Part of experiencing Mongolia is hiring a driver for a bumpy road trip around the most scenic and remote parts of Mongolia and staying with families in a round yurt, called a ger. Last summer we arranged to stay with a family for 3 days in the middle of nowhere. We knew this would be an amazing experience the second we entered our ger and saw a sheep hanging on a clothesline, quartered and skinned only just a few hours before. “Welcome to Mongolia! Dinner will be served shortly.”
Read on for the rest of this story, and four more of our most memorable food experiences from travel to Mexico, Japan, Denmark, and Morocco.
Middle of Nowhere, Mongolia
Khorkhog is a dish that was developed even before Genghis Khan's reign and one that originated through survival instincts and human ingenuity – and we got to help the family cook it.
First, we were sent out with the kids of the Mongolian family to search for fist-sized stones in a dry river bed. The stones were then placed in the pit of a heated furnace for at least half an hour. In a large pot set above atop the furnace, the hot, black rocks were placed in the pot, and the sheep, now cut up into smaller pieces, was placed on top of the rocks so that they were seared. Salt, potatoes, onions, water and a very generous pour of Vodka were added into the pot and then covered.
For nearly ten minutes, we could hear the hissing of the water inside the pot, a sign that something magical was happening. An hour later, after the water had evaporated, it was time to eat. The result was an amazingly tender and smoky-flavored sheep that we miss so dearly. While we ate, the Mongolian family passed around the hot stones to warm our hands, which were now oily from absorbing all the fat from the lamb.
Fuji Rock Festival, Japan
When one thinks of a music festival, good food may not be the first thought. The music festivals I've been to were generally junk food fairs with crappy beer gardens. But this does not apply to the Fuji Rock Festival in Niigata, Japan. Thirty to forty thousand Japanese and international music lovers migrate from all parts of Japan to take in part in this 3-day celebration of music, and of course, food. When's the last time you had the option to eat a bowl of hot tonkotsu pork ramen, whole grilled fish on a stick and highly-renowned Matsusaka steak and soft-boiled egg rice bowls – all while covered in mud under a rainy sky?
When we weren't rocking out to bands, we were eating. There were over 100 different vendors to choose from and each one was pretty unique. For us we'll always remember this as the Fuji Rock and Food Festival.
Morocco was truly a time machine into the old world and to the unfamiliar. The second we arrived at the 13th century-old medina of Fez, we found ourselves in narrow, cobblestone “streets” occupied by locals, shop owners and...donkeys, lots of them. In fact if you didn’t pay attention, you could easily be knocked over by one.
Having never been to North Africa, the sights, smells and sounds were completely foreign to us. It was sensory overload. Everywhere we looked, there would be someone selling grilled lamb kebabs, a butcher hanging up his freshly cut meats and women selling various snacks.
But our best experience happened in a family-owned restaurant, and it was almost perfect that we lacked Arabic or French speaking skills. Once we walked in, we were greeted by a jolly old bearded man. He spoke no English, and without handing us any menus, he kindly directed us straight to the kitchen where we met the cooks and the rest of the family. Not knowing what to expect, the chef handed each of us a spoon and pointed at the various tagines sitting on the stove and counter. She lifted the lids up and urged us to try everything. The aroma was amazing in there. Within a few minutes, we had basically sampled the entire “menu” and the chef asked us to pick our dishes. How we wish every restaurant would do this!
Again, I have to mention just how amazing and memorable our trips to Jalisco have been. The state of Jalisco simply offers some of the best Mexican food one can have. If you’re a fan of birria, flautas, pozole and carne en su jugo (beef cooked in its own juices), you don’t need to think twice about coming here.
On my last trip, a friend took me to his hometown of Talpa to sample what might be the best breakfast “cocktail” ever – pajareta. The ingredients are simple, all you’ll need is a block of Mexican chocolate, your choice of tequila or rum, sugar and warm milk... straight from a cow. After mixing all the ingredients in a cup, you bring it right beneath the udder and milk it to the brim of the cup. The milk is still warm and foamy, and tastes so good with the tequila and fresh chocolate.
Having the cow stare and moo at me as I drank the concoction it unintentionally helped make for me made it truly a unique experience. No need to check the “have you had contact with livestock” box on the customs form – they wouldn’t understand!
While Dylan was busy at work, I had a chance to sneak over to Copenhagen for spring break. I was very quick to book this trip, but quickly realized that this was my first time traveling solo since we met in 2006. I was very comfortable traveling solo in my early and mid-20s, but so much has changed since my backpacking days. I married a social butterfly and for many years I sat back, and let him do his thing while traveling. For the first time in a long time, I had to get out on my own and meet people... all by myself.
Were it not for Instagram and the “friends” I followed over the last couple of years, I would have had a much different experience in Copenhagen. What started as a meet-up with two other Instagram friends became a meet-up with six of us at Mikkeller Bar in Vesterbro. The Danes are a little shy (like me) and it took some time to warm up, but after some delicious beers, it was all laughs.
Hungry, we hopped on our bikes in the chilly 30°F evening to Kødbyens Fiskebar and had the most amazing meal. One of our Instagram friends was a chef on his off night and headed straight to the kitchen and started cooking for us. I’ll never forget his fried fish skin chips with scallop powder mayonnaise and lumpfish roe over smoked cheese, crisp potato, and chives – it all makes me want to head back to Copenhagen as soon as possible.
I learned getting out of your comfort zone and may be the best thing you can do for yourself. This was a memorable trip of beautiful food, unexpected friendships and the pleasure of traveling solo.
Dylan and Jeni are our guests for June — Travel Month at The Kitchn! They will bringing us tips and good ideas for eating while traveling, and finding good ways to bring your travels home to your own kitchen.
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(Images: Dylan Ho + Jeni Afuso)