I always have a little chuckle whenever I see a restaurant in Australia or the US advertising "Mongolian barbecue". Ah, I think to myself, the traditional Mongolian eating experience: choosing your meat and vegetables from a buffet, taking them up to a big central hotplate where they're stir-fried and topped with a sauce of your choice, before being handed over piping hot to take back to your table. Delicious, right?
Except it bears absolutely no relation to Mongolian cuisine. I don't know who came up with the concept of a Mongolian barbecue restaurant in the Western world, but it's a neat marketing trick by someone who has probably never set foot in the country. Anyone who has travelled there knows that Mongolian food is a little more challenging than whatever a Western-style Mongolian barbecue joint is likely to be dishing up.
For starters, the "buffet-to-stir-fry" thing doesn't exist in Mongolia. Not even close. And you know what else doesn't exist there? Vegetables. And stir-fries. And thin cuts of tender meat.
There are barbecues in Mongolia, but they're another beast entirely. Quite literally. A Mongolian barbecue in Mongolia involves a whole heap of gnarly old mutton bones being thrown into a big metal pot, along with some water, and rocks that have been heated up in a fire. The rocks – plus steam – then cook the meat from within the pot.
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It's called "khorkhog", and it could probably be reasonably tasty if there was anything used to flavour the meat, or if there were any vegetables thrown in, or if the sheep that was used for meat hadn't staggered to its eventual demise at the age of 150 or so.
So no, a Mongolian barbecue in Mongolia does not bear any resemblance to a Mongolian barbecue over here. And that's not the only part of the cuisine that's been misrepresented, either – there are a few other cherished local staples that would take travellers by surprise when they first arrive in central Asia.
Take airag, for example: fermented horse milk, made by pouring the liquid into a leather bag and leaving it on the roof of a ger for a few days. Then there's buuz, or steamed dumplings filled with fatty hunks of mutton. And aaruul, a rock-hard snack of dried milk curds.
Strangely enough these items seem to have been omitted from the menus at Mongolian barbecue joints in the Western world, which is why visitors to the country wouldn't be expecting to find them.
But that's the thing about the Australian takes on foreign food: sometimes they don't properly prepare you for a country's real cuisine. Sometimes they give you the wrong idea about a place entirely.
Mongolia, for me, is the most obvious example. Anyone who has eaten Mongolian food in Australia has no idea what to expect when they arrive in that country. It's a whole different kettle of fish – or, pot of mutton. But there are other examples, too.
Cuba, for instance. I'm always surprised to see a Cuban-themed restaurant in Australia, because anyone who's been to that beautiful Caribbean island will be able to tell you that the food there is pretty terrible. It's not exciting, spicy Afro-Caribbean cuisine. It's meat, rice and beans, cooked in essentially the same way every time. I wouldn't be searching that out back home.
Portugal, too, was a surprise for me, but not in the same way. Going by the Australian restaurants you always see, it would be reasonable to expect Portugal to be wall-to-wall charcoal chicken joints. I was pretty sure I'd be surviving there on poultry and pastry.
And sure, Portuguese charcoal chicken is a thing. But it's nowhere near a national obsession. The true love of the Portuguese is seafood. It's salt cod, or bacalhau. It's tuna and mackerel and anything else you can pull out of the sea. It's also steak sandwiches called pregos, and pork rolls called bifanas. Grilled chicken comes way down the list.
Even China. Do we really know anything about the cuisine of China? Foreigners are becoming a little better educated. It's moved on from sweet and sour pork and special fried rice. But still, the amazing breadth of food that is available in China comes as a surprise to many first-time travellers. There's so much we don't understand about their cuisine.
Just as we really know nothing about China's close neighbour, Mongolia. So enjoy your Mongolian barbecue in the Western world, if you get the chance. Eat your stir-fried meat and vegies with the tangy sauce.
But know this: when you visit Mongolia, things will not be the same.
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