Nomadic Homestay Part 2
(Continued from Part 1…)
Still in a bit of a fog from my visit with the shaman, I decide to investigate what’s cooking for the celebratory meal! The first course is already well underway. Beef noodle soup!
An older relative tends the wood-burning stove the family has brought along. The rusted eight foot chimney, originally designed for venting smoke from gers while cooking indoors, has been erected in front of a row of western-style camping tents. Like most traditional Mongolian foods, there are no spices added to the dish. The one seasoning I notice being sprinkled generously into the pot is salt. It seems to be doing the trick. It smells delicious!
Goat. It’s what’s for lunch!
Suddenly, my attention is diverted to the main course. “Baaah!” Gleefully, our host father hauls a charcoal black goat over to the outdoor stove. Straddling its front quarters, he wields an ax in his right hand. He means business! His son joins him in restraining the struggling animal. As he prepares himself for the first step in the recipe, he smiles at me with a “this is how it’s done!” look. Deftly and with immense force, he brings down the butt of the ax onto the crown of the goat’s head. “Bleeah! Bleeeah! Ble-“ it cries before the second and third blow quickly silence it.
Now that the goat is limp and unconscious, the father motions to his son to help him flip it over to expose its belly. In a matter of seconds, it’s on its back. The father kneels down and uses the blade of the ax to make a large incision in the upper belly of the beast. Reaching his arm inside the still breathing animal, the herder grimaces with concentration as he searches for something. Thirty seconds later he pulls out its heart! Is this really happening? With its heart resting on top of its upturned belly, this goat is done for.
Moments later the father expands the original incision and empties the contents of the abdomen into several metal bowls. Several younger relatives look on with interest.
Meanwhile, his nephew fires up a soviet-era blowtorch to singe the hair off the carcass.
After the innards are divided into three basins, two older women take the one containing the rectum and lower bowels and squeeze out the fecal matter inside of them.
Now that the blowtorch is fired up, the hair is burned and scraped off with a large knife. I’m not the only one who gets the ordeal on film!
While the three men continue with the labor-intensive endeavor, my host mother takes the massive pot of beef noodle stew from the burner and doles out bowls to everyone else. We kneel and sit cross legged around the same tarp used for the ankle bones game earlier. White bread is passed out and I help myself to several pieces. Offered another bowl by my host mom, I can’t refuse!
Finishing the first course, I watch as the meat with singed skin still attached is butchered and thrown into a cooking pot. The highly prized internal organs are saved for later meals throughout our stay. (Goat brains for breakfast, anyone?)
As I snap photos of the final steps of the meal preparation, I’m beckoned into the main tent by the older relative who has been diligently manning the stove top. Seated on the ground are two other elders with an opened bottle of vodka between them. Two more full ones lay on the ground nearby. My friend and interpreter absent, I’m left to fend for myself.
The men in the tent inspect me carefully and begin to chat in Mongolian as they finish passing around a red thermos cup full of vodka to one another. They’re probably debating how much this white guy can drink… Before I can think too much more about it, the man in charge pours between four and five shots of Chinggis Khan into the cup. That is a LOT of alcohol!
With keen interest, the three Mongolians watch intently as I’m offered the cup. “What’s he gonna do?” they’re asking themselves. This could be a bad idea, but… “Bottoms up!” Without hesitation, I down the entire cup. Whew! Grimacing and wiping away the drops of vodka dribbling down my chin with my sleeve, I quickly hand it back. Thankfully we just ate and this is not on an empty stomach.
Immediately the men’s eyes open wide with surprise. Smiling and shaking my head, I see they also have the biggest grins I’ve seen on their faces so far. Even the killing of the goat didn’t have this effect. They start laughing and punching each other on the shoulders. “I told you he would drink it all!” “Wow, you were right!” I imagine they’re saying.
Having proven myself, the next few rounds they pour less than a shot for me. Thankfully, my friend comes to rescue me soon. “Peter, your face is bright red! How much have you drank?” “I dunno, less than them!” I laugh. He’s offered the cup shortly afterwards. A non-drinker, he touches his lips politely to the cup, but our hosts are not very pleased with his lack of enthusiasm. However, I’ve proven myself enough to have a full on conversation with the men, with my friend as translator.
After a twenty minute conversation about the differences between Christianity and Shamanism, we get up to check on the main dish cooking outside.
After several rounds of salty milk tea with my new friends back in the ger – which thankfully cuts the edge off the vodka quite nicely – the main course arrives. The boiled meat is fairly tender and has a lot of fat on it, the best part of any meal for most Mongolians. Voraciously hungry, I help myself to a goat rib and part of it’s hind left leg. My hosts watch my efforts to cut small pieces off, and insist that I make several cross-cuts to be able to more easily rip it off with my canine teeth. The strategy works and, although I feel I’m eating like a caveman, apparently I’m doing it right.
There’s something very satisfying about this whole process, something elemental. How many times in the U.S. have I really seen where my food comes from? Especially meat! Here I know that the goat lived a full and free life on the steppe and was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible.
After the feasting commences and several more rounds of ankle bones and a small wrestling tournament (which I’ll write more about later) ensue, it’s time to go!
After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirits of the mountain and of their ancestors.
Thanks for taking the time to read a bit more about my home stay! Still plenty more material to come from that short but busy visit!