth? Geez, I am mostly a vegetarian. When I look closer, I see that in addition to a split sheep skull serving as the bowls for the stew, a split jaw with teeth is laid out on the platter as part of the presentation. What?
In Mongolia I have seen sheep, goats, and marmot killed and slaughtered. I have seen the whole skins of goats and marmot used as the cooking container with hot stones and the de-boned meat of the animal. I have seen horses castrated and their “Rocky Mountain Oysters” sliced, cooked, and swallowed. I thought I had seen everything.
But, no! Eating at Modern Nomads leaves me with no question of where I am.
No eating grass here. And it’s really better if I focus on my own food.
Sas Carey is an energy healer and filmmaker. She is currently working on a memoir, which she hopes will be finished in a few years. She is the director of the non-profit Nomadicare whose mission is to support and preserve traditional Mongolian nomadic culture through healthcare, stories, and films.

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