I like food. I like everything about it. I love to shop for it, prepare it and enjoy it with my friends. I also have what may best be described as an “adventuresome palate.” What that translates into is that I’ll try anything at least once. That is not to say that I’ll search out weird things to eat. I’ve never had brains – some would say I still don’t have had any – and I wouldn’t order them off a menu. But if you order them and asked me to try them, I would. Or if they were included in some dish, I didn’t know it and then was told about it, I wouldn’t run off and barf. Most likely I’d find the meal quite pleasant and would consider eating them again.
There are a couple of things I’m not real fond of. Right now the only things that come to mind are trout (goes back to eating them all the time as a kid) and rodent. The only rodent I’ve knowingly eaten is squirrel. I hunt them so I eat them. Well, actually I donate them to my friend Wayne for inclusion in his semi-sporadic “Rodent Feast”. We call it “Rodent Feast” but actually it a clean out the freezer of wild game meal. Wayne’s chipolata squirrel is ok – lower case on purpose – but I’d rather have wild boar or antelope.
We have marmots in the Rocky Mountains. Besides marmot, we also call them “whistle pigs.” In the Midwest we call a closely related species Woodchucks or Ground Hogs. I don’t know of anyone who purposely, or even accidentally for that matter, says “Marmot: It’s what for dinner.” They have never been on the Rodent Feast menu. So when, on a recent trip Mongolia, I was asked by a local family to help prepare and savor with them a traditional delicacy, fresh marmot, of course I joined them.
Supposedly the best marmots are the ones that are shot in the fall. They have a generous layer of subcutaneous fat to last them through the winter hibernation. The fat layer is what adds that special taste appeal. My marmot timing was perfect.
So here in narrative and pictures is “Marmot. It’s what for dinner.”
The man of the Ger apparently is the local purveyor of marmot. He came home the night that we stayed in the Ger with two marmots. He hunts them up in the rocky edges of the steeps with an old rifle with “sticks” attached to the forearm to stead his aim. All kills are head shots to keep from damaging any of the prime cut.
The marmots were hung from a bar with a loop around the neck just below the jaw. A circular cut was made through the skin were the neck joins the body. Carefully the skin is peeled off the body down to the paws and the tail, kind of like turning a dirty sock down off your stinky feet. Once peeled the marmots were eviscerated (the heart and liver being saved) and the carcass cut into pieces. After washing the marmot chunks were placed back into the skin, now turned right side – fur side -out, and the future meal was stored in a hole in the ground covered with a piece of tin to keep the dogs out.
Apparently there is a good market for marmot. A local trader who stopped at the ger wanted three kid goats for a big sack of flour. But gladly turned over the flour for two kids and a marmot.
Just by looking I couldn’t tell what constitutes a “prime” marmot over a “choice” marmot. But Tsog could. He spent a lot of time examining the cache, checking the thickness of the fat before deciding on the best one for dinner.
Now remember that the marmot were peeled and not skinned. Skinning would have resulted in all that wonderful subcutaneous fat going to waste. So what do you do with hairy bag of marmot meat? Simple, you singe off the hair with a
blow torch, scrapping the body as you flame it, to get all the hair off. No one wants to find a hair on their chunk of marmot meat. Beyond singing the hair, the blow torch treatment makes the skin nice and crispy and melts some of the fat to baste the meat piece inside the skin bag.
Once cooled, the skin bag is opened, the meat pieces cut into smaller units and the skin cut into pieces.
In traditional marmot cooking 1) all the cooking was done by the men of the ger community, 2) the hair was removed and the skin crisped up by putting the skin bag directly on the fire and 3) hot rocks were put in the skin bag to cook the meat form the inside out. But my marmot was nouveau cuisine.
The skin and meat chunks were finished over the cooking/heating stove in the ger in the wok like utensil that was used to cook everything.
First some rendered mutton fat oil has added to the wok and heated. Next came some cut up potatoes, onions, marmot pieces and a few hot rocks. After stirring it around for a bit, another layer of potato, onion, marmot and rocks was added. Finally a generous portion of salt and some water was added, the wok cover and some milk tea enjoyed as the marmot cooked.
So how was it? I still don’t care for rodent and I’m not going to shot one so we can have chipolata wood chuck at Wayne’s next Rodent Feast! But if marmot is what’s for dinner, I’ll gnaw on a few of the better pieces and wash it down with some milk tea.