Some of you may be wondering where I got that amazing picture of a sheep in the back of a car. The answer lies in this entry.
Now, mutton isn’t inherently a strange meat. Lamb chops, lamb gyros and lamb meatballs can be found all over the USA. It’s most definitely one of the top meats consumed in the USA, but the mutton I ate in the far east wasn’t normal by any means.
My day in Inner Mongolia, China, began just as any other. My Chinese friend was cracking jokes as he always does, but this time he made a joke about how we Americans would be catching our own dinner that night. This was a scary thought, but as we embarked on our journey for the day, I forgot about it while lost in thought in the Inner Mongolian countryside. Now and then, we would pass flocks of sheep, walking around and eating everything they could see. Then, we stopped at one of the flocks.
“It’s time,” my friend said.
Apparently we were catching some sheep for dinner. He explained that the sheep were afraid of us, so for us to pass this ritual, the shepherd would grab our sheep and separate him from the flock. Then the rest was up to us. We watched as the shepherd walked amongst the sheep, and made a lightning quick move to grab the leg of one of the sheep. Once separated, we were called over to grab the sheep ourselves. The sheep struggled as we carried the burden some distance, escaping once only to be recaptured by the shepherd. Eventually we set it down to lash its legs together. It was no short distance back to the farm, so we lightly placed the sheep in the backseat of one of the Jeeps. Back there, it relaxed and seemed resigned to its fate.
On our way back to the farm, we took a detour to a massive pit. It seemed we wouldn’t be getting off so easily. We were told that the sheep would be released in the pit and we would have to re-catch it. This was no easy task, since the pit was about the size of a meteorite crater. We also felt a bit bad for our future meal, for making it run around so much. I hoped the stress of the sheep would make the meat taste better. We quickly outsmarted the beast and began the journey back to the farm.
Back at the farm, we were greeted by our friendly Mongolian farmhand, dressed in fatigues. He was pretty excited to get to work on our meal. We unloaded our sheep and it was placed on a ledge next to the kitchen. The Mongolian brandished a knife and declared, “A hundred pigs have died by this knife,” before slitting the throat of our meal. It wasn’t exactly Kosher. Then, he got down to the real business. Like a magician, he rapidly transformed the sheep into mutton. It was amazing how quickly he was able to dissect the sheep surprising how little blood there was.
In the end, we had enough meat for ten people to feast upon, and what a feast it was. Our western world has turned the idea of Mongolian BBQ into a do-it-yourself stir-fry. This is not so in Inner Mongolia, where BBQ is style born from fire, strength and pure meat. The real Mongolian BBQ consists of a large metal grate placed over burning coals. The lamb shanks were placed on the grate and slathered with some sort of sauce while being cooked. Best of all, there wasn’t a vegetable in sight on the grill. The shanks were rotated by hand to ensure they were evenly cooked. Once done, we passed around the shanks and ate away. When I bit in, I instantly forgot about all the hard work that the sheep and I had been through that day. It was some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten, and unbelievably fresh and juicy. Once we had devoured the meat, the bones were cracked and the marrow was sipped out through a straw. It wasn’t as good as the meat, but still really fresh.
Although mutton isn’t my preferred meat, the freshness made it one of my favorite meaty meals of all time. Although it’s not the easiest place to get to, eating true Mongolian BBQ with fresh mutton was the experience of a lifetime. If you’ve never had fresh, unfrozen and unrefrigerated mutton, do yourself a favor and find some. And if you happen to know any Mongolians, invite them along to help you with the BBQ.