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.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.”