About the food in Mongolia

Monastery in Mongolia. Photo by Bouette.

After the hot, sweaty day I had yesterday, a little stove top travel to the central Asian country called Mongolia is a welcome retreat. Even though the Gobi desert sprawls through southern Mongolia, she is best known for her long, cold winters (especially in the the mountainous north and on the dry, grassy steppes, where temperatures can dip way into – 40 F).

Very little grows in dry, chilly Mongolia, but that’s okay. Instead, people rely on an intensely meaty diet. And for good reason – 30% of Mongolia’s population breed livestock (the same number who live a nomadic life). With a lifestyle constantly on the go, the food has to fit in when it can.

There’s no slowing down. Nomads move about 5 times a year, generally with the changing seasons.

Orkhon Valley, Mongolia. Photo by Frithjof Spangenberg.

Just about any meat is fair game – the fattier, the better. After all, a diet rich in fat helps keep the body warm in freezing temperatures. Andrew Zimmern pointed out tons of grisly, fatty meats enjoyed in all manner of brothy soups, sausages, and even in “meat jello” (essentially Head Cheese).  Speaking of heads, he also enjoyed a sheep’s head in his Mongolian episode, which he likened to really good pot roast.

Perhaps the most interesting Mongolian cooking technique is found among the nomads where they add screaming hot stones inside of the carcass to cook it from the inside, out (along with a few token potatoes). This dish is called Boodog. When you finally open up the animal, the hot stones have not only cooked the meat, but there is a rather sizable pool of brothy juices on the inside, which are happily sipped like soup.

If, after all this meat, you have a hankering for your veggies (me too!), you’re pretty much stuck with root vegetables. Potatoes, carrots, turnips, and the occasional cabbage or carrot salad [Recipe] mix things up. Pickled vegetables and slaws are another option, adding a salty, briny crunch.

Mongolian horse racing on the steppe. Photo by Naadam.

You have two popular choices to wash down your meal. You can either go with fermented mare’s milk or Mongolian Milk Tea (Suutei Tsai) – which is sometimes served with toasted millet  [Recipe].

While I’ve been sweating in humid, on-the-verge-of-summer weather here in Oklahoma, there is an entire playground of food to brave the cold weather in Mongolia.

The hospitality is extensive; anyone who turns up to a nomad’s movable home will be invited for a meal and even overnight if needed.

Wonderful.

Mongolian women in a traditional dresses. Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Maps and flag courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

 

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Comments

  1. Fascinating! One of our former graduate students lived not too far from Mongolia, in Northern China, and I heard a lot about this mystical region, so I’ll be again following your adventures with a lot of interest

    (I meant to comment on the socca from last week, but my life has been too frantic, and I never got to do it, but it’s one of the cooking projects I intend to make sometime)

    • Sasha Martin says:

      Oh, you’ll love it – the trick is just figuring out how to get it not to stick. Hope things settle down soon :)

  2. Brian S. says:

    A bit of Mongolian music for you. It’s an Urtin Duu. These are long songs designed to highlight the enormous vocal range of the singer.

    http://www.myspace.com/0/music-player?songid=45053942

  3. Brian S. says:

    Of course the amazing thing about the Mongols, and all those other distantly related nomads of the central Asian plains, is that give them the right general and they’d conquer the world. The Mongols of course did, and dealt the fragile flower of Arab civilization a blow from which it is yet to recover. And don’t forget the Huns invaded, among other things, Hungary; the Tatars took over Russia; the Moguls got India; the Manchus got China; the Turks got just about everything west of Vienna. And if you count them as very distant relatives, you also have the Incas, Aztecs and Comanche.

  4. How about some pictures of these family loving fierce disciplined horsemen, who are able to thrive in some of the harshest physical living conditions in the world…

  5. Always glad to see someone write about Mongolia and particularly glad to see someone write about the food without being snarky or disrespectful! There are a few factual errors, however:

    Winter temps in the Gobi can easily, and usually do, reach -40F, not -22F.

    Boodog is specifically “BBQ” marmot. When it’s goat or sheep it’s called khorkhog (I’ve had both and they are both very good). In either case, the hot rocks are passed around for good health.

    My information suggests that 40% of the population still lives on the land as herders, not 30%.

    Also, one can make a useful distinction between the herders’ summer and winter diets. Animals are killed in the fall when they are fat and the cold will keep the meat from spoiling since the herders have no refrigeration, so everyone eats meat all winter. In the summer, when the baby animals are born and the mother’s milk comes in, everyone switches to dairy products, of which there is a dizzying variety, all good, especially “urum”, which we would call clotted cream.

    Yes, they really are a meat-eating culture, to the point that their word for “vegetables” is the same as their word for “grass”.

    (I leave for my seventh trip there at the end of July and have traveled extensively in the countryside, eating everything that has been put in front of me. With the kind permission of our host, I blog about Mongolia every Monday at http://www.foxstudio.wordpress.com)

    • Sasha Martin says:

      This is such fascinating information Susan! Thank you for sharing your personal experiences with us. I love how that adds to the Adventure. I looked up what you said and found sources that state extremes can jockey between 100F and -46.. amazing!

      • Sasha Martin says:

        Also, about the snarky bit – yes, thank you! This is a very important part of my mission. I feel like every culture deserves respect … I find it disheartening how callous people can be with other’s cultures. It’s all worth celebrating in my book… from the tiniest country to the largest and most famous. Often I enjoy obscure countries the most because they use such unusual techniques … it refreshes my cooking :)

      • You’re welcome! All the best to you!

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