I look nervously at the steaming pot over the fire, and my host grins proudly at me. As an honoured guest at this nomadic camp on the edge of the Gobi desert, I have been invited to help myself from the pot, which seems to contain a whole goat, not entirely unrecognisable as such even after having been boiled in a cauldron for several hours. Its empty eye socket leers ghoulishly up at me as I stand there uncertainly with my bowl in my hand.
My host launches into an enthusiastic volley of instructions of which I understand precisely zero words (oh, for the comfort of Korea, where I understand about 1 in 15!), and seems to be miming some sort of crazy devil sheep getting ready to kill me. A smiling woman bats him away, and kindly takes my bowl, filling it with some of the choicest cuts of meat. Oh, dear lord, is that an ear?
I eat, tentatively at first, but careful to smile as I chew, with the eyes of the nomads (and my dinner) watching my every move. One of the wolf-like dogs snarls and snuffles at my foot as if suggesting that I might like to give him some of my goat. A young boy cuffs him over the head and he backs off. This is the most bizarre dining experience I have ever had.
It’s good! I say in my carefully practised but still terrible Mongolian, giving them a thumbs up. I’m not actually lying, to my surprise. It’s a bit tough, and it’s not exactly pleasant to look at, but it’s hot and tasty – and, let’s face it, as purely authentic Mongolian cuisine as it gets.
I slip the ear-like piece to a wolf-dog when no one’s looking.
The meal is interrupted a couple of times for a round of vodka, which must be knocked back, soju-style, but not before a quiet ritual to honour the sky gods… or the mountains… or dead ancestors, or something (the guide books aren’t particularly clear on the reason). You dip your right ring finger into your cup, and then flick a small drop of vodka towards the sky, then in front of you (“to the wind”), and then to the ground. Only a tiny drop, mind you, as vodka is sacred – my host stops me and gives my hand a rough shake over my cup, apparently getting rid of some of the excess vodka before I begin. I watch what the others do and mimic them carefully, finishing by wiping my finger across my forehead, raising the cup in the air, and knocking it back with a bit of a gasp.
Somewhat different from a “cheers!” in an Irish pub, or a “gombay!” in a Korean hoff, eh?