Chef Greg Higgins knows his way around a sausage. One of the forefathers of local, sustainable dining in Portland—which he has been dishing up at his eponymous downtown restaurant Higgins for almost 18 years—he was curing meat and serving up charcuterie plates when most of the city's rock-star cooks were still in Pampers. But when aid agency Mercy Corps asked him to spend three weeks teaching sausage- and charcuterie-making to cooks in Mongolia, he didn't know if he was up to the task. "Basically, there's next to no pork over there," Higgins says. "I was thinking, I've got an extensive background in real artisanal charcuterie—I'm not so sure how that's going to work with the products they have."
But to Mongolia he went, keeping an online diary for wweek.com along the way (you can read it all here). And after being regaled with Higgins' tales of smoked camel hams, goat-meat hotdogs, battling antiquated Soviet equipment and downing large amounts of vodka for the past month, we had to sit down for a post-mortem on his travels.
WW: What were your expectations going into this project?
Greg Higgins: Well, my expectations weren't really high food-wise. Food there is OK, it's nothing special. Very little seasoning—onion, salt, a little pepper—and the sausage tradition is really archaic, old Russian, so I didn't feel it was going to be that hard to come up with [new] ideas.
You ended up having to substitute things like camel, yak and goat for pork in your sausages—what did they taste like?
Really, really good. The reason pork is king in the world of sausage-making is that there are five categories of fat in any given pig, and those categories of fats have different applications, create different texture, etc. Within most other livestock—cow, sheep—there's only one or two types of fat, and they don't emulsify and don't create the mouth feel you get out of pork fat. So that was my biggest fear: How was I going to get these fats to stay in suspension so it wasn't that dry, drippy, grainy sausage that you don't wanna have? But in reality there's so much protein content, those animals are so healthy—I imagine the protein content in those animals is triple or quadruple even the pasture-raised meat I get here. So what that allowed us to do was achieve emulsions you couldn't get with run-of-the-mill meat. So that meant the textures held and the flavors were really good…. The camel ham was absolutely delicious. Was it richer flavor? Sure, it didn't taste like a cute little pig, but I think if you served that product here, people would love it.
Did people enjoy the new food you introduced them to?
Oh yeah, I think it was pretty fun. And then some of the stuff was slapstick. The onion-ring thing [in this blog post, Higgins described making American food for his hosts], that was witch-doctor material. They were just absolutely flabbergasted by a commonplace ingredient—I went and bought some cornstarch, which is really the secret to a crispy batter. We made corn dogs and onion rings, and the locals were just ecstatic. Go figure.
And the meats? Do you think they will keep making them now that you've left?
I'm absolutely certain the ham-curing and smoking process they'll continue, because that's very manageable. And in their world, they have a surplus of certain products. Fat—they don't know what to do with all the fat. The idea that you would actually render all the fat and cook with it was radical. They have a lot of legs from goats and sheep they don't know what to do with, 'cause it's stronger-flavored meat, so I taught them to make hams with those and they were very excited. They have a lot of organ meat, so almost everywhere one of the requests was, "Can we put organ meat in it?"
Do you feel like ultimately you've achieved something?
I'm sure we did. I achieved for myself, personally, learning what their challenges are, what their limitations are, and I've got a picture of what the potential is—I mean it's immense, sitting on a resource like all that quality meat in that quantity…. So one of my projects is to put together a care package of products that should be available there in the form of small tools: good thermometers, simple brine injectors, the proper cure salts…. I think the tradition of the meats is so strong that I can't see it going away. And I can only see that as people do better economically, there will be a point where it'll differentiate—someone will make better stuff and someone will say, âTheir stuff is better. Why is that better?â