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Friday, Jan. 24, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
From the Mongol steppes to Sugamo
A chill gale of change is gusting through the sumo world, all the way from Central Asia. The demise of the Takanohana era does not, of course, mean we will stop eating chanko nabe. However, in honor of the incipient arrival of the Asashoryu dynasty, we felt impelled to set off in search of Shilingol, Tokyo's first and only authentic Mongolian restaurant.
Getting there is a good deal easier than, say, crossing the Gobi to Huhehot. Even so, it still requires plenty of time, planning and map-reading skills. First you must journey up to Sugamo, on the northernmost reaches of the Yamanote Line, and from there hike through the empty residential back streets of Sengoku. A wooden sign with the name inscribed in Mongolian script lets you know that you have arrived.
Like so many other pioneering ethnic restaurants that have, over the years, introduced the foods of their respective nations here, Shilingol is more than just a place for eating: It acts as an unofficial cultural center. Owner Keita Tajiri may be Japanese, but almost everything else about Shilingol -- the food, the chef, the artifacts that cover every surface of the room -- speaks of a very different approach to eating and life in general.
As soon as you have settled down at your table, Tajiri will pour hot, milky tea for you -- the traditional welcome at any Mongolian home. It has a curious flavor, rich with buttermilk and slightly salty, and is no less reviving on a bitter Tokyo evening as it would be in a yurt on the windswept grasslands. Thus relaxed and reassured, you can settle back and take in the surroundings.
Half of the room is equipped with regular tables and chairs. There is also a raised area to the side where the hard-wood floor is covered by flat cushions and you sit at low tables, as if in some herder's tent, an image reinforced by the circular cloth canopy that hangs across the ceiling and the clutter of ethnic knick-knacks that adorn the walls -- baubles and tourist souvenirs, hats and scarves, musical instruments, and motifs of horses and horsemen everywhere.
Pictures of a bearded and benevolent sage gaze down on you -- for Mongolians, Chinggis (aka Genghis) Khan is the father of the nation, not (as he is thought of in the West) the fearsome leader of conquering hordes. Meanwhile, your ears shimmer with the strange harmonics of traditional throat singing, at times lilting like folk music, at others so high-pitched and persistent that you might think you've developed tinnitus.
It is all a new and disorienting experience. So if, like us, you have never visited either the Inner or Outer regions of the country, the best way to approach dinner here is to order one of the set meals (3,000 yen or 4,000 yen), then sit back, and take each dish as it comes.
The first course consists of cold appetizers (reisai in Japanese). Coarse-cut chunks of cucumber in a spicy vinegar dressing well seasoned with garlic and chilies; small cubes of marinated tofu, in which the nutty fragrance of sesame oil is rivaled by the forthright aroma of garlic; and finely shredded potato, briefly blanched but still crunchy, again seasoned with a slightly piquant oil.
Chinese-style "salads" like these are not eaten in traditional Mongolian households, where vegetables of any kind are a rarity. But since the food at Shilingol -- like Chef Qinggelete himself -- comes from Inner Mongolia (part of China), these imported influences are not only excusable, they are to be welcomed, since there is little other vegetable matter to be seen for the rest of the meal.
The hot appetizers also seem very Chinese. Bozu are hot buns, which you nibble on straight from the bamboo steamers; banshi are small dumplings, boiled and served in piping hot water, and eaten with a dip of soy sauce mixed with dark, aromatic vinegar. Both are excellent and differ from standard Chinese dim sum finger food by virtue of the fact that they are stuffed with minced mutton, rather than pork.
Next up is a dish that Tajiri calls "Shilingol sando (sandwich)." In fact, they are small wheat pancakes to be eaten in the style of Peking duck. The difference here is that, in place of delectable cuts of duck, you have a dish of savory minced meat (it's mutton; you will notice a pattern emerging here, perhaps). Served with sweet black-bean sauce and saucers of other ingredients -- shreds of negi leek, cucumber matchsticks and cold scrambled egg -- it may not have the exquisite richness of the Chinese original, but nevertheless it is highly acceptable.
It is with the fourth course that you find yourself in the middle of the Mongolian heartland -- in culinary terms, that is. Changsanmaha is, apparently, the be-all and end-all of the local cuisine, served in every ger in the Gobi and beyond. It is meat (mutton, need you ask?) simply boiled and served on the bone -- a substantial chunk of spine, along with a rib or two.
Sharp knives with ornate bone handles are provided to slice chunks of the fatty, fibrous flesh. You can eat it just as is comes, or season it with a drizzle of spicy soy sauce. This is dining at its most visceral. No delicate table manners here -- just pick up the bones and gnaw on them. Finger bowls are not provided.
Local custom, Tajiri will explain, requires that every shred of flesh be eaten. It's no use pleading that you're full. He will quote the ancient Mongolian saying: "If you don't eat up all your meat, your father will die." Since time immemorial, this is the way young herders and horsemen -- and wrestlers -- have been raised.
Up to this point you will probably have been slaking your thirst with beer. But such basic food demands appropriate liquid encouragement. A shot of the house special, Chinggis Khan arkhi (vodka), does the trick perfectly. The small, silver-colored cups hold just enough of this potent (40 percent alcohol) firewater to down in a single gulp. Another alternative is airag, a fizzy milk drink at once sweet, sour and with the slight tang of fermentation, which has an alcoholic content of just 3 percent.
There are other delicacies -- all mutton-based -- on the menu, including spicy kebabs and shabu-shabu hot pot, a simple stew of vegetables and meat that is included in the 4,000 yen course. You will close the meal with hearty wheat noodles in a meaty broth, and a strange dessert made from chickpeas cooked down in a sugared syrup with a species of white, gelatinous fungus.
It is not a dessert that will linger in your memory. What is indelible, though, is the live performance that accompanies every meal at Shilingol. At around 8 p.m., the lights go down and Chef Qinggelete -- who is in fact a trained musician -- appears dressed in traditional robes and sturdy riding boots to play a set of traditional music.
His instrument, known as a morin khuur, resembles a small, two-stringed cello with a neck carved in the shape of a horse's head and is played with a bow. As the room fills with the plaintive music, the whole evening is imbued with another dimension. Their diet may be narrow, but the spirit that informs the Mongolians' culture is as wide-reaching as the massive rolling grasslands they call home.