By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Each summer I always spend some time in Mongolia. I fell in love with the country some twelve years ago when visiting for Naadam – those wide open Steppes, the history of Genghis Khan, spectacular nature and a big blue sky – all attractions that a man, many years previously a budding boy scout, found difficult to resist. And we’re not talking about Inner Mongolia here – this is the real deal, the previously Soviet occupied territory that regained its independence in 1990.
There are differences between Inner and Outer Mongolia, many of which I outlined here in my article A Tale of Two Mongolias. Essentially the Mongolians are nomadic, while the Chinese are not – and on the grasslands the latter can place severe stress on the land. If you want real Mongolia, you need to cross the border.
Mongolia is much different from its larger Southern neighbor, much of whose claims to lands far and distant – including the Spratly Islands – where made when China was part of the Mongolian Empire and ruled by Kublai Khan. Tibet is another issue as well – the first Dalai Lama was recognized by Altai Khan – and the Mongolians kept the peace in Tibet in return for protecting Lhasa. If any nation way back in the dim distant past, in the manner the Chinese keep insisting proves their sovereignty, then both much of the South China Sea – and Tibet – should actually pass into Mongolian stewardship.
The essence of Tibet however, bled out from Lhasa in contemporary times, lives on in Mongolia. In fact the country has recently recovered its own version of the Tibetan Dalai Lama – the Mongolian Bogd Khan – who now sits in Ulaan Baatar at the Gandan Monastery.
Barred by the Soviets from being reincarnated, this erstwhile King of Mongolia was secretly discovered as a boy in Lhasa in the 1930’s. Fleeing with him to India in 1959, he quietly lived in Dharamsala until the late 2000’s when a resurgent Mongolia, newly democratic, was able to receive him back. He is no longer Head of State – but is the Nation’s Spiritual leader, in a division of politics and religion as responsibilities that the Chinese leaders are unable to accept. It’s a telling advance on contemporary China’s version of the State. Tibetan Buddhism thrives here, and Mongolia remains one of the strongholds of these quintessially Asian beliefs.
But Genghis still runs deep. Steak Tartar of course is a well known dish – raw beef, mixed up with a handful of ingredients and consumed by the brave. Yet the name itself gives the origins away – the rampaging Mongolians in Genghis’ time were known as Tartars in Europe, and they left behind what is now considered a gourmet delight. Yet Steak Tartar wasn’t originally made from beef – it was made from Horse Meat. The French still breed the Ardennes Horse today for its meat, and if you want to try the original dish, you need to go horse.
Horse meat retains a curious perception in the West – it is banned from human consumption in North America, but that is mainly to do with their habit of injecting the animals with massive doses of steroids and vaccines that would be harmful to humans. That says rather more about the American supply chain than it does the quality of the meat. In fact, horse has been on the menu as a human staple for centuries. It is still regularly consumed across Asia and the Middle East, and also in parts of Africa and Latin America. Low in cholesterol – it is also good for you. And in Mongolia, where each Mongolian owns on average 6 horses – there is plenty to go around. I head off to the local market, beyond tourism – and size up the produce. Horse meat is distinctive – an orangey hue permeates, which is slightly off-putting. The acid test is the freshness – all fresh meat smells of…well, meat. It’s gamey and looks fresh, and I buy a kilo.
Then I spot the Camel butcher. Camel meat is always recognizable due to the presence of the hump fat – that is sold with the meat as it provides flavor in cooking. The same aroma test; another kilo.
Once home (I retain an apartment in Ulaan Baatar) I prepare the horse and camel. Cutting up about half a kilo each into chunks, I marinade them separately. Wild herbs grow profusely during the Mongolian summer, and it is easy to find thyme, wild chives and sage. In fact, parts of the Mandal Gobi desert bloom with chives, giving a particular and sought after flavor to the sheep and goats that graze there. Adding salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne, together with liberal dousing of Hungarian red wine, I leave them to soak for three days. After, I try both – they are excellent, with the camel rather more dense in flavor than the horse, but delicious nonetheless. But back to the Mongolian Horse Meat Steak Tartar.
Steak Tartar needs to be prepared only when you’re about to consume it. A Quarter Kilo is minced, with chopped onions, a red capsicum, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice added. You add Olive Oil (it binds it together as well as adds to the taste) mix it all up by hand, and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Once ready, make an indentation on the top and add a raw egg yolk. It looks like this:
I dig in. And the French and the Mongolians are absolutely right, there is only one way to eat Steak Tartar. And it does not involve beef.
Flights to Mongolia run year round and can be obtained from Air China, MIAT and Tianjin Airlines. Flights to Ulaan Baatar from Beijing take 90 minutes. Check with the Mongolian Embassy online concerning applicable visa requirements.
Our sister website with masses of articles, photos, complimentary magazines and a travel guide to Ulaan Baatar. As recommended by Lonely Planet.