Hole 14: Daily Bread

After the cook has trimmed most of the meat and fat off the mutton bones, the bones go into the cooking pot. It seems to be every Mongolian man's idea of culinary bliss to be able to take the cooked bones and scrape every little bit of meat, fat, marrow, or cartilage off with his knife. As the guest of honor quite often in Mongolian homes, I get handed a plate of bones and a knife and I do my best to scrape and suck every edible morsel from the piping hot skeletal fragments. Even though my father is quite adept at this and he tried his best to pass on the technique to his sons, I still feel a bit inferior looking at the shiny white bones the other men have in their hands. There are always these little pockets of glutinous matter that I never seem to be able to dig out. Maybe I'll try to refocus some of my zen energy from golf to bone-picking.

It seems the conversation inevitably turns to food when describing Mongolia. I suppose it's because food here hasn't attained any qualities of artistry or delicacy, but remains mostly a means of nutrition and sustenance. And the best way to describe Mongolian food is "basic". With the abundance of mutton in the cuisine, every traveler must learn not to be sheepish about sampling the local food.

Most nights I cook dinner for my caddy and me, and although I use only the most basic ingredients I can find in the stores here, my caddy calls it American food. I've never cooked this kind of food before and it's suddenly taken on a national cuisine status. Quite amusing. His favorite dish of mine is a spaghetti-ketchup-canned fish concoction. I suppose it is foreign food to him since the Mongolian menu consists of about 10 basic dishes that are universal throughout the country. This is sort of like the 10 Mongolian songs that are played over and over on the radio, and which every Mongolian knows the words to.

For the past several nights however, we've stayed with local families in the ger and eaten dinner with them. We stayed with one family that had a herd of goats and in the summer they eat only milk-food, it was explained to me. The winter is for eating meat, and in the summer the goats produce enough milk to survive on. Thus, over the course of a few hours, I drank milk tea, sampled fresh yogurt, ate noodles cooked in milk, and finished off the evening with a nightcap of warm milk. Not for the lactose intolerant.

The next night my caddy explained to me that the woman in the ger where we were staying was cooking something special. He made a round shape with his hands and mimed the action of frying this thing on both sides in hot oil. He mumbled something that sounded like "gambur", which I logically took to be "gamburger" the Mongolian transliteration of hamburger. He seemed pretty excited about it and the enthusiasm quickly caught on with me too. Hamburgers! Incredible. But as it turned out there were no gamburgers but rather "gambir", which is a round bread fried in oil, and which I'd never seen before. I told Khatanbaatar that I thought we were going to be eating "gamburgers" and he found this so hilarious that it's been a running joke ever since.

And then there was the ger we stayed in last night. A young couple with an 8-month old baby was living there and they had goats, sheep, horses, camels, and quite a lovely ger equipped with a solar panel that powered their cassette player and light bulbs. They had no food to offer us so the man decided to kill a goat. The way Mongolians kill their sheep and goats by pulling out the heart leaves the meat juicy and tender (no blood is lost). As he wrestled the animal to the ground, made a small incision in the abdomen, and reached elbow-deep into the beast, I could almost taste the meat feast that we were going to have that night. He was unbelievably efficient in the skinning and butchering of the animal, a cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth, his fists pushing the hide away, and his knife hacking through the joints.

But there would be no rack of ribs tonight, no chops sizzling over the fire. Instead, they hung the meat on the wall for another day and cooked a big pot of internal organs. Not a thing was wasted and as the sun set at 10:30 PM, the fluorescent bulb in the ger was lit and we all sat on the floor around the aluminum pot full of liver, stomach and intestines, and used only our hands and knives to fill ourselves to contentment.

As I approach Altai, the final city before reaching the finish line in Khovd, I know that this is the food that will keep me alive and golfing 25 km per day for the next few weeks. With culinary expectations lowered, I'm thankful for my daily gambir.

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