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Mongolian Food

Mongolian Food
Articulo encontrado en Dooyoo
by moongod written on 20.03.03 at 15:31:52
Mainly because I've been asked so much about the food in Mongolia and also because Mongolian cuisine is often misunderstood (if food can be), I've written an overview of the unique traditional Mongolian diet.

This overview is based upon personal experience. There are, no doubt, slight regional variations (I travelled capital city, Ulaanbaatar [UB] and Western aimag/district, Hovd). I haven't included the availabilty of foreign foods at supermarkets and restaurants; they are limited to UB and due to price are mainly restricted to foreigners and the wealthy. The typical diet of meat, dairy and cereal has seen the Mongolians through extremely tough times. It is worth noting that most recipes that appear in Mongolian cookbooks are more flavoursome, Chinese (Inner Mongolian) versions of (Outer) Mongolian dishes. Mongolian food is generally relatively bland.

There are several reasons for this. The ones that spring immediately to mind are:

1) Steppe doesn't support much except grass, hence few vegetables and only grazing animals (sheep, goat)
2) Harsh winters (down to -40) food has to last and sustain
3) Rudimentary cooking equipment (Mongolia houses no industries except tourism and cashmere exports, so everything has to be imported, including pots and pans)
4) Food preparation had to suit their nomadic lifestyle and is cooked in the tents in which they live and sleep.
5) Usually they cook once a day (in the countryside)
6) Historically, they believed the ground to be sacred so didn't eat anything that grew underground...or so I'm told!
7) They can be unadventurous folk when it comes to creativity

Bar bread and icecream, food is not mass-produced in Mongolia. There is simply not a market for it. After the withdrawal of Soviet support and imports, they relearnt to live off/with the land. There is a very restricted range of food available, but what you can find is considered by the Mongol ians to be reliable and nutritious these are the meals and snacks you can get:

These are varations on the same theme.

The national dish is Booz these are steamed mutton dumplings, the size of a small fist. Encased in a wheat based dough which (made from wheat) can be quite heavy. How good they are depends on the cook. If you're unlucky, they'll pad the filling out with other surprise ingredients (eg rice) which just soak up the fat and turn into pockets of wax.

Huushuur Fried mutton pancakes similar to booz, but flat and fried. These, along with booz, are quite filling and good accompaniments for a main course, or eat a couple as a small meal. They are widely available.

Bansh the same as booz, but smaller and usually fried or in soup. Less common than booz or huushuur.

Can you believe Mongolians have pasta? It is made of wheat (no egg) and is usually eaten with mutton and a minimal (hardly noticeable) amount of vegetable. I don't know the name of this. The shapes vary. Although usually overcooked, it is usually a safe bet and palatable..extremely common around UB. I don't know if this is a food of choice with in the home, or just sold in guanzes for convenience.

Goulash boiled rice with stewed mutton and a little gravy (minimal amount of veg might be present). Actually my favourite most probably because I was bought up on a diet of rice with various veg and meat, but there isn't much more to be said about it. You don't get much option anyway you just have to eat whatever's cooking in that guanz.

There are various takes on mutton soup. The proportion of soup, mutton and mutton fat can vary wildly. Same advice as with all food drink it quick before the fat solidifies. They are usually fairly tasty. There are some other soups at http://ulaanbaatar.net/food/soups.html but I did not come across any of these!

< ==== These are the 4 most common meal types to be found. To complete the set...

Usually pickled stuff that doesn't go off quickly, such as carrot and cabbage. Similar to a mayonnaise-less coleslaw. These are few and far between and NOT eaten as a main course. Even within Mongolia , salads that are noticeably flavoursome are known as 'Chinese salad'.

Bread is usually in small pieces (in various decorative forms) and sweet (I think originally to preserve, now because they are accustomed to the taste) these are sold in big bags very cheaply at kiosks. Sometimes they are super stale, so people dip them in tea. Kids love this. Bags of bread are also useful token gifts for your hosts when you visit nomads.

Aaruul is dried yak and goats curd if your teeth are tough, then you can gnaw or suck on them as they are, if you are a dental weakling, dip them in tea to soften them up (resulting in curdy tea!). Aaruul vary wildly from being cheese-like to plasticky.

Ice cream is rumoured to have its roots in Mongolia (along with pizza and yoghurt, brought back to Italy by Marco Polo as far as I can tell, this is unsubstantiated). They are sold in dedicated ice-cream shops and are usually little more than coloured iced water. An American friend living in Mongolia commented that he was going to stop buying anything other than the while ('milk') ice creams so that he would stop anticipating any semblance of flavour.

Confectionery and biscuits are imported from China and Eastern Europe (eg Czech Republic ) and other places accessible on the railway.
Fruit is rare as a snack, but children sometimes eat tomatoes, arnitka (tiny, tart apples). Apples and watermelon are common in Western Mongolia in the summer.

Tea (Milk tea) is extremely milky and salty, sometimes with rancid butter added before serving (occasionally with tea!) This is the standard drink in guanzes and 'restaurants'. It is made by boiling the water, tea (cut from a brick for convenience, imported from China or Central Asia ) and salt together, adding milk and boiling again.

In the summer, there are zillions of milk based drinks and products, the most common is Airag which is fermented mare's milk usually offered in gers. About 3% alcohol content, this is fermented further to produce shimiin arkhi which is about 12%. Both are acquired tastes and very different to any kind of western dairy product.

Sometimes hot mutton fat/soup is served this needs to be drunk quickly whilst hot.

Forget the Mongolian Barbecue (restaurant chain with their plethora of ingredients and condiments) as you know it. As I discovered, it is actually a specific and traditional delicacy (not day-to-day food)...

Khorkhog Mutton is put in a sealed container (metal or clay), layered with hot stones and vegetables and cooked slowly...The hot stones are meant to be held after...to help with any illnesses etc

Boodog A countryside variation on this is using marmot it is gutted (via the neck or mouth) then cooked by putting hot stones inside and barbecuing. A soup forms inside.


* Food...I need food...
They usually sell food at guanzes (a shack or metal container with a couple of tables and chairs in them). They will have one or two dishes and you go in and ask them what they have that day...
Meat is bought from meat markets (within the flea markets, found in the aimag [district] capitals) all parts of the sheep are available. Inspect your meat for signs of greyness and flies...as cuts offered to foreigners can be far from healthy. Bring your own bags.
Snacks and limited tinned/boxed provisions are available from kiosks and small family-run stores called 'delguurs'.

* How is it cooked?
In the countryside or in guanzes, food is generally heated/c ooked on pans on a metal plate over a dung fire.

* Why does everyone insist on wolfing down their food?
All Mongolian food needs to be eaten immediately and fairly quickly otherwise it becomes greasy/waxy.

* What can I expect to taste?
They use few herbs or spices usually just salt. I have heard of wild onions and garlic being used, but never came across this personally. Regardless, the taste of mutton fat permeates throughout.

* Mutton? Is it omnipresent?
They usually fry using mutton fat.

* How do they make it through the winter?
In the countryside (and ger districts), meat needs to be dried to last through the winter. This is usually done in early December, one cow and seven to eight sheep is enough should feed a family of five through a long winter until breeding season (when they switch to a dairy based diet). In the Gobi Desert , this will more than likely be camel meat, in the mountains yak or goat. Meat is dried in strips ('borts')in the ger then reconsituted for cooking or powdered to make a soup.

* What if I'm vegetarian?
I only met one vegetarian on my travels she survived on cereals and biscuits (and was looking very healthy for it!) Vegetable soups etc more than likely contain mutton or are cooked with mutton fat. As for the Mongolian attitude to vegetarianism, this was said in all seriousness, remembering that the consumption of meat has been key to their survival..."anyone who is vegetarian, and not for medical grounds, must be insane."

* I've found the shop, but nobody's at home...
Mongolian men are often drunk by mid afternoon, combined with no semblance of regular opening hours, try the Mongolian knock which consists of knocking hard on the door continuously someone opens it.

* Do I really have to...?
If you are offered food by a Mongolian, it is considered bad form (in fact rude) not to accept and finish (even if this might happen to be a ram's head), although if you have a Mongolian companion, they can accept on your behalf.

Bar restaurants, you'll be eating alongside the flies (except for the most prestigious guanzes in UB). Out of UB, there is little running water, so the routine goes a little like this...pick up dung, put on fire to heat oven, handle raw meat, cook, serve to horrified customer. If you're lucky, they'll clean your plate with a cloth out of the dung box! I just gritted my teeth, said to myself that it didn't make the locals ill...and partook. I was fine (see footnote below).

There are various customs that are supposed to be observed when eating /drinking eg. when accepting and drinking the tea, use your right hand. However, I did not notice a strict adherence to these rules and, almost definitely, offence will not be taken if you are foreign. A Mongolian commented to me that, from what he could tell, the importance of these traditions were often exaggerated in Mongolian travel books, he felt that they did this to make the destination seem more quaint and attractive to tourists and to sell more books. Cynic? I don't know what you mean!

The food is hearty although it will seem heavy at first. If you go to Mongolia , you'll soon find that this fare is just what you need to fuel a hard days horseriding. It's real back-to-basics food and vegetarians will have their work cut out for them. Although the food is high in fat, few Mongolians have any problem with cholesterol and the food doesn't have any preservatives or additives (making it a bit of a lottery whether the bread you buy is stale or not!) In my mind, Mongolians have it right and eat to enable and support their way of life; they aren't hung up about calories or carbohydrate content and are healthy and extremely strong for it. I missed herbs and spices (I grew up in a Chinese take away!) but began to enjoy the taste of the unadulterated meat and milk instead. In fact, I miss it.

As a footnote you need a hardy stomach or time to adjust to the high fat content and subtle (some might say limited) palate. Whilst I gorged (I actually liked some of the food a lot) on goulash and booz, every other traveller I met (without exception) was stricken with indigestion and stomach maladies. Also, the quality varied vastly from guanz to guanz, so unless you want to forgo the entire experience (and do foreign restaurants), ask around for recommendations, ignore the smell of mutton fat and dig in!
Want to know more?
Article on the history of Mongolian cooking with some adapted recipes
Tourist board article on Mongolian food (interesting reading for anyone who has travelled in Mongolia )
Mongolian diet in general
Integral to Mongolian culture
  Difficult for vegetarians
Good 'fuel' for a traveller
  Can be difficult to adjust to
Cheap, cheap, cheap
  Mutton...everything smells of mutton!