Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True
August 2, 2016
Mongolia is one of the few countries where nomadic culture still thrives today. As I drove through the country, I saw nothing but grasslands with free roaming herds of animals accompanied by a nomad or two. They lived in traditional gers (also known as yurts) and survived on whatever the land offered them.
Even Mongolians living in the city flock to the countryside during weekends and summer vacations. They visit nomadic relatives, stay in ger camps, ride horseback, and enjoy the fresh air.
When I asked one of the nomadic women what she cooked and fed her family, she said that their diet consisted mainly of meat and dairy, as well as some things made of flour. She rarely ate any fruits or vegetables, as that would mean an expensive trip to a supermarket in the city.
The Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) and milk, yogurt and cheese derived from animals they raise. During my visit, I was able to taste some authentic Mongolian dishes that are served at homes, camps and restaurants.
Süütei Tsai – The first thing you are offered at any home or restaurant is tea. In Mongolia, the tea is hot, salty and milky, with a mild hint of a green tea taste. There can be variations in flavor depending on the area of the country. In one version, the tea has dried beef, butter, quinoa and salt, along with cow’s milk, making it taste more like a pungent soup.
Boortsog – These are fried snacks that are often served as chips or bread before meals, they are sweet and salty at the same time. The dough is made with white flour, yeast, milk, butter, sugar and salt. Boortsog can be dipped in Süütei Tsai, munched on as a snack, or eaten as dessert. I found them rather addictive!
Khuushuur – This stuffed empanada-style fried dumpling is made with raw meat (beef or mutton) and deep fried until the crust is crispy and the filling is cooked. It is the main dish at the famous Naadam festival that takes place every July. You can find kids snacking on Khuushuur as they walk back from school and adults eating it with their hands on their lunch break. No sporting event or picnic is complete without it! If the USA has its hot dog, Mongolia has the Khuushuur.
Buuz – Just as is in in neighboring China, Mongolians love their dumplings. Buuz are steamed starchy dumplings filled with meat (generally ground beef or lamb), mixed with onions and salt, that have a thicker texture than potstickers. I even found a vegetarian version of it at a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.
Shul – Temperatures in the Gobi Desert can drop to -40°F, so soups and stews are warm and filling on those chilly days. Soups are generally simmered with meat, along with the animal fat, so it can taste a bit gamey. The flavorful broths are sometimes enhanced by vegetables like potatoes and carrots (depending on accessibility). Noodles or dumplings are added to make it a hearty meal.
Tsuvian – Generous portions of thick homemade noodles are stir fried and mixed with meat and vegetables in this delicious entrée. The noodles are homemade and cut short. Carrots, eggplant, mushrooms, or any vegetables at hand may also be added. The dish is mostly dry as Mongolian cuisine doesn’t call for any herbs or spices.
Khorkhog – One of the most popular cooking techniques in Mongolia is heating stones and adding them to a large pot. Chunks of meat (generally lamb, sheep or beef) are then layered with vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Some water is added and the dish steams for an hour. As a result, the meat is tender and juicy. Khorkhog is easy to make when out camping.
Did you know Mongolian BBQ is a Taiwanese creation? Though the only reference to Mongolian cuisine in the West is BBQ restaurants, they bear no resemblance to the food in Mongolia. It is believed that the Taiwanese were inspired by the nomads and created a stir fry dish of meat and veggies circa 1950s. Now, Mongolian BBQs, which are neither Mongolian nor BBQs, offer a combination of meats, seafood, vegetables, noodles, or rice cooked on flat hot iron griddles (similar to Japanese teppanyaki).
Boodog – Similar to Khorkhog, the Boodog of cooking uses hot stones to grill the meat. The meat and vegetables are placed inside the abdomen of the animal instead of a pot. Boodog is a typical meal enjoyed by a group of campers. Once the cooking is completed, the diners rub the warm greasy stones between their palms, which they believe, increases stamina and eliminates fatigue.
Airag – The national drink of Mongolia is fermented mare’s milk. Airag has an alcohol content of up to 7%, and a sour acidic flavor. It is served during weddings, festivals, and other special events. Mongolians believe that drinking Airag ensures good health as it helps resist pathogenic microbes in the body.
Aaruul – Diced pieces of hard white cheese are generally offered as welcome treats at homes and at festivals. These are made of curdled milk that is dehydrated and dried. Sugar or salt may be added for flavor. Aaruul can last for a long time, therefore makes for great snacks during the harsh winters.
Travelers can also experience day-to-day life as a Mongolian nomad through local tour operator, Voyage Unique Mongolie. You can learn to prepare some of these dishes, as well as make your own yurts, and have one on one conversations with the locals.
Have you been to Mongolia and dined on a unique dish we didn’t mention? Share it with our readers in the comment section below!
All pictures are courtesy of Sucheta Rawal and Amanda Villa-Lobos of Go Eat Give.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sucheta is an award winning food and travel writer who has traveled to 60+ countries and is on a mission to see the entire world. She is also the founder of the nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give, which promotes cultural awareness through food, travel and volunteering. Her first book in a series of children's books on travel, "Beato Goes To Greenland" will hit newsstands in summer 2016.