At last, it’s revealed: Why Genghis was so angryAlexander; Hannibal; Tamerlaine ― great conquerors to a man, but the granddaddy of them all? Genghis Khan.
Now, historians can tell you how Genghis conquered, who he conquered, what he conquered, where he conquered and when he conquered. But why? What force was it that motivated the mighty Mongolian to storm across the continents, bringing civilizations crashing down in a welter of blood, fire and steel? Having dined at Monso Mongolian Restaurant, I now have the answer, but it will have to wait until the end of this review.
Now, I have recently had the good fortune to eat at a number of good, small, cheap ethnic eateries in Seoul. On hearing that a Mongolian restaurant ― a real Mongolian restaurant, run by real Mongolians ― had opened, I was curious.
Monso Mongolian Restaurant is a medium-sized establishment near Seoul Children’s Grand Park. Outside is a color menu featuring attractively presented dishes; inside is a counter where a range of imported delicacies are sold, and then a large dining area. Around the dining room are backyard-style barbecue implements and a chicken baster, and a stage at the front (it looks as though the place used to be a karaoke lounge). Decor comes in the form of Christmas decorations hung from the ceiling, a few Mongolian tourist posters and, of course, a (fur-lined) poster of Genghis himself.
We order the “steppe” stone barbecue for 12,000 won ($11), stew (8,000 won), fried noodles (8,000 won) and fried dumplings (5,000 won). The dumplings arrive first; these are large, flat envelopes of pastry, stuffed with meat. If you have ever had an English cornish pasty, this is close. The golden pastry is very good, although the blackish meat filling is nondescript, at best. Warmed up, we expect great things from the next courses.
Then the “stone barbecue” arrives. Shock. What we have here are grey, fatty lumps of overcooked mutton, accompanied by cucumber slices, coleslaw (canned?) and a mound of rice ― over which is drizzled that authentic Mongolian condiment, tomato ketchup. To add to the delight, it is served lukewarm. (Stone barbecue? More like greasy skillet.) The mutton is tough and stringy, and the whole is ―well, reminiscent of the kind of grub served in Eastern European railway restaurants in the 1980s.
Will things improve with the stew? No. Firstly, it is not a stew, but cubes of boot-leather-tough mutton in a puddle of watery, brownish broth, with similar accompaniments to the above. Puke. Finally: fried noodles. These are thick, mixed with cold vegetables, and served barely warm.
The set meals, I notice, include Dr. Pepper (!). A better choice, given the quality of the grub, might be a bottle of Mongolian vodka (25,000 won) ― drunk at high speed, and as an aperitif.
One has to admire the “Mongolian” culinary touches, though. On each table is a bottle of soy sauce, which, as far as I can understand from reading the label, is bottled in the Czech Republic and distributed in Mongolia by a Norwegian company.
The counter offers a range of European sweets and chocolates ― imported by real Mongolian traders. Service is pleasant enough, but was more preoccupied, during our meal, with negotiating with said traders to fill said counter.
This leads me back to my original question: What motivates great conquerors and colonists to do their thing? Quite obviously, food.
The British were great empire builders, and considering their meat ‘n’ potatoes diet, it is easy to understand why they chose to colonize the land of curries. The French, owners of a fine local culinary tradition, were not quite up to scratch in the colonial business, and were more conquered than conquerors. Ditto the Italians. Today, the Americans ― whose cuisine offers monstrosities like gristle burgers and the world’s blandest lagers ― seem to be jumping (belatedly) into the imperialistic act.
So, Genghis: I understand your suffering, mate, and your reason for escape ― and am proud to reveal to an astonished world what motivated you to take the path of fire and scimitar.
Verdict: A freelance writer who recently visited Mongolia tells me, “Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world but has some of the worst food ― predominantly, oily mutton.” If his view is accurate, then I suppose you could call this joint too authentic for words.
MONSO MONGOLIAN RESTAURANT
English: None spoken; some on menu.
Tel.: (011) 9045-3354,
Hours: 1-11 p.m. daily.
Subway: Children’s Grand Park station, line No. 7, exit 4.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon