KQED's BBQ in the Bay is a series of stories exploring the Bay Area's multicultural barbecue scene. New installments will post every day from June 28–July 1.
ooking back, it’s a bit embarrassing that I ever believed Mongolian barbecue had anything to do with Mongolia, the country.
I was probably 10 or 11 years old when some distant Canadian cousins introduced me to the pleasures of all-you-can-eat griddle-cooked meats, treating my family to what they’d offered up as a fun and novel lunch option in the Toronto suburbs. There was the buffet line where you could customize your sauce and pile as many thinly sliced meats and vegetables onto your tray as you liked. There were the chefs in paper hats, who’d dump everything onto the sizzling flat-top. There was the giant gong that they would bang, unironically, anytime someone’s order was ready.
Years later, while working as the food critic for the East Bay Express, I sheepishly recounted this memory to Togi Sukhbaatar, who ran a Mongolian restaurant in downtown Oakland at the time. “That isn’t really Mongolian at all, is it?” I asked him.
No, it is not. As the story goes, Mongolian barbecue was actually invented in the 1950s by a Taiwanese comedian with no connection to Mongolia. Mong gu kao rou, or “Mongolian barbecue,” wasn’t even his first name choice: He would have advertised his restaurant as serving “Beijing barbecue” if it weren’t politically risky in Taiwan to invoke China so directly at that time. By the ’80s, kitschy and vaguely Orientalist versions of the restaurant genre had become popular in much of the United States.
Still, Sukhbaatar said, there was a well-loved Mongolian food that better fit the term “Mongolian barbecue”—a slow-cooked lamb or mutton dish known as khorkhog, which Mongolians eat at every birthday, every wedding, every big family gathering. Even here in the Bay Area, almost any time more than 10 or 20 Mongolian Americans get together—say, in a park or in someone’s backyard—they’ll build a fire to prepare a big pot of khorkhog: a sealed vessel, usually a pressure cooker, filled to the brim with the meat from a whole sheep or lamb, potatoes, carrots, onions and blazing hot rocks.
This, Sukhbaatar told me, was the real Mongolian barbecue.
After I learned about khorkhog, I became mildly obsessed with the dish. But it wasn’t easy to track down. There are only a handful of Mongolian restaurants in the Bay Area to begin with, and only the most ambitious of these even list khorkhog on the menu because the process of cooking it is so time-consuming and unwieldy in the context of a restaurant kitchen.
After years of searching, I finally stumbled across Dumpling House Mongolian Cuisine, a Mongolian restaurant in Richmond that serves khorkhog all the time, as long as you call ahead to give them a couple of hours of advance notice. Finally, then, I’d have a chance to taste khorkhog for myself. Owners Erika Terbish Erdenechimeg and Battulga Ochirpurev even agreed to cook it for me in the traditional way—outdoors, over a blazing fire.
It was also a chance to dig deeper into the questions that had bothered me ever since I first learned about khorkhog. Why was it that, while most everyone in the U.S. is familiar with so-called “Mongolian barbecue,” traditional Mongolian foodways seem to have been completely erased? And why had I heard so little about the Bay Area’s Mongolian community to begin with?
Marketing copy for the American chain restaurant version of Mongolian barbecue often cites an origin story for the dish in which Genghis Khan’s band of fierce nomadic warriors would hunt animals between battles, then grill the meat over fire, using the tops of their shields as a cooking surface. This, too, is a total fiction. It turns out the story of real Mongolian barbecue—and what it represents for Mongolian Americans looking to connect with their community in the Bay Area today—is far more interesting.
Cooking ‘American’ Style
Ochirpurev and Sukhbaatar (who now works in construction) meet me near the entrance of Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, a woodsy stretch of the Richmond hills, on a Monday morning armed with a sack of root vegetables and a cooler full of meat. Because of childcare duties, Terbish Erdenechimeg isn’t able to make it, even though Ochirpurev says she’s the real chef of the family. Meanwhile, Ochirpurev’s elderly parents, visiting from Mongolia, join us for the early afternoon khorkhog feast.
Ochirpurev is a rangy, jovial fellow with close-cropped hair, puffy foam slippers and big, good-natured Asian dad energy. “I drank beer for 30 years. I quit for two years,” he tells me, ripping open a variety pack of Jarritos fruit soda to hand me a bottle.
He and his wife got married in Mongolia in 2000, when she was a 19-year-old volleyball champion. The couple moved to the United States a few years later with their three-year-old son, and worked whatever odd jobs they could get—Ochirpurev’s first gig was sweeping floors at a Kmart in Missouri. (Now, he tells me, reaching for a fist bump, that same son attends UC Davis.) Terbish Erdenechimeg, for her part, cooked at a few different restaurants before the couple opened their own place in Richmond in 2012.
While it’s hard to get an accurate count, most estimates peg the Mongolian population in Northern California at around 8,000 to 10,000—a tight-knit community, but one that’s too small and dispersed to easily support a business like Dumpling House on its own. Indeed, Ochirpurev estimates that about 70% of his customers are actually Tibetan; the two cuisines share a similar array of dumplings and noodle dishes. But it’s usually only Mongolians who will order khorkhog, Ochirpurev says. No one else knows what it is.
He shows me the weathered, ancient pressure cooker that he’s brought along for the occasion, one of several that he and his wife have collected from flea markets over the years. This particular model was originally used by the American military—“heavy duty,” he tells me, rapping on the lid.
Ochirpurev describes his method of cooking khorkhog as “American style,” explaining that most people in Mongolia don’t have access to pressure cookers. Back home, the most common way to prepare khorkhog is to cook the meat inside the metallic 40-liter Russian water jugs scattered throughout the countryside—remnants of the Soviet military presence in Mongolia. Crafty home cooks turn these water jugs into makeshift pressure cookers by standing on top of the lid while the meat is cooking, using the full weight of their body to hold it down.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I ask when Ochirpurev shows me a Facebook photo of his cousin doing exactly that, teetering precariously like he’s about to fall off. “It is dangerous!” he says, cackling. “Sometimes they go flying!”
The “American” style of making khorkhog has a kind of improvised, off-the-cuff quality to it, at least as practiced by Ochirpurev and his family on this Monday afternoon. Ochirpurev pours a bag of self-lighting charcoal and piles it at the base of the outdoor grill, then lights up the coals with a flick of his cigarette lighter. (People don’t have much access to charcoal in Mongolia, he explains, so they just use some combination of wood chips and fallen tree branches, which he also applies liberally to feed the flames.)
Traditionally, one of the keys to making proper khorkhog is to gather stones from a nearby river—smooth river stones being the ideal vessel to withstand high heat without cracking or splintering. For his Americanized version, Ochirpurev has brought a large bag of decorative “creek stones,” the kind you can buy at Home Depot or any garden store. After they’ve been buried inside the burning charcoal for about half an hour, the stones are blazing hot. To assemble the khorkhog, Ochirpurev layers the hot rocks with big pieces of freshly butchered lamb from a local halal ranch, alternating layers of lamb and rocks until the pressure cooker is filled to the top.
Meanwhile, Ochirpurev’s mother adds fresh vegetables to the pot: potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage and rutabaga. (Rutabaga is the secret ingredient that makes khorkhog and many other Mongolian dishes taste delicious, Ochirpurev says.) Then come big handfuls of spice, pre-measured by Terbish Erdenechimeg back at the restaurant—a mixture that smells strongly of garlic and onion powder, though it’s mostly just salt, black pepper and bay leaves. Sukhbaatar, the former Oakland restaurant owner, explains that the seasoning is meant to be very simple, in order to bring out the natural flavor of the meat. A little bit of water goes in the pot too, to form the base of a soup.
Really, though, the hot stones inside the pot are what set khorkhog apart from any other slow-cooked stew. Once the pressure cooker is sealed up, Ochirpurev sets it over the fire. About an hour later, we’re ready to open up the pot and dig in.
The Father of Khorkhog
Even within Mongolia, khorkhog is very much an evolving tradition. The proliferation of those big Soviet-era water jugs throughout Mongolia is part of the dish’s origin story, according to Shirchin Baatar, a local Mongolian community leader who founded the Bay Area Mongolian Community Association (BAMCA) in 2003. In that sense, the modern form of the dish is a byproduct of Mongolia’s complicated politics in the 20th century—its history as a landlocked buffer zone during various conflicts between China and the USSR and its many decades of Soviet occupation. “Khorkhog was invented during Soviet times,” Baatar says.
Nevertheless, the dish traces its roots to a much older Mongolian food tradition known as boodog, a dish that Mongolian hunters have prepared for centuries, removing all the bones from a deer, antelope or other wild game in order to form a “bag” out of its skin. Then they’d cut up the meat, put it back inside the skin bag along with hot rocks, and tie it up tight. The whole thing would be cooked over fire, with the skin bag essentially serving as a natural form of “pressure cooker.”
As Baatar puts it, “Boodog is the father of khorkhog.” The basic principle is the same: The meat gets steamed inside the bag, but it also gets burned by the hot rocks, so you end up with a final product that’s “half steamed, half burned.” That’s the essence of what makes khorkhog taste so good. In that way, it follows the same principle as all great barbecue dishes that combine some form of slow cooking with a scorching flame.
But the tastiest part of the boodog, according to Baatar? When you put the skin bag over the fire, all the hair burns off and the skin gets nice and crispy. It’s a cooking vessel you can eat.
Baatar says his uncles and grand-uncles in Mongolia still prepare boodog the old-fashioned way when they go hunting in the summer. Even in the United States, if you’re friends with the right Mongolian folks, you might have a chance to experience it. He’s had friends who have cooked wild boars and marmots that way after hunting trips in Colorado or in the Sacramento area. “Marmots are very delicious,” he says.
‘We Have to Have That Kind of Place’
As extraordinary as an excursion like that sounds, these foodways are largely invisible to the majority of Northern Californians. It’s fairly easy to speculate why Mongolians in the Bay Area don’t have the same kind of visibility as more well-known Asian immigrant groups like the region’s Chinese American and Korean American communities. The population is just much, much smaller, and it isn’t necessarily concentrated in any single ethnic enclave.
It’s also a relatively new immigrant community, explains Baatar. Mongolians didn’t really start arriving in the Bay Area until the mid-’90s, when a number of them received student visas to study English at a language school in San Francisco. Many of those early arrivals either overstayed their visas or were able to find jobs here, but when Baatar himself arrived in 1998, there were still only about 70 Mongolians in the Bay Area. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that there were at least a couple thousand Mongolian immigrants living in the region.
Sukhbaatar, who only ran his restaurant—Togi’s Mongolian Cuisine—for a couple of years, says the cuisine has had even less visibility because there have never been very many real Mongolian restaurants. Many of that early wave of immigrants worked in restaurants or even opened restaurants of their own—but often they would be Japanese sushi restaurants, or restaurants specializing in other Asian cuisines that seemed more viable from a business perspective. Only in the last few years have there been a greater number of restaurants that put traditional Mongolian food front and center.
Baatar and Sukhbaatar say these restaurants are some of the few remaining places where Mongolians can socialize together outside their homes. The pandemic, in particular, has had a pronounced alienating effect on the community. In Oakland, a Mongolian language school for kids, which also taught Mongolian music and dancing, closed down during the pandemic. Each summer, the community usually gathers together to celebrate Naadaam, a traditional festival with wrestling, archery and horse racing. It was canceled the past two years.
Most significant, says Sukhbaatar, was the closure of Mongol Bar, a community club and informal bar in downtown Oakland, down the street from his former restaurant, where he used to go after work almost every night. Located above a Thai restaurant on Webster Street, without any sign to mark its existence, the bar was completely invisible to those outside of the local Mongolian community. But inside, it was a lively scene night after night—the one place where Sukhbaatar knew he could always go to hang out with other Mongolians.
Beke (who preferred not to give his last name), Mongol Bar’s last owner, says on busy nights there were as many as 100 people packed inside the space, which featured a karaoke room, pool tables and a small dance floor. Some nights would be loud and high-energy, “like we’re in the club,” Beke recalls. Other nights, it would be more low-key—just groups of friends drinking Heinekens, shooting pool and having quiet conversation.
Beke closed the bar late in 2019, even before COVID hit, in part because the finances weren’t sustainable, but more so because he was burned out running the place by himself. Many nights he’d keep the place open until 4 or 5am, and he just couldn’t do it anymore.
Bay Area Mongolian Americans like Sukhbaatar and Ochirpurev still mourn the loss of the bar. “I was living there for 10 years,” Ochirpurev says. Sukhbaatar says he feels its absence most intensely when he thinks about young people in the Mongolian American community who no longer have many places where they can connect with others who share their culture. “We have to have that kind of place,” he says.
In that context, informal khorkhog gatherings like the ones that Sukhbaatar and Ochirpurev organize take on even greater significance. Where else, after all, are Bay Area Mongolians going to gather? And what better way to do it than over some giant hunks of slow-cooked lamb?
Eating the Traditional Way
The first thing that hits when you open up the pot of khorkhog is the smell of the lightly charred meat and the sweet soft-cooked cabbage, which is enough to get you salivating straight away. Sukhbaatar and Ochirpurev pile everything onto big plastic platters, the hunks of lamb comically oversized and dripping with juices.
With tongs, they remove the smooth stones, still hot and now fully black, and pass them around for us to hold in our hands, tossing them back and forth like a hot potato. (Just holding the stones is supposed to have health benefits.)
Meanwhile, Ochirpurev has forgotten to bring forks and knives, so we eat our khorkhog in the “really traditional” way: ripping the meat apart with our hands, the juices dripping down our chins. It’s a clean and simple taste, so purely lamb-y and elemental. The vegetables have taken on all the savory flavor of the meat. Sukhbaatar warns me that the soup is a little bit oily, but I love how salty and rich and fortifying it is—the perfect thing to warm us up on a cold, drizzly day.
Every occasion of note in the Bay Area’s Mongolian community has been marked in just this way. Ochirpurev says he still remembers celebrating his youngest son’s traditional first-haircut party, when he turned three years old, in this very same park in the Richmond hills. There were 100 or 200 Mongolians who turned up to offer their congratulations—and, of course, there was plenty of khorkhog for everyone to share.
Yes, it’s true that the Mongolian community has faced a lot of challenges in the past few years, but it’s hard to feel anything but optimistic with a stomach full of khorkhog. And anyway, 2022 is looking up: The Naadam festival is back in person this year, on July 9 at Alameda Point, with well over 1,000 people expected to attend.
Baatar, who’s helping to organize the event, tells me there won’t be khorkhog at the festival; it isn’t easy to make enough to feed thousands. But they’ll serve the fried dumplings known as khuushuur. There will be wrestling and archery demonstrations and Mongolian music. Times are changing, Baatar says. Just like the world at large, some Mongolians are getting together virtually on Zoom more often than they do in person.
“America is a melting pot,” Baatar says. “But we’re trying to keep Mongolian culture the same way as in Mongolia.”
Luke Tsai is KQED's food editor.
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