Sep 28 2010

Sheep!

It would be impossible to quantify the kindness shown to us by the family of one of Peter’s family friends in Ulan Baatur. From providing a car and driver for us to asking a family friend to take time out of her normal life to act as our guide to – in one of the most memorable experiences of this entire trip – hiring a professional throat singer and dancer to perform for us during lunch, their generosity left us both overwhelmed. So instead, I will focus on only one of their acts of generosity: the sheep.

The night we arrived at the family’s apartment, Otkho, the friend who was acting as our guide, asked if we would be interested in seeing the traditional Mongolian method of preparing sheep meat. “Sure!” we said. One of our goals on this trip has been to take cooking classes in different cultures and, while mutton has never topped my list of favorite foods, we both figured it’d be fun to watch.

“Great,” said Otkho. “We will get a sheep.”

This phrasing — “get a sheep” instead of “buy some sheep meat” — should have set off warning bells in my head. For while it had never seemed likely that we were going to be working with sterilized, plastic-wrapped chunks of supermarket meat, I still hoped that it would at least arrive, well, dead.

It did not.

The next day, we got in the car and drove through a ger district – small patches of land where families had pitched their yurts – to a wooden-framed house surrounded by a rectangular lawn with a ger at one side. The house itself – which belonged to the father of the wife of the brother of the wife of Peter’s father’s colleague (got it?) – had a wood-burning stove of the sort we saw in the nomadic gers and no running water. And in its yard was a sheep.

It was a cute sheep – black muzzle, drooping ears – and in a different life it could have belonged in a petting zoo. But its frightened posture (not to mention the rope tied around its front feet) indicated that that wasn’t what its future held.

“There it is!” said Otkho, happily. Then, in the voice of the sheep: “Peter and Catherine, I am waiting for you!”

Unfortunately for the sheep, it had to wait a little longer – we first gathered in the sister’s ger and sampled tangy, homemade yogurt as we waited for the rest of the family arrived.  When their car pulled into the lawn about a half hour later, the man of the house put down his yogurt bowl and set out in search of his knife.

I didn’t want to see the sheep die, but I also figured that since I had no control over its fate, it would be good to force myself to watch – I’ve never witnessed firsthand where my meat comes from.

Otkho had told me that women didn’t usually watch the moment of the slaughter, so I decided to compromise, standing near the door and peeking out from the frame like a child trying to catch a glimpse of Santa (you have just witnessed the worst analogy I have ever made).  As I watched, the man dragged the sheep to the middle of the yard, plopped it on its butt and sliced through the rope tying its feet together. I wanted to turn away, but didn’t. Peter, meanwhile, was asked to hold one of its back legs.

A scene from later in the process.

With the sheep’s front legs freed, the man began pulling tufts of wool from the sheep’s chest with his free hand, a butcher’s version of a pre-surgery shave, and then picked up the knife. I tensed up. Here’s the thing about Mongolian butchering: unlike other cultures, they want to keep all the blood. None should be wasted. Thus, their method of killing: cut a slit in the sheep’s chest just under the rib cage, stick an arm into the body, and sever the aorta with a finger. The heart, unaware that the aorta’s busted, then pumps the blood out into the chest cavity and the sheep quickly dies.

But I’m making that sound too pleasant. As I watched, the man cut a deep slit into the sheep’s soft underbelly and stuck his entire arm into its still living body. The sheep struggled some, though not as much I would have in similar circumstances. It also was completely silent – I don’t know if its position prevented it from making noise, or if it was just too terrified.

The man fiddled around inside the body for an endless-seeming few seconds, and then yanked out his hand. At that point I was still under the mistaken impression that his goal was actually to pull the heart out of the body, so I was horrified to see him come out empty handed. But I had misunderstood. He was after the aorta, and it had been severed. As he, Peter and the driver continued to restrain the sheep, it took several shuddering breaths – me quietly chanting “Die, die, please die” – and eventually was still. The entire process took a little over a minute and there was no blood anywhere – hardly even on his arm.

I was so relieved that the sheep was no longer suffering that I hardly minded what happened next – an incredibly efficient disassembly, with nothing discarded or wasted but the pancreas, bladder and gall bladder. Every time I asked Otkho about a seemingly unsavory body part – the snout, for example, or the hooves – she would expain how they prepared it (in the case of the hoofs, you burn the fur off, then boil it – kids love them, said Otkho) and then proclaim it to be “delicious.” Hearts, lungs, kidneys, all delicious. Her favorite part was the stomach – I felt like I’d given her a gift when I taught her the English word “tripe.”

After cutting off the feet and skinning the sheep — all with a knife that seemed impossibly small — the man set to work with the actual butchering, ingeniously using the hide as a sort of work surface to keep the meat off the grass. I don’t remember the exact order of organs, but the main highlights included the small intestine – foot upon foot, which the driver flushed out with water using a funnel, and then coiled into a neat bundle and tied with itself, like a climbing rope. The colon was similarly cleaned, and then the three women got buckets of water and set to work cleaning the grass-filled stomach, which was a difficult job, since there were countless tiny nubs all stained green.

Meanwhile the man pulled out the huge liver, the kidneys, and when everything was out of the main internal cavity, he cut away the membrane separating the chest cavity from the abdomen. All the blood that had pooled there suddenly rushed into the abdominal cavity, allowing him to scoop it into a painter’s bucket with a plastic cup. Throughout this, no blood fell on the hide of the sheep or on the ground – it was all in the bucket. (Its use became obvious soon enough.) Heart, lungs, all preserved.

He cut off the meaty legs and cracked the ribs, even setting aside the meaty spine and the fatty flap that had covered its tail. Eventually there was nothing left of the sheep except its hide and head, which the man butchered by pulling open the mouth until the jawbone snapped, revealing two sets of horseshoe-shaped gray teeth and making the splayed head look like a bear trap. It was both gruesome and – now that the sheep was dead – fascinating.  I was truly impressed by how little of the sheep was wasted.

Eating it, however, was a different matter. We sat in the living room as the women set to work cooking the meat and organs in a bowl of water over the wood-burning stove. Eventually, with much fanfare, the first course was served: the liver, wrapped in belly fat. (This is a special kind of fat, almost mesh-like in consistency, that made it look like the liver had been coated in melted cheese. But don’t be fooled.) No salt or spices, just a bowl of fat-wrapped liver. I took a small bite.

Next came the main course: a large bowl of the sheep’s internal organs – stomach, colon, kidneys, lungs – also boiled. It was hard to know where to begin – so many organs to choose from! – but apparently the true deliacies, of which we were served healthy slices, were intestines filled with a combination of cooked blood and folded intestines (intestines in intestines – try saying that fast), and the stomach, which had been filled with blood like a water balloon and then boiled.

Dig in.

The stomach slices were particularly impressive; roughly the diameter of a discus, they almost looked like a dense devil’s food cake. That is, of course, if a devil’s food cake were made of boiled blood.

“Oh,” said Otkho, serving us. “It is very delicious.”

Indeed.

Facing a silver-dollar-sized slice of colon-and-blood-filled colon and slice of coagulated, stomach-wrapped blood the diameter of a grapefruit – and having already sampled bites of kidney and lung – I was very grateful when someone brought out a pickle jar. The good part was that I could mask the taste with pickle brine; the downside is that from here on out, I’ll associate gherkins with sheep intestine. The grandmother, worried we weren’t eating enough, returned to the living room to serve us even larger slices.

In the meantime, someone had arrived with a bowl of Otkho’s favorite: boiled tripe. Having tried it myself, I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree with her on the question of deliciousness. Green and furry, it looked and felt like an unscraped tongue. You know how there are certain people whom you feel – right after meeting them – that you’ve known your whole life? That’s how I felt about the stomach: its flavor was exactly what I’d imagined it would be, as if we’d been introduced before. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t get along.

I was trying my best to be a gracious guest, but it was difficult to control my visceral response, if you will, to the texture of boiled lung. So I was thrilled when we were served bowls of hot, fatty mutton soup.

But just as I raised the bowl to my lips, a family friend stepped in. “Be careful!” he said. “Do not drink too much. It is very strong.”

As opposed to a blood-stuffed colon? I acquiesced, grabbing another pickle. Then, as a sort of palate cleanser, we were served something recognizable to the average American diner: boiled ribs.

If I think about it, it really makes no sense that I should be fine with the taste and texture of cooked animal muscle but not be able to stomach, say, stomach. It makes me wonder if it would be possible, with the right training, to condition someone to be disgusted by a tomato. (Or, with the right spices, to condition a colon to be delicious.) Nonetheless, I found the ribs easier to eat. And I left the table truly impressed by how little of the sheep was wasted, and in admiration of their geniune enjoyment of every part of the sheep. I’d feel a lot better about meat-eating in general if we were to use the animals we kill as thoroughly as the Mongolians do – though it’ll take a lot of work before you see me nibbling on a boiled snout.

Me and Genghis Khan.