- Food & Drink
The hard white sunlight and high blue sky suggested a fresh autumn day when we arrived in Ulaanbaatur in early October. Stepping out of our fantastic, definitely-stay-there-if-you’re-in-Ulaanbaatur hostel, Zaya’s Guesthouse, I soon realised that you don’t breathe deeply in Ulaanbaatur, you chew thoroughly.
You want to blame the glittering factories that wrap themselves in plumes of white smoke or the heavy traffic that moves along the roads according to the bumper car school of driving – if you don’t hit something, you’ve wasted your journey – but the thick air is mostly down to the ger tent camps that surround the city’s concrete heart. Heated by fat little coal stoves, they belch out the sulphur and cancer that give the city its special atmosphere. In winter, I was told, the pollution can be so thick that a hundred Dick Van Dyke’s could appear out of the soup bleating: ‘It’s a right pea souper Mary Poppins’ and no one would blink an eye.
Luckily for us, we were there when the pollution wasn’t visible, just gnawable. We spent our morning eating up the air, dodging cars and getting to grips with Buddhism at the Choijin Lama Monastery. Afraid that this might be our last day on Earth – the pollution may take its time killing you but the buses have a keen sense of immediacy and a good aim – we sought out our perfect final meal: dumplings.
Baylag Buuz has two cafes on Peace Avenue. For lunch we followed some Mongolians (at a subtle distance) through an intimidatingly sturdy front door, down a corridor that looks like it’s leading to a mini cab office and into two plain rooms filled with plastic topped tables and a crowd.
It has a long menu in Mongolian and English but I’d already seen the picture of the buuz set meal tacked to the wall. For 2,600 Tugrik (£1.10) you got 6 baby fist sized buuz, 3 spoonfuls of salad and apparently a drink (the final bill was a bit confusing). We ordered three of those and three black teas.
Buuz are to Mongolia what jiaozi are to China, momo are to Tibet and pierogi are to Eastern Europe. They are steamed dough pockets stuffed with meat and, this being Mongolia, not much else. In Mongolia, if you’ve got meat, you’ve got a meal.
Our plates arrived with 6 glistening buuz and 3 heaps of salad. If I’d known how rare this much vegetable was in Mongolia, I’d have treated the shredded vegetables with more respect. As it was, I forked my way around them, avoiding the over mayonnaised chopped salad and eating the odd bit of lightly dressed carrot and lettuce when the fancy took me.
I sank my fork into my first buuz and it made the kind of squelching noise that’s normally reserved for bedrooms and bathrooms. Greasy meat juices bubbled up round my fork and slid down the sides of the buuz, blipping and blurping like a primordial bog. Even now my stomach contracts at the memory and tries to bore its way out past my spine and escape down the road.
It’s not that the buuz tasted bad. In fact, they tasted like steak and onion pie, being filled with beef and onions and nothing else. DJ and Leonard set about theirs with gusto. But the visceral squishing tapped some previously hidden vein of squeamishness. I couldn’t disconnect the meaty flavour and the dough’s slippery texture from the bubbly sound of bowels collapsing that the buuz made every time I prodded one with my fork.
I managed 4 of my buuz and it took 2 more days before I could venture confidently back into the valley of the steamed dumpling.