Genghis Khan and The Making of the Modern World

THE BOOK: First of all, I have to comment on the character of the author, Jack Weatherford. Most writers are passionate about their subjects. They’d have to be, to spend so much intellectual energy and time on one thing. Without passion the work is just assembly line labor. Weatherford has taken passion to a whole other level, however, by not just researching this material, but living it! He retraced the steps (on the steppes!) of the great Khan without the benefit of speaking the native language. He lived as the Mongols must have, in yurts and on horseback in the heat of the blazing desert sun and the cold of the Siberian winter. Bearing that in mind as I read, put me in the setting in a way that I haven’t experienced in other nonfiction reading. So kudos to Weatherfield for that aspect of this book.

Early in his career, Temujin, later called Genghis Khan, established a pattern of warfare that made him unbeatable. When he attacked Bukhara, for example, he surprised them by coming in from the Red Desert. He had waited for the coldest months so that his army would need less water and the dew stimulated the growth of grass to feed the horses. Instead of transporting a large supply of necessary goods, he brought along a corps of engineers who built whatever they needed from available materials. In addition, he captured several small towns on the way, allowing refugees to flee to Bukhara, thereby increasing the level of terror in anticipation of the advancing Mongol army. Using catapults, trebuchets and mangonels, Genghis Khan and his army forced the city of Bukhara to surrender. The great Khan’s next target was Samarkand, but they had heard about the defeat at Bukhara and surrendered.

Genghis Khan changed the manner in which the Mongols fought and distributed the booty of the conquered. Only after the opponent was soundly defeated did the looting take place, and then, Genghis Khan controlled the allocation of the looted goods. The family of a soldier who died in battle received his allocation of loot. When a city was conquered, only those showing loyalty to Genghis Khan were rewarded and advanced, the leaders were killed and everyone else was accepted. GK did not advance family members, which later proved problematic, but that was left for his heirs to sort out. He abolished inherited aristocratic titles, sort of outlawed adultery, made all children legitimate, forbade selling women into marriage, made animal rustling a capital offense, provided religious freedom, adopted a writing system, and banned hostage-taking. In addition, the rules applied to everyone, including the great Khan! A Khan could only be elected by the “khuraltai,” a gathering of Mongol chiefs and khans. GK also started a communication system of fast riders called “arrow messengers.” Postal service stations were positioned 20 miles apart, and required 25 families to maintain each of them.

Genghis Khan’s reliance on discipline and loyalty; his indifference to inherited aristocracy; promotion of equality through religious tolerance and some rights for women; and propaganda, reminded me of Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. I’d love to ask George R. R. Martin if he based the character on Genghis Khan.

THE BEAUTY: Throat singing! Years ago I went to the Saunders Theater in Cambridge to hear the Throat Singers of Tuva. The scenery in this clip is remarkable.

THE FOOD: At one point when food was scarce, Temujin and his men ate boiled horseflesh, which they considered a divine intervention as they would have died of starvation without it. It goes without saying that there wasn’t much I could do with that, culinarily speaking, so I googled Mongolian food and found a recipe for “buuz,” (I loved the name). I’m not a fan of lamb, but I thought I might like ground lamb. So off to the market, where, to my relief, there was no ground lamb, so I was going to have to use ground beef after all! Just then, a butcher came by and asked if I needed any help. (Divine intervention?) I asked if they had any ground lamb, and he led me to the section where it would be, but alas, there was none. He was apologetic and said that he had some lamb legs that he could grind up for me, so at this point, how could I say no thank you after he had been so helpful?So here’s my “buuz” in the steaming basket. I wish I could say I loved it.

In Mongolia, buuz is prepared for special occasions, celebrations or honored guests

Mongolian Buuz

1½ C water
1½ lbs. ground lamb
1½ C onion
3 pieces scallions
4 cloves garlic
3 T ground coriander
3 T salt for filling
1 tsp ground black pepper

In a medium size bowl mix together flour and salt. Make a well in the center and gradually pour in water. Pull in flour from the side of the bowl until well mixed in and you have formed a dough.

Place dough on a clean work surface and knead with your hands until dough is smooth. Add more flour or water if necessary.

Place dough in a bowl, cover and allow dough to rest for one hour in the refrigerator before using.

In a large bowl, combine lamb, onion, scallions, garlic, coriander, salt and pepper. Mix until everything is well combined.

Remove dough from refrigerator, knead for about a minute then roll it out into a log about 1-inch in diameter. Cut the roll into 1-inch slices. Roll slice into a ball and lightly dust with flour. Flatten it a bit, then roll it out into a circle about 4-inches in diameter. Make the center slightly thicker than the edge.

Hold one dough circle in your hand (left hand for righties and vice versa for south paws) and place about a teaspoon of filling in the center. Pinch the edge on one side, then create another fold next to it. Continue this way while rotating the buuz as you go along. If done correctly there will be a small opening in the center of the top.

Dip the bottom of each buuz into a bit of oil, or line a steamer rack with lettuce or parchment paper so that buuz does not stick to the rack. Arrange buuz on rack so that they do not touch. We used a bamboo steamer. If you don’t have one, a flat pasta strainer or even a cake rack would work just as well.

Place the steamer in a pan or wok that has about 2-inches of water in the bottom. Water should not touch the dumplings.

Bring water to a simmer, place steamer into the pan and put the lid on the steamer. Steam for 20 minutes without removing lid. Serve hot.

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