Mongolian Barbecue, Restaurant-Style
The so-called “Mongolian barbecue” beyond the borders of Mongolia is a totally different dish. The Mongolians had never even heard of it until 2005, when an American entrepreneur opened a franchise of the Michigan-based BD’s Mongolian Barbecue in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
If you’ve ever been to any of the Mongolian barbecue chain restaurants in the U.S. (BD’s, HuHot, Genghis Grill) you’ve eaten a stir-fried concoction served over rice or noodles in a bowl. You select your own ingredients: thinly sliced beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, fish, and seafood, along with many non-Mongolian raw vegetables such as napa cabbage, snow peas, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, lotus roots, mushrooms, tofu, and water chestnuts, with a choice of seasonings, too (garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sweet-and-sour source, sesame oil, chile oil). These are all cooked together on a huge steel griddle, in an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs deftly manipulate 3-foot-long metal “swords” to keep the ingredients constantly moving over the hot surface.
The list of ingredients should give you a clue to the origin of this dish, which is neither Mongolian nor barbecue. That’s right: It’s Chinese, probably invented in Taiwan in the 1970s, although its roots might be in Japanese-restaurant teppanyaki griddle cooking, which itself dates only from the mid-1940s. The popularity of this kind of cooking has now spread around the world, to the extent that most people outside of Mongolia think that Mongolian barbecue is a colorful griddle-fried dish eaten at restaurants, not outdoor campfire food cooked with hot stones.
Giant-griddle cooking has become so profitable that many all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets in the U.S. have added a Mongolian barbecue section, just to keep up with the competition. Forget the Mongols. It’s those U.S. and Chinese capitalists you have to watch out for.