Kiran Jethwa is Chef & Co-Owner of Seven Restaurants Ltd, one of Nairobi’s most highly decorated and cosmopolitan restaurants, specialising in Seafood. He is putting Kenya on the map through his TV show the Fearless Chef which is now being broadcast across the world and have aired in over 100 countries on Nat Geo and is now hitting TV screens across the UK on Channel 4, which alongside BBC2 is widely regarded as the leading factual entertainment channel in the world.
Dawn breaks over the frosty moonlike surface of the Mongolian plains. It is minus forty degrees and the wind is mercilessly snapping around the layers of thick furs that envelope every inch of my body. Beside me, easily straddling restless horses, my guide Bootie and his son are gearing up for the hunt. Burkett the golden eagle is perched on Bootie’s arm, seemingly impassive to the cold.
I have always been fascinated at the thought of going to Mongolia. When my research team uncovered a fascinating story about Mongolian Kazakhs who use eagles to hunt rabbits, I was instantly sold on the idea.
The closest city to our destination is the city of Ulgii, the capital of one of the western provinces of the country. The day of our arrival the air was crystal clear, the sky blue, and the sun blazing. Stepping off of the plane, however, was like walking straight into a blast freezer. For a hot blooded African like me, the shock of stepping out into -30 degrees weather felt like a cruel slap in the face. Awaiting us at the airport, we were greeted by our local contacts, who wasted no time in loading our gear into Bahanka jeeps, old Russian military vehicles which are as ubiquitous here as Toyota Proboxes in Nairobi.
From Ulgii a few hours drive brought us to a family who were preparing a traditional Mongolian feast called Boodog. It’s a sheep stew made by shearing off a sheep’s fur, using a blowtorch to burn off any remaining hair (an unnecessarily smelly procedure if you ask me), portioning the animal into small pieces, placing the ingredients in an old steel milk urn, throwing in a load of super heated volcanic stones and quickly sealing the urn with a lid and binding wire. This essentially creates a giant pressure cooker: the hot rocks turn the liquid inside the urn into steam and the end result is an explosive mixture. There are accounts of these urns blowing up under pressure although luckily for us, today this was not to happen. Forty minutes later the urn was opened to unveil tasty meat that was literally falling off the bone. Sheep stew was not, however, our final destination and once we were fully fed, we climbed back into our jeep and headed 100km northwest into the barren wilderness. Welcoming us at our camp were Bootie, his family of famous Mongolian Eagle hunters, Burkett the giant golden eagle and a herd of mountain horses.
Now I should probably explain that have an interesting relationship with horses: I don’t like them and I’m pretty sure they aren’t crazy about me. So when Bootie informed me that the time had come to learn to ride one, I was less than overjoyed. “Just scream and kick hard”, were Bootie’s only words of advice. So I did (scream) and before I knew it I was almost thrown backwards as the powerful beast charged off. After a few minutes of blind terror, I finally began to settle in and soon I was galloping across the tundra like a cowboy in a movie. Stopping, however, was a different matter: it took couple near misses with a deep ravine before I felt I could handle it with some confidence.
Less than twenty four hours later and I am ready to brave the Mongolian cold in my traditional suit of furs. As we set off into the early morning gloom, Bootie, Burkett and I take take the high ground, while his son works the shrub down in the valley to flush out any rabbits. We cross, frozen rivers and climb steep barren cliffs until we eventually emerge on a spectacular plateau, which gives way to the hunting grounds where we will search for wild rabbit.
Two hours into our ride and our first rabbit breaks: my heart is pounding as Burkett takes flight and swoops down. It is a magnificent sight seeing a bird as large as this, hunting in full flight. She is on course to nail the rabbit but just as she extends her talons, the rabbit breaks left and a gust of wind blows her off course. She misses. Another hour goes by and another rabbit breaks, this time Burkett swoops with a greater sense of determination and nails the bunny. Six hours out on the Tundra and our mission is complete.
As we chat on the way back to Bootie’s house, I discover Bootie and his family have never eaten a pie. With my mind made up, upon arrival I quickly change into my chef’s outfit, cook the rabbit Boodog style and begin to make a pastry with the ingredients at hand. The resulting dish is a steaming rabbit pie infused with dates and apricots with an almond and sunflower seed crumble. The whole family gathers around a table to try some pie. I get unanimous nods of approval and I am told they will remember this forever. I hope that’s true, because the Eagle Hunters of Western Mongolia will be in my memories for many decades to come!