By James Casey. Photograph by Stephen Conrad.

Wooden spoon. Or: If this be a food race, then you, Mongolia, come last

Famed for historic brutality and a vast and sweeping former empire, the one thing no-one ever accused the Mongolians of conquering was the kitchen. While Mongolia has long since remained a peaceful nation, Mongolian “cuisine” (if one could be so kind as to call it that) continues to trade in acts of provocation—an often violent assault on the senses olfactory, gustatorial, and optical.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mongolia’s geography accounts for much of its diet’s ghoulish character. High, cold and dry, Mongolia is sandwiched between the wilds of Siberia and northwestern China endowing its inhabitants with scant arable land and extremely harsh winters. In fact, the term “extreme” might aptly describe most things Mongolian, for it is a country that rarely deals in the half measure.

Domesticated animals and their output offer sustenance in the face of adversity, with meat and milk serving as the sole components of most meals (and what meals they are!). Common dishes to grace the table include boiled meat and innards (chanasan makh), the fatty tail of the fat-tailed sheep (uuz), mutton cooked in a milk can with dung-heated stones (khorkhog), and on truly special occasions, the stone filled carcass of a gopher (boodog) served with a steaming cup of its grease as an aperitif.

With all this in mind, the Mongolian dumpling, or buuz, is certainly one of the more palatable representatives of the national table. Minced mutton, chopped onions, and salt are combined then wrapped in dough with a small opening at the top. These are then steamed gently and eaten ravenously by hand. Much of Buuz’s appeal lies in the fact that steaming delivers a less pronounced rancid old sheep flavor, and that these small parcels endow only a controlled amount of said meat. In these parts, flesh is prized for its fattiness—fuel for long winters and life punctuated with backbreaking work.

Buuz, advertised locally as the “national fast food” of Mongolia, is readily available in any one of the many working-class cafeterias lining Ulaanbaatar’s Peace Avenue. Stepping inside from the brutal cold, each establishment is diffused with a warm haze of atomized fat particles that coats everything with a greasy film — not limited to one’s clothes, which seem to smell of animal fat for the duration of their Mongolian visit. Steaming cups of suutei tsai (salted milk tea) are also served alongside the dumplings, although they too have a habit of arriving tableside topped with a healthy slick of mutton tallow; a step too far for sustenance’s sake.