20,000 Miles Till Lunch: To Inner Mongolia in an RV

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[Photographs: Fiona Reilly]

Editor's Note: Welcome to the first installment of our new series, 20,000 Miles Till Lunch, in which Australian-born, Shanghai-based writer Fiona Reilly shares the sights and flavors she encountered during her family's six-month road trip around China.

It doesn't take long to realize that we should have been more prepared. We're sitting in our Iveco RV at a gas station in Inner Mongolia, 1,500 miles north of our home in Shanghai, where we've been living for the last three years. It's two weeks into a six-month road trip around China, and the four of us—myself; my husband, Matt; and our two young daughters, Bella and Lily—are eating some sweaty remnants of cheese and our last remaining muesli bars. We are, I'm discovering, woefully ill-equipped to manage another five and a half months with our rapidly dwindling supplies of non-Chinese foods.

Not that we're short on other options. The RV is outfitted with a mini-fridge, a hot plate, and a sink—not exactly a luxury kitchen, but enough to cook with. And every village we pass through holds a daily market of seasonal produce: emerald cilantro tied with string, bundles of bok choy and water spinach, mountains of ladder beans and glossy purple eggplant. There are fresh chicken eggs, pale blue duck eggs, and speckled quail eggs, and staples like dried soybeans and millet. Farmers line the roads with baskets of whatever they've just plucked from their trees—white peaches, golden loquats, deep purple plums. Others sit astride tremendous mounds of watermelons, holding out ruby-red slices to passing motorists. And roving beekeepers camp in the fields with their hives and sell fresh honey, the bees fat with pollen from wildflowers and rapeseed.

My husband and I are delighted by the breadth of flavors and anticipate eating like locals everywhere we go. But our girls, eight and 11, have other ideas. When we'd announced that we were relocating from our native Brisbane, Australia, so that Matt—who runs a public art business—could take a six-month assignment in Shanghai, the girls had been excited, even adventurous. But when six months metamorphosed into more than three years, with Chinese schools and daily air pollution monitoring, their enthusiasm cooled. Back in Australia, they'd always been willing to try new foods, but now their sense of culinary curiosity had evaporated. The more I tried to seduce them with slippery noodles and crackling stir-fries, the harder they bunkered down, barricading themselves with a fierce loyalty to "Western" food they had never before shown.

Matt and I, on the other hand, flourished. Matt's business expanded in the economic hothouse environment of Shanghai, and I took extended leave from my job as an ER physician to concentrate on something else I really enjoyed—writing about food. And when, one morning, the idea of touring China by RV popped into my head, I was acting on a long-held Australian ideal. Back home, it isn't considered unusual to take a gap year and tour Australia with your kids before they get old enough to find you embarrassing. But now we were in China, and, as far as we knew, nobody had ever taken this kind of journey. We would tackle a new form of Chinese leisure travel, in what we were told was one of only six RVs for rent in the entire country.

The girls practically levitated with joy at the thought of missing half a year of school and camping out in a house on wheels. But they were also keenly worried about what we would eat along the way, scarred by previous travels in remote parts of China, where all their favorite comfort foods were unavailable. And so, before leaving Shanghai, we stocked every inch of the RV with provisions: cookies and breakfast cereal, pasta, dried beans and lentils, canned tomatoes, bottled olives and capers, and some requisite chocolate, all purchased at monstrous expense from our supermarket's "international" division.

The tiny refrigerator initially held four prized blocks of New Zealand cheddar, but died two days into our journey. The cheese oozes yellow oil and has grown a thick, velvety coat of mold in the simmering summer air; we carve off the mold and eat what's left. The muesli bars, too, were meant to last at least a month, but Bella and Lily, I learn, have been secretly eating their way through the snack supplies. Inside a fortnight, we're down to the last of everything they consider edible.

Fellow traveling gastronome parents are likely familiar with this particular dilemma—the soul-destroying experience of forcing down chicken nuggets in places bursting with culinary possibilities, because the smaller members of the household mutiny against the unfamiliar. But as we head north into Inner Mongolia, I decide that enough is enough. Our Western food is due to run out in just a few days, and then Chinese food will quite literally be the only option. When I break the news to them, they groan; Matt and I exchange secretive smiles.

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And so the four of us head north, bouncing along in our RV with its tiny table and bench seats and microscopic onboard bathroom. It's cramped inside, but hardly claustrophobic—the passing landscape is expansive. Under the rule of the warrior Genghis Khan, the Mongol Empire was once the world's largest, encompassing lands from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. At its peak, in 1279, a quarter of the world's population came under Khan's rule. Here in Inner Mongolia—the autonomous region of the People's Republic of China that borders Mongolia proper—the population is a mix of Han Chinese and a sizable minority of ethnic Mongols. The land is in full midsummer bloom, the prairie grasslands a vast green counterpane embroidered with wildflowers.

Despite its present lush appearance, though, the region's ability to support agriculture is limited because of its short summers and extended subzero winters. Instead, Mongolians have historically been excellent herdsmen, dividing their cuisine into "red food" (meat and its by-products, largely from sheep, goats, yaks, and sometimes horses or camels) and "white food" (milk, curds, cheese, yogurt, and cream).

A stroke of dumb luck stamps success on our first Inner Mongolian lunch. Prosperity Come Inn sits at a truck crossroads, the only restaurant in the small village of Five Branch Ditch. Not only do they advertise hot pot—one of the greatest gifts Mongolian cuisine has given the world—they also happen to keep two spotted deer as pets, a mother and her baby. What child wouldn't love a meal in which you get to dip morsels of meat and vegetables in a steaming cauldron of broth, and then pet Bambi afterwards in the garden? (I hold dark suspicions about the true purpose for the deer, but the owners assure me they're not for eating.) With the prospective petting zoo in sight, it doesn't take much to coax the children inside.

Once seated, we're each given a boiling pot of clear broth on a small gas burner and a tray of ingredients with which to create our own hot pot dipping sauce. There's zhimajiang, a smooth, nutty sesame paste, and jiucaihua jiang, a deep green, garlicky chive-flower condiment peculiar to northern China. There are cloves of pickled garlic and pickled whole chilies. I poke at a minuscule platter of small white cubes, lying in a puddle of congealed blood. Lifting the tiniest corner, balancing it on the end of one chopstick, I take a bite. It smells of blue cheese and has a deep umami flavor. It's delicious.

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Hong fang (red squares).

"It's hong fang," the waitress tells me (literally "red squares"). The bean curd, used to flavor hot pot sauce, congee, and some wok-fried dishes, gets its distinctive bright color and pungent odor from a brine that incorporates red fermented rice. The waitress gestures to a similarly sized cube of creamy-gray fermented tofu, and patiently shows us how to mix small proportions of the condiments into a punchy, caramel-colored dipping sauce. The blending of the sauce is a vital part of any hot pot experience, and regular hot pot–goers have their own favorite concoctions, honed over many meals. Some prefer sesame paste with garlic; others, a lighter mixture of soy sauce, dark vinegar, chili, garlic, and a pinch of sugar. I love the sauce I'm making now, with the richness of sesame paste and the deep, savory intensity of the two fermented tofus. I look cautiously over at the girls and find them madly dunking slices of potato and cabbage and thin pieces of pink mutton that curl and brown in the bubbling water. I'm flooded with relief: Lunch is actually going well.

Once our dishes are cleared and we've pet each deer in turn, the waitress reappears with a pannier of wild strawberries, picked in a pine tree hollow in the green prairie hills above the restaurant. Each is as small as a currant, tiny and intense with flavor.

"Wow, these are delicious!" says Lily. Bella nods, patting the submissive baby deer. "This was a GREAT lunch!"

I'm pleased, but not yet confident: I know that in the months ahead, not every restaurant will offer a child-friendly cook-it-yourself experience, or a petting zoo.

We roll on eastward across the grasslands, skirting the border between China's Inner Mongolia and Mongolia proper, conquering lunch as we go. The girls are no longer asking about Western food; even they can now see there's no such thing to be had. We eat plenty of "red food"—hearty mutton noodle soups, steamed buuz dumplings filled with mutton, and boiled mutton. We also eat a little "white food"—fresh Mongolian yak milk, tart Mongolian yogurt, and kefir. The food is filling and rustic, with few embellishments other than a pinch of salt and occasionally a touch of cumin. When we've had our fill of mutton and yogurt, we eat summer vegetable crops—fried eggplant, sweet potatoes, and corn. The landscape is a splendid diversion of rolling green hills and horsemen herding goats and sheep. Our RV rattles along under the vast dome of blue summer skies.

One day, we pass a field with a row of blue and white yurts, or ger, as they are known in Inner Mongolia, and the girls call out to us from the back of the RV. "We want to eat lunch in a tent!" We have already had the privilege once, when we ate hearty mutton noodles inside a ger with Mongolian wrestlers at a summer festival of sports known as Naadam. Keen to supplement their income, many grassland farmers and herders open ger restaurants during the summer to feed tourists and travelers. The ger restaurants are often informal and temporary, with dirt floors and plain felt or canvas walls.

We pull into the dirt driveway, and a woman emerges from the smallest ger to meet us.

"Hello!" she calls out. "Chi fan le ma?" (Have you eaten?)

"No," I reply, smiling. I open the door of the RV, and we spill out into a green field, shin-high with grass. On the lower slopes of the nearby mountain, I can see the white dots of a grazing flock of sheep, like scattered grains of rice.

"Come to our ger, then," she says, introducing herself as Mrs. Ma. "I'll bring you hot tea, then you can eat."

It's dim inside the heavy canvas ger, until Mrs. Ma tugs a rope to pull aside a cover, revealing the skylight at the apex of the ger's conical roof. Unlike the more spartan, temporary ger we'd visited during Naadam, the space is splendidly decorated with yards of fine gold silk lining the ceiling and walls behind the sturdy wood and bamboo framework. Colored flags circle the walls and richly decorated wooden doors. A life-size portrait of Genghis Khan springs to life on the wall, framed in gold and rendered in neat cross-stitch. It's flanked by two enormous spiked silver tridents, as though he's poised for a sudden spot of marauding.

"Did you stitch it yourself?" I ask, pointing to the portrait.

She nods proudly. "Now what will you eat?" she asks. "Mutton? Cheese?" Red food, white food. There's no menu and no prices, just an agreement that hungry travelers will be well taken care of, and money can be discussed once bellies are full.

Yak's milk tea.

Mrs. Ma returns moments later with a thermos of salted yak's milk tea, thick and dark as syrup and served in small china bowls. Bella and Lily surprise me, taking loud slurps from their bowls and declaring it delicious. I think of the depths of winter in Inner Mongolia, when the temperature plummets to 40 below, and when there might be no better drink than this. Except perhaps Chinggis vodka, or airag, the fermented mare's milk liquor favored by the locals.

Mrs. Ma's daughter appears at the door, a girl of 12 with big eyes and a shy smile, and follows Bella and Lily outside. A boy appears moments later, and soon the four children are running through the grass, laughing and playing.

The feast begins, under the Khan's watchful cross-stitched eye. Farmer Ma, seeing our RV parked next to his gers and probably smelling the cooking mutton, has ridden in from the pastures, rounding up his sheep on horseback and joining us for lunch. Mrs. Ma brings out two whole legs of boiled mutton—not fat and plump like the lamb I'm used to, but lean and gamy from walking up and down the steep hills of the grasslands. Mongolian mutton is served in great hefty shanks that must be carved with a dagger, or picked up and gnawed until the juices run down your chin, but the meat is surprisingly tender once cooked.

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Boiled mutton.

As visitors, we're given disposable plastic gloves to keep our fingers clean. But they swim on our hands, so we follow the lead of our hosts, pulling the meat from the bones bare-handed. Vibrant chive-flower paste and raw garlic cloves are served alongside for seasoning. I would have made a terrible nomad, I decide, craving plates of vegetables and salad. As if hearing my inner pleas, Mrs. Ma returns with a plate of cool, sweet cucumbers smashed with pungent fresh garlic, along with a platter of fried green peppers, blackened and sweetened in the heat of the wok. She also offers us pieces of white curd cheese, aaruul, dry and chewy and with the tang of rennet. Afterward, there are no fruits or sweets, just the offer of more mutton, Chinggis vodka, or airag in a leather flagon, which, I now regret to say, we decline.

It's said that Genghis Khan liked nothing better than to feast, but not until his enemies were first sufficiently vanquished. I look over at the girls. They are giggling with Farmer and Mrs. Ma's two children, all four chewing on gloriously fatty mutton ribs that they dip from time to time in the pungent chive-flower paste.

"I think the Chinese lunch program is off to a great start," says Matt.

"Cheers to that," I reply, and we all toast the Khan with our yak's milk tea.