Category Archives: Food and Cooking

The Endless Steppes

Within the soul of every Mongolian is the desire to live a rural, nomadic lifestyle unencumbered by the noise of the city and the smothering nearness of one’s neighbors.  On most summer weekends the capital of Ulan Bator, a city of well over one million, empties out as residents head to the mountains, the Gobi, and the steppes—those never-ending oceans of grasslands that cover well over half the country. Some people enjoy outdoor sports with horseback riding, hiking, and archery among the most popular. Swimming, boating, and water sports are a little more difficult in this frigid, landlocked country where water temperatures rarely rise about 55 degrees, even in mid-summer.

My Wife, Ruthann, Sitting On The Steps of Our Yurt

However, organized activities are not the primary purpose of these weekend outings. Many just relax in their yurts—felt covered tents—and enjoy the fresh air, endless vistas, and lack of cars, noise, and crowds. They join family and friends in groups that may total a dozen or more, eating; drinking vodka, beer, and ayrag (fermented mare’s milk); sharing stories; singing traditional folk songs; and experiencing a bit of the rural lifestyle that their parents and/or grandparents led before moving to the city and leaving the nomadic life behind–not unlike the dude ranches and campfire gatherings that try to recapture the spirit of  the American West.

The “Road” To The Yurt Camp. Which Way Do We Go?

On one July weekend my wife Ruth and I were invited to join Dr. Lkhagvasuren, the president of Genghis Khan University, his wife, Chugilma, and Nomiko, a young female student and translator, for a weekend holiday at a yurt camp 150 miles away. About one hour outside the city the paved road gave way to unmarked, rutted dirt tracks crisscrossing the grasslands in what appeared to be random geometric patterns. Lkhagvasuren, who had driven the route many times, navigated this vast, empty wilderness with a smile and an air of sureness that I took to be supreme confidence in knowing exactly where he was headed.  Fortunately, he did.

Dinner Being Prepared In Our Honor

Four hours later we arrived at the camp where a dinner was to be prepared in our honor, an honor that included selecting the sheep we would eat and watching it dragged kicking and bleating from its pen, slaughtered, and gutted in front of us so we might personally appreciate its girth and fattiness. After a few too many vodka toasts and the singing of some American folk songs at our host’s urging (I tried my hand at “Home, Home on the Range” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”), we sat down to a very fresh mutton dinner. However, rather than the chops and roasts we were expecting, we dined primarily on the animal’s innards–stomach, heart, liver, and intestines. To Mongolians, these are prized delicacies and, as the guests of honor, it was presented to us as a special treat we were expected to consume with relish and gusto.

We ate (and kept down) as much as we could only to see the remaining offal brought to the table the following morning. As difficult as it was to eat this for dinner, a breakfast of cold sheep intestines soaking in milk exceeds even my ability to transcend cultural differences.  Fortunately, we were able to convince our gracious hosts that we would be quite content with toast and tea for our morning meal.

While I could not recommend the food, these amazing cultural experiences are what makes a working vacation so utterly unique and so totally different from your typical family vacation.  You really must try it.

(Read more about our Mongolian adventures in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

Advertisements

The Way to a Culture’s Heart Is Through Its Stomach

Donkeys Delivering Supplies in the Ancient Marketplace of Fez

Donkey carts clatter across cobblestone streets; butchers wielding massive cleavers hack away at sides of lamb, beef, and camel; women and fruit sellers haggle over prices in Arabic, French, and Tamazight, the local Berber language. We are in Fez’s meat, produce, and spice market, maneuvering through the chaos under the watchful eye of Mr. Lahcen Beqqi, a master chef, restaurant owner, teacher, and expert on Moroccan cooking.

My wife Ruth and I signed up for a one-day class taught by Chef Beqqi to learn more about Morocco, its culture, and its world famous cuisine. Beqqi, a baby-faced Berber from the tiny village of Amellago in the High Atlas mountains, is a highly qualified teacher–he moved to Fez, the country’s food capital, in 2002 and cooked at some of the city’s finest restaurants until opening a school, Fes Cooking, in 2006. His classes provide not only culinary instruction (and eating, of course) but also an introduction to Moroccan agriculture, shopping, and mealtime traditions.  It is a wonderful way to learn about the many influences contributing to modern Moroccan culture.

Chef Beqqi Helping Us Select Items In The Marketplace

Ruth and I, along with the chef and two other students, begin our day in the open-air marketplace of this 1,200-year-old Imperial city. Since our menu will be dictated by what is available (“eat seasonal, buy local” has long been a way of life), we wander the narrow walkways surveying the possibilities. The sweet scent of cinnamon and rose water fills the air; stalls overflow with tomatoes, onions, celery, garlic.  “It was a good year for farmers with lots of rain, so there are no shortages,” Beqqi said as he helps us select items for the midday meal.

A Typical Spice Market in Ancient Fez. No Bottles of Spice Island or Durkee's Here!

As we stroll he points out foods that many American kitchens would consider specialty items but which are central to Moroccan cooking: dates, figs, apricots, chickpeas, mint. He also points out products that draw our blank stares: wild artichokes, argan oil, cardons, camel fat.   We wind our way through the market touching, squeezing, smelling, buying.  Finally, laden with bags of meat, vegetables, fruits, and spices, we head for the kitchen at Riad Tafilalet, a traditional Moroccan hotel and restaurant (riad is the Arabic word for garden or courtyard) that will be our classroom for the remainder of the day.

The Kitchen Staff. That's Me in the Center (With Beard and Glasses) and Ruth on the Far Right.

Although thoroughly modern, the kitchen contains no electric mixers, blenders, or food processors. According to Beqqi, Moroccan cooks enjoy “being close to their food,” so all chopping is by hand, all mashing by mortar and pestle.  We don starched white chef tunics, looking like contestants on “The Next Food Network Star,” and dive into our assigned tasks.  Lahcen watches carefully and explains proper techniques:  “Don’t add spices until the liquid is hot,” “Grate the tomatoes, don’t chop them.”

The Results of our Efforts. A Most Delicious Chicken, Prune, and Date Tagine.

A few hours later, our six-course lunch is finished. In the riad’s sunlit courtyard, we sit around low tables dining on harira, a tomato, lamb, lentil, and chickpea soup traditionally used to break the daily fast of Ramadan; small triangles of phyllo pastry, called briouates, filled with goat cheese and olives; zaalouk salad prepared with pureed eggplant, tomato, and zucchini; artichoke hearts with preserved lemons and orange water; a chicken, prune, and date tagine; and, for dessert, date and almond rolls and the ever-present mint tea.

As we gorge on the delicacies, Beqqi relates stories of the multi-ethnic influences that produced this distinctive cuisine: the Berbers of southern Morocco who brought tagines and couscous; seventh century Arab invaders who introduced grilled meats and a love of dried fruits and nuts; the Moors who contributed their taste for olives, oranges, and lemons; Sephardic Jews of North Africa who popularized the pickling and preserving of fruits and meats.  It is a history seminar complete with massive amounts of superb food and drink!

After eating for more than two hours I sit back on the sofa and sip my last glass of tea, feeling like a pampered pasha. At 4 p.m., after a busy but gratifying and highly informative day, Beqqi calls a taxi to take us back to our apartment, a trip whose cost is, thankfully, based on distance not weight.

Read more about our adventures living and working in Africa and the Middle East in my latest book, On The Other Guy’s Dime.