The hungry, weary warriors gather around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Asia. They are exhausted, filthy and rank after doing battle with the enemy all day, then hunting game and picking berries and edible vegetation for dinner.
It’s been a tough day, but the warriors must prepare for their feast. They get a campfire going. It roars. Now, it’s time to convert one of the shields used as protection in the recent fight into a frying pan of sorts. The shield, bowl-like when inverted, is placed above the fire. It heats up rapidly, and the nomad “chefs” are ready to fry the meat of the animal they just killed, along with the veggies and whatever spices they picked up along the way. They eat well in preparation for the next battle, probably tomorrow.
This scene was common more than 1,000 years ago when Genghis Khan was establishing the Mongolian Empire – the largest continuous empire in history – which eventually would extend throughout much of Central Asia, China and beyond.
Could it be that the nomadic Mongolian method of cooking – basically stir-fry – was a special ingredient in that success story?
Now fast-forward to 2010 and the eastern San José suburb of Curridabat, where Bambai Mongolian Grill, open since October, incorporates the old stir-fry cooking method used by those weary warriors in Asia long ago. And the Genghis Khan motif – tastefully applied with large, colorful prints of the emperor and huge shields on brightly painted walls – tickles diners’ curiosity about the interesting history of the Mongolian Empire.
According to chef, nutritionist and co-owner María del Pilar Morales, Bambai is the first Mongolian-style grill in Central America. She said the idea for it was spawned several years ago when she dined with her sister and brother-in-law at one such restaurant in Mexico City. Her sister, agronomist Emilia Morales, and Emilia’s husband, industrial engineer David Bejarano, share ownership of the restaurant.
At Bambai, customers choose a bowl and fill it with their selections from a variety of colorful fresh vegetables, pastas and rice. Then, they select accompaniments from 11 different sauces, ranging from hot, spicy and tangy to mild and sweet. The price tag for the regular-size bowl is ₡ 3,400 ($6.30) while the large costs ₡ 4,400 ($8.15). Add ₡ 1,500 ($2.80) if you include beef, pork, chicken or seafood.
“All of this process is similar to what the Mongol did when he was foraging for food,” Morales said. “The food is then cooked on a huge round grill similar to an inverted shield.”
The centerpiece of the small two-story restaurant, of course, is the big, round grill, and patrons can witness their dinner being prepared. Upstairs, customers can dine and relax in a couple of comfy conversation pits under low lights.
A friend accompanied me to Bambai recently for lunch. She and I both were impressed with the freshness and grand variety of colorful vegetables that oozed “healthy choices.” I chose chicken and she chose pork as our meats, and we probably had far too much fun tasting the various sauces before choosing.
While we waited, we were offered a variety of beverages ( ₡ 1,500), including cold fruit drinks and a number of spice teas. I chose a delicious strawberry smoothie, and my friend opted for one of the spice teas, the clean aroma of which permeated our little corner.
My friend and I happily worked through our bowls full of nutritious and delicious choices and felt increasingly healthy as we read the yellow-gold-colored place mats that relate (in Spanish) a bit of the biography of Genghis Khan.
Feeling oh-so-satisfied at the completion of our meal, we skipped dessert (₡ 1,900/$3.50), but I do wish we had tried a glass of wine (₡2,450/$4.50). We’ll check that out on our next visit.
Bambai Mongolian Grill is a unique place for people looking for fast, friendly service and reasonably priced, delicious, healthy fare that satisfies without overstuffing. Personally, I really like the little restaurant and definitely will go back for seconds and thirds.