Brian's Blogs

A lesson in good food and marketing

Being the arch glutton that I am, I was delighted to have been asked recently by the parents of Tom – one of the kids whom I teach English to at weekends – if I would be interested in trying out Mongolian food. There’s a restaurant that opened in October 2009 that is situated in the northern suburbs of Haidian District in Beijing and which serves authentic cuisine from the steppes of Central Asia.

“Xibei 99 Yurts” is a restaurant whose lamb from Inner Mongolia is widely regarded as among the very best in the city. (If you’re wondering about the ‘Xibei’ part, it’s because it is owned by the Beijing Xibei Catering Co. Ltd.)

Now, as we all know, a yurt is a portable, bent dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, the ‘structure comprises a crown or compression wheel usually steam bent, supported by roof ribs which are bent down at the end where they meet the lattice wall (again steam bent). The top of the wall is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. The structure is usually covered by layers of fabric and sheep's wool felt for insulation and weatherproofing… Complete construction takes around 2 hours.’

Near the entrance of the site is a map so you can find out where the yurt you’ve booked into is located. Tom says someone told him there are only 86 of them. I can only count 68 as shown on the map, if you include the toilets (a loo-yurt?); and a little online research confirms that at the present time there are actually 66 dining yurts in operation. But I doubt anyone is really that fussed.

The yurts themselves are apparently purchased from Mongolian and Kazakhstan ethnic groups and many of them are said to have the owners' pictures and original decorative items still on the walls.

But wait a minute! What’s this? Ninty-Nine yurts? I search my iPhone dictionary. No! 九十九 is the Chinese way of writing 99. So what’s with this Ninty-Nine nonsense?

It appears that it’s not just a typo on the awning. It’s a typo EVERYWHERE in the restaurant complex. OMG! Could this go in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest branding mistake in the whole of Beijing? I wonder…

In the centre of the complex one can wander about peering into the kitchens to see what’s cooking…

…while armies of waiters heave their trays around the grounds delivering to the 66 yurts…

…or use cycle trucks if it all gets a bit heavy.

The lighting around the site is subtle – I assume they represent a yak yoke or something – but they also look very good at night time.

Lamb, of course, can be regarded as Inner Mongolia's signature meat; that and goat too. So to put the punters in the right mood, you see the occasional stone beastie sitting around doing what their real life cousins also do – ie not a lot.

Ninty-nine Yurts is indeed famous for its popular lamb dishes, such as roast whole lamb, lamb's back, kebabs and boiled goat.

Hey, there’s even a kiddies’corner – a mini play zoo ...

…errrr, no. This is just to show off to the punters the freshness of the meat they are about to consume!

The restaurant sources its sheep and goats from the remote mountains of the Urad Middle Banner grassland in Inner Mongolia, which provides high-quality wild grass and herbs. Unfortunately for them, these featured pets will soon be joining some of their friends …

whence they will be laid to rest on a smart wooden board, offset with a sprig or three of lettuce.

As well as the punters searching for their proper yurts, and waiters carting the unfortunate sheep that have departed this earthly paradise to go and meet their maker, you can also see some eye candy dolled up in pinks and blues and golds…

This girlie looks resigned to having a total stranger putting his arm around her shoulders. I wonder if that was included in her job description?

Actually these girls form part of a troupe performing typical Mongolian music to add atmosphere to the restaurant experience. Mongolians are famous for a weird, but beautiful, form of throat singing music known as hoomii.

This unique type of singing involves the production of two distinctly audible pitches at the same time, including a low drone, derived from the fundamental frequency of the vocal cord vibrations, and higher melodic notes that result when the singer's mouth acts as a filter, selecting one note at a time from among the drone's natural overtone series pitches.

Apparently during the Qing Dynasty they greatly valued Mongol court music and made it an integral part of royal ceremonies, especially at feasts. So it would appear this would be an ideal accompaniment for the meal.

Because we are making up only a small party (there are six of us) we have been booked into a yurt that caters for a number of visiting parties. Only the large gatherings are worthy of a yurt of their own.

In fact our yurt can cater for up to 100 people in one go…

It’s huge. I never appreciated that these tents could be so big inside – a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis.

One area of the wall has a collection of Mongolian head dresses on show. Some have been worn by horses and others by people. But I am left guessing how the well dressed Mongolian would prance down the street wearing one of these…

But enough of such banter. It’s time for the serious stuff, as we settle down to rummage through Ninty-Nine Yurts’ leather bound menu…

A lot of effort has gone into the design of this tome. There’s a theme running through it of pictures and verses depicting the Mongolian grass lands where the sheep and goats are reared. But it would appear they used the same translation agency as for their branding…

I ponder for a moment. I know that FYI is short for ‘for your information’; but Fiy?

But turning the page I find that the creativity is drawn from a famous Mongolian song: “Swan geese, in the sky, fly in unity”…

It’s quite moving, don’t you think?
swan geese,in the sky,fly in unity,
long is the river,yellow is the autumn grass,sorrow is the musuc on the praire;
swan geese,southbound,ly over the reeds,
the grey sky is boundless,where are they heading for.home is where the heart is.

swan geese ,coming back from north, take my yeaming,
fading is the song,trembling is the music ,warm is the spring on the prairier;
swan geese ,flying thuough the grey sky,how far away is th sky,
the glass is empty ,fill again.I won't go home till i' m drunk tonight.

Some of the items featured in the menu jump out of the page at you. Oh, I can’t wait to try out the wan liao (碗料) seasoning. Yummy yummy…

We start off with the standard beverage for every Mongolian meal. Tsutai tsai (literally "tea with milk") typically contains water, milk, tea and salt. A simple recipe might call for one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and one teaspoon of salt. But the ingredients often vary. Some recipes use green tea while others use black tea. Some recipes even include butter or fat. Another common addition to the Tsutai tsai is fried millet. The amount of salt in the tea is also often varied. And it’s the salt that hits the first timer more than anything else. I guess it’s a bit like drinking tequila with salt, or the way Indians put salt in their laban. That’s certainly the same effect you get.

To offset the shock of drinking this cream-coloured sea water, I am offered some Mongolian yoghurt which the Chinese invariably find far too sour. I am pressed to pour some honey into it (to make it more palatable!) but I love it the way it is. It’s about the same ‘sourness’ as the yoghurt you find in the Middle East.

Then comes a procession of plates to our table. Here’s a fish called 鲫鱼, or ji yu, which is quite boney, but has a good taste once you have done battle with its skeleton…

There are also small portions of pickled cabbage, chilli, garlic, carrot, and chinese chives (韭菜) – jiu cai.

Pickled cabbage and glass noodles soup (牧民酸菜粉 – mu min suan cai fen) is another Mongolian favourite …

and a basket of different breads, made from various cereals and date paste, garlic and other interesting additions has me coming back for more…

And finally the pièce de resistance – 毡房烤羊背 (zhan fang kao yang bei or roasted lamb’s back ) is brought over on a wooden board, together with dipping sauces of chilli and cumin and pieces of garlic to kill off the effects of the grease in your stomach.

The restaurant provides plastic gloves for the convenience of customers, as it can get very messy munching the mutton from the bone.

Everything is washed down by the Tsutai tsai and bottles of beer; and soon, even with the best will in the world, we are all pretty well panggugu, not to mention haobao! What the politically correct brigade in the UK would say of the Ninty-Nine Yurts urging of its customers to drink to excess, I cannot imagine.

As is common all over China, especially as it is now government policy for everyone to cut down on wasting food, one of the fuwuyuan (服务员) is called over to place the left-overs into a doggy bag. Someone in our party is not going hungry for the next few days!

We stagger out into the night air and pass a yurt or three given over to doing the washing up. Few restaurants have automatic dish washers, presumably because human labour is still cheaper than automation.

The mind boggles over how many plates and cups and chopsticks this place must get through every evening…

As we pass through the exit, I notice the ornate sliding gates that I had not seen on our way in. They’re pretty posh I think; and like the entire complex they exude an air of class about them.

The Ninty-Nine Yurts is anything but bashful about proclaiming its identity to the world at large.

As we say goodnight to our piece of Inner Mongolian heaven, I find myself wondering if calling it the "Ninty-Nine Yurts" is in fact a wonderful piece of marketing reverse psychology – guaranteed to get people telling all their friends about this amazing place.

Well, as you can see, it definitely worked as far as your favourite blogger is concerned!

To get to the Ninty-Nine Yurts, take line 8 to Lincuiqiao, exit C1, and then take a 379 southbound for four stops (LinCuiLuKouBei). Keep on walking south for 300 metres.

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