The first time I learned eating animal testicles was a big deal for “white people” was when I watched the TV show Fear Factor.
It was shortly after I had become a city boy and my still-provincial little mind would not comprehend why these people were rewarded with lots of money for eating deer and cow testicles. I had been eating lamb and kid testicles (not of human kid, I swear!) all my childhood life, and nobody thought it was a daring act of courage! Is it because it wasn’t fully cooked, or because it was of a mature animal?
But then the show turned more bizarre; its second challenge was to consume cooked cockroaches. Needless to say, I had been acquainted with the roaches since our apartment was built in the 1960’s (which meant it was more infested than a Zombie apocalypse), and I was horrified and repulsed by its 8-legged-residents. By comparison, scorpions, spiders and snakes from my Gobi would be cute animals!
Utterly perplexed, I thought, ‘How can my food be comparable with such dreadful nightmare?’
This was probably my first memory of discovering that ‘zasaa‘ or the Mongolian dish of baby lamb/goat testicles is not appreciated, and therefore not much promoted. And here follows my documentation of the little-known cuisine.
The world has myriad different tastes and perspectives on food. When I went to the U.S. to study, many found it strange that we Mongols consume our cherished horses for food. Some dude mistook me for a Chinese and asked, much to my horror, if I ever ate a snake. Even within Mongolia, the Kazakh minority, proud bearers of the nomadic eagle hunting tradition, consume wolf meat, which is unheard of in the rest of the country. For them, the pelvic bone (of a sheep/goat) is considered the best part among all the boiled meat dish and often presented to the guest of honor, while Mongolians have the completely opposite view, believing that the hole in the pelvic bone is where demons come to reside. Eating the meat clean off of it exposes the devil’s den, so you make sure to toss it outside before nightfall or hammer the unholy estate open.
We have all heard of bizarre and exotic cuisine of the distant lands. It is part of the amazing process of we humans rediscovering each other since we took different routes outside of mother Africa. That ethnic foods are eco-friendly is probably the most important reason to be cool with others eating something you do not salivate after. With exceptions like shark fin soup, most of what rural people eat in third world countries are locally produced and locally consumed with minimal waste, way healthier and ethical compared to corporate food industry.
I agree with vegans on the inhumane aspect of modern food industry, too. Putting a sheep to sleep for food is a matter that is not taken lightly by herders. It has to be only on certain days according to lunar calendar and astrology and even the word equivalent to “slaughter” is hardly ever used. Common euphemisms are “to make a food”, “take [it] outside” and even “call [it] a bad name”. Children are not allowed to watch the actual taking of life, which involves severing of the aorta, but always recruited to help with the important task of holding the front limbs evenly upwards to prevent spilling the internally bled blood in the chest. Sitting in this position, the child gets a basic anatomy class, sames as the frog dissection experiments in private high schools’ expensive biology labs, but FREE! And there’s the reward for the labor–a boiled blood sausage. If everybody had such intimate knowledge of the food on their plates, there would be no food waste, I imagine.
So, I encourage all the current and future expats in Mongolia to go out to the countryside this summer and have some balls, both literally and metaphorically! You may not care about the environmental and ethical reasoning I pointed out but at least I hope you would consider it for your own health. Do not ask me what benefits, ask your herder hosts and they will eagerly insist on the numerous miracles that can work on you. Late June is usually the time of juvenile goat castration, so keep an eye out for the scenes depicted below.
I was travelling with four American vet students when we were fortunate enough to attend the feast last summer. Our hostess said that wrestlers especially seek out these annual feasts, as the dish becomes a boost to their physical strength, and apparently a nice, traditional alternative to steroids! Possible side effect would be increased sexual drive but since when did anyone ever complain of that? In terms of effect on women, our host informed us that it will increase the chances of bearing a child, wait for it, who would be a great man in history like Chinghis Khaan. One of our female American friends had more than one bowl of the soup, so we all agreed that the messiah Chinghis Khaan might be born in the USA. Eating testicles will not earn you a million dollar as in Fear Factor but you will grasp the chance of being a really awesome parent!
Lots of such light humor and somewhat dirty jokes revolve around balls, which is no surprise. But realistically it is a tasty, nutritious and simple Mongolian dish that you should definitely try.
P.S: Since I touched the humanity subject, especially my fellow dudes might point out the cruelty of pulling out the testicles of helpless little goats. Yes, it is awful that they are never going to get laid, but think about all the energy saved from not growing ridiculous long horns and not chasing nanny goats around. Castrated animals live longer and less stressful life, free from all that trouble and strife.
Soyolbold Sergelen grew up in Bayankhongor province of southwestern Mongolia. He moved to the city as part of the mass migration of the 2000s. He has a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from the National University of Mongolia. He is a freelance photographer and translator.