Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Foolproof Mongolian BBQ Strategy

See that guy with a pair of giant chopsticks? Doesn't he emanate an aura of competence, handling that massive griddle day in and day out? But guess what? The griddle-keeper will take no responsibility and no pity if your dinner is under-seasoned, too spicy, or tastes like a shitpile of broken dreams. Well, you can't blame him. His only duties are to stir-fry and clean the griddle. At a Mongolian BBQ eatery, you choose your own ingredients, stack your own bowl, season your own food. The power is in your hands and yours alone. That's why I always approach a Mongolian barbecue adventure with a specific game plan.

Leave the inner snob at home - One wouldn't enter Burger King and Chez Panisse with the same expectations. Likewise, when I go to a Mongolian BBQ restaurant, I don't expect it to be like fancy Benihana. At around $10 - $15 for an all-you-can-eat meal, Mongolian barbecue is to be enjoyed with your inner scrooge, not your inner snob. 

Color and Texture - It always saddens me to see a fellow diner with a bowl full of noodles, meat, a few onion slices, and some despairingly wilted spinach. Smothered in brown sauce, everything is so drab, so mushy and so depressing I would need to take Zoloft before I eat it. Sure, some people like it that way, but I'd rather give my bowl of Mongolian BBQ some personality. Let it be infused with texture and color. To achieve that, I make sure to keep a good ratio between meat and veggies, pick at least one crunchy ingredient (e.g. water chestnuts, snow peas, baby corn), and add at least one or two non-green vegetables (e.g. carrots, red bell peppers, bamboo shoot). And yes, it always turns out to be a beautiful plate. 

Smart Pairing - Once you hand your bowl to the giant-chopstick wielder, all the ingredients will be dumped onto the griddle, stir-fried together, and removed from the griddle at the same time. This is when surf and turf isn't such a great idea. By the time your lamb is nice and tender, your little shrimp will have already turned into rubber. Same thing with vegetables. Try not to mix quick-cooking seafood with veggies that tend to take a bit longer to be done, like green beans and broccoli. I'm inclined to choose only one type of meat per bowl, but when my venturesome soul begs me to be more fun, I usually pair lean meat with its fattier counterpart, such as chicken breast and ham, or lean beef and lamb. This yin-yang philosophy definitely lowers the chances of sorry tastebuds. 

Sauce Mixology - A novice mistake I made in my early Mongolian BBQ experience was under-saucing. Unlike a wok, the flat griddle can't maintain much liquid. Most of your sauce will either drip off the side or dissipate into nothingness during the cooking process, so it's wise to use a little more sauce than you normally would in a regular stir-fry dish. And now, a more important question: what sauce? In most Mongolian barbecue restaurants, there are at least 10 options at the sauce station. If you're timid about seasoning, stick to the ones that don't require any mixing, such as teriyaki sauce, Thai peanut sauce, Kung Pao sauce, or some kind of house special sauce. Me? I like to concoct my own--garlic water, ginger water, cooking wine, oyster sauce, Mongolian BBQ sauce, sesame oil (just a couple tiny drops), hot chili oil, and a spoonful of chili paste--and let me tell you, oh, it is riotously divine.     

Apologize to the Ghost of Genghis Khan - Yes, this final step must be taken after your meal because Genghis is probably super pissed off that we dare call this stir-fry technique "Mongolian BBQ." I'm not a Mongolian food expert but pretty sure this is not how real Mongols barbecue their food. Genghis would more likely debone a goat, stuff the meat back inside its hollow carcass, sew it up, throw it onto hot stones and let the fiery pit work its magic, rather than stir-frying daintily sliced meat on a propane griddle. Scallops, shrimp and imitation crab would have no place on his royal menu. And if someone ever seasoned Genghis' barbecued goat with teriyaki, that chef's head might end up on a spike. So every time after having a delightful "Mongolian BBQ" dinner, I whisper, "Sorry, Genghis," the same way I say it whenever I watch the dramatically entertaining but egregiously inaccurate Netflix series, Marco Polo. 

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