Dining in Mongolia

Grilling meat for hungry customers.

Grilling meat for hungry customers.

Eating in Mongolia is pretty straightforward, and is little changed from the dining traditions recorded by Marco Polo when he crossed this land 700 years ago. As our guide stated on a number of occasions, the Mongolian diet is “meat. We eat meat.” It was certainly something he consumed with relish. But in all fairness, while his assessment isn’t far from the truth, it is a slight oversimplification.

Salads have become fairly common because of Russian occupation for much of the 20th century, and they appear at virtually every meal, including breakfast. (Well, in towns they’re common. The fifty percent of the population that is still nomadic and living traditionally doesn’t have salad.) The salads tend toward beets, carrots, and cabbage, inevitably shredded, singly or combined, with either a vinaigrette or mayonnaise, and usually with garlic. Soup is commonly served at lunch and dinner, and ranges from Russian borscht to traditional Mongolian mutton soup with handmade noodles. Desserts are rare (maybe why they all have great teeth).

Dairy products are very important. It seems as if everything with four feet gets milked: cows, horses, yaks, camels, sheep, goats, reindeer. The most famous Mongolian beverage—the national drink, in fact—is airag, which is fermented mare’s milk. It’s actually quite pleasant, tasting a bit like yogurt. (In a culture with few vegetables and even fewer fruits available, mare’s milk offers the surprising blessing of being an excellent source of Vitamin C.) In addition to the airag, we also had fermented camel’s milk, which was thicker. Milk tea, which is very popular, is made by heating milk and tea together, often with the addition of a pinch of salt. Our milk tea up north was made with reindeer milk, while in the Gobi it was made with camel milk. Dried milk (in blocks) and cheese are also produced. Of course, if you don’t have refrigeration, you don’t have a lot of other options. And the whey left after cheese is made can be fermented into a kind of mild, sweet vodka. So nothing is wasted.

Meat drying inside a nomad's ger.

Meat drying inside a nomad's ger.

Then there is meat. And there is a lot of meat. Mutton is the most popular meat, though yak and goat are also common (yak in colder regions, goat in warmer). Mutton is particularly important for celebrations, as we learned during our visit with the nomads. In addition, it is also possible to find reindeer, horse, or camel on the menu, depending where you’re dining. Meat may be roasted, boiled, fried, or simply torn into strips and dried.

The traditional way of cooking a goat is to clean it out, fill it with hot rocks, close it up, and wait until it’s done. This creates incredibly tender, juicy meat that practically falls off the bones. Sheep is cooked in a similar way, but is cut up and layered in a container with the hot rocks until it, too, is meltingly tender. When the meat is served, the still-warm rocks are handed to guests, who pass them from hand to hand. This is thought to bring health; it is definitely relaxing, and gets one’s hands “pre-greased” before digging into dinner.

Meat-filled dumplings are common, especially during holidays and festivals. There are basically two kinds. The larger dumplings are buutz, pronounced “boats.” They are steamed and are not entirely unlike Chinese dumplings, except that the Chinese don’t like beef or mutton, which is what you’ll normally find in buutz, along with a good bit of garlic. The smaller dumplings are bansch. They can be steamed, fried, or boiled in soup or served in milk tea. A third meat-filled item, huushuur, is sometimes also referred to as a dumpling, but this substantial filled-dough pocket is more like a Mongolian version of a Cornish pastie.

An interesting note about Mongolia’s dumplings is that it is likely that the reason dumplings are enjoyed pretty much from Korea across China and Russia and into Eastern Europe is that this represents the extent of Mongolia’s empire, and the world as a whole has never missed the opportunity to pick up a new food form, even from invading “barbarians.”

Fresh fruit is a rare option in Mongolia

Fresh fruit is a rare treat in Mongolia

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6 Comments

Filed under Culture, Food, Geography, History, Travel

6 responses to “Dining in Mongolia

  1. Ian

    I was there during the Soviet era . There was definitely no salad. In fact, there was nothing to eat, except mutton fat. The actual meat was exported to Russia. In summer you could fill up on fermented mare’s milk. There was no fruit, vegetables or salad. The only vegetables were tinned ones from Russia and China and they were rare. In the shops you could just get bread and jam, if you queued.

  2. That sounds like a description of dining everywhere the Soviets controlled during that era—little food, and what there is, you stand in line (queue) for.

    Just as the Mongols left some of their influences behind after their empire crumbled, so, too, the Soviets left some influences behind. Beets, carrots, and cabbage represent Russian influence, even if only the politburo was eating them during the Soviet era. Even now, out in the Gobi, among the nomads, one doesn’t see much in the way of vegetables and less of fruit. But in the cities, these remnants of Russian influence linger, just as Eastern Europe still enjoys the meat-filled dumplings introduced by invading Mongols 800 years ago.

  3. Ian

    Very true, Matilda. I used to have access to the ‘foreign specialists’ shop, M20, which sounds and indeed looked like a prisoner-of-war camp, with a high barbed wire fence around it and sentry posts. Mongolians used to claw at the fence begging not for food, but for vodka! Just about the only food they stocked was chocolate anyway.

    There was a tiny black market in UB, where nomads would bring in anything they’d shot, for example, I once got a Pallas’ Sandgrouse there.

  4. Well, Mongolians still do like their vodka — and the Russian stuff is so much stronger than the “vodkas” they make from camel and sheep’s milk.

    It does sound as though you had a rather interesting time in Mongolia — and, from the looks of your blog, elsewhere, as well.

  5. teak

    I spent 3 weeks in Erdinet and Bulgan. Those that had been there before were surprise to see fresh fruits and vegetables. We had beautiful, creative food. Cucumber and tomato salads, for breakfast also, carrot and beet salads, lettace salads. And once, even a dessert of ice cream and logan berries. The school cafeteria cooked for us. Rice, mutton, in some fashion, on odd days and soup every other day. The soup base is so perfectly tasty, not an once of too much water. It was a wonderful surprise. When asked where the fresh food came from, it came from China.

    • Erdenet and Bulgan are both substantial cities (Erdenet is second only to Ulaanbaatar). There is a lot more variety in the large cities, including imported foods. Mongolia has almost no decent farmland (less than one percent of the country’s land is arable, and of that, only about 840 square miles is irrigated), so much fresh food does need to be brought in. The food prepared by the school cafeteria, however, sounds more traditional — mutton, rice, and soup. I agree with you about the soup; I found mutton soup to be delicious, as well.

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