As far as I could tell, eating in rural Mongolia was not a long, drawn out undertaking with themed napkins and brightly painted ceramic kitchenware. It was often mono-utensil, mono-dish and mono-flavor, but always filling and efficient.
After barely a week in Mongolia, I already knew that it was not a country I would remember for its cuisine. But, as a vegetarian, I’m biased.
I’d been warned that being a vegetarian in this land of meat and milk would be no small feat, but after traveling through Asia for almost 10 months, I was confident it wouldn’t be too tough. Mongolia turned out to be both my biggest dietary challenge and most effective diet.
My first few attempts at ordering a vegetarian dish resulted in the exact opposite of a vegetarian dish, along with genuinely confused looks from the server when I protested.
By the second day, I began pretending to be a Buddhist. It was the only way to effectively communicate my desire to eat what they would consider garnish. These white lies helped shorten my mealtime preface, which was already growing old.
By the third day, I’d learned to order potatoes and eggs.
Of course there were meals that were harder to weasel my way out of and times when I was simply stuck between a rock and a pot of boiling sheep guts.
In one such instance, the pot was served in a one-room farm hut, a three-day horse ride into the wilderness of northern Mongolia.
Sitting in a circle around the main, and only course, each participant was handed a knife and invited to snag the organs and blood sausages of choice.
As my knife popped through the tough casing of some certainly vital organ, I kept thinking about the sheep’s peaceful, still-warm face that I’d seen just hours earlier; it was the first face I’d seen when I left my tent. I’d sat and stared at it, mesmerized by the strange angle of its head, until the family came out and masterfully dismembered it, leaving not a single drop of blood on the grass nor body part left unused.
The dog got the bones and the small boy scooped out any blood that had leaked into the body cavity. The blood was drained into a pot, mixed with sliced onions and poured back into the newly cleaned intestines.
It’s hard to look at a sheep the same way once you know how easy it is to deconstruct one.
Upon learning that my meat phobia included guts, they generously threw some homemade noodles into the pot, which as one might guess, tasted like freshly boiled sheep. Grateful for their effort, I muscled down the noodles and excused myself, ashamed that my will to be polite had been overpowered by my stomach.
Mongolia is not a country I will remember for its cuisine, although the abundance of vodka made it tolerable.
A few days later in a restaurant in Tsetserleg, my plate arrived with a quarter of a baked potato and a bright, juicy sausage. “Excuse me, I ordered the potato salad with no meat,” I politely complained in a mix of English and Lonely Planet’s collection of essential phrases.
“I don’t see the problem,” replied the server.
I pointed to my sausage and grimace-smiled apologetically.
The server looked at me, unsure if I was making a bad joke or actually that dumb.
“That’s not meat. That’s blood. Who puts meat in sausage?” And she walked back into the kitchen.
After a month of snickers bars and potato salads my dreams were filled with spicy curries, deli sandwiches and sopping wet burritos.
Mongolia is not a country that I will remember for its cuisine. It is a country I will remember for its emptiness; its still, endless landscapes and tough, genuine people.
It’s a place where a wandering stranger greets you with a shot of vodka and a moment of shared silence before continuing on his way.