Where: Mongolia, Northeast Asia
Tastes: Plain and salty with no spice
Staples: Mutton, yak cheese & yoghurts
Beverages: Vodka, milk, & tea
National Dishes: Dumplings, Marmot, fermented horse milk drink. Yum Yum! (or Yak Yak)
Mutton Dressed As… Mutton
Mutton, in various forms – boiled, stewed, as a filling for steamed dumplings, cooked with fat and flour, or served with noodles – is the staple national dish, to such an extent that the smell is inescapable, and travellers often complain of smelling of it for weeks after their return from Mongolia. In whatever form it comes, it is almost always very greasy, and very plain. The Mongolians don’t believe in using much seasoning, so it may be an idea to bring your own if you want to spice things up a little. The reason for this fatty, high protein food, is that the nomadic Mongolians traditionally need the winter flab to get through their long, cold winters.
A Little Drinkie
Mutton products are often supplemented with a variety of dairy products made from yak or horse milk, including the dubious delicacies of dried milk curd, and fermented cheese. Dairy products also form the base of Mongolia’s two main alcoholic specialities, nermalike, a kind of vodka distilled from yoghurt, and airag, made from fermented horse’s milk. The main non-alcoholic drink is suutei tsai, a kind of salty tea, made from a combination of hot water, mare or yaks milk, butter, rice, lots of salt, and possibly some tea. Salty tea is drunk in large quantities before eating as it’s believed to aid digestion.
For variety from mutton, you could always try horsemeat, particularly popular in Western Mongolia, or roasted marmot. Marmot hunting is a traditional nomadic past time. They are killed and cooked whole, without puncturing their skin. Cooked from the inside out by stuffing with hot rocks, while fur is singed off with a blowtorch. The animal puffs up and the arms and legs extend as steam and the stones cook the marmot from the inside. It is then eaten, and washed down with mare’s milk.
Extreme seasons make growing vegetables extremely difficult, so they are very hard to come by, except onions, swede, and other root vegetables that grow in harsh conditions and last for a long time. This of course makes maintaining a vegetarian diet in Mongolia very difficult, and vegetarians may find themselves living on rice and Mongolia’s almost unpalatable cheeses.
The most popular Mongolian dessert is boortsog, a fried pastry shaped in triangles and made with the typical biscuit ingredients. This golden brown delight can be wonderfully paired with tea or coffee and is a great option for a light snack.
Where To Eat
For a typical Mongolian eating experience you could go to a Guanz, a sort of Mongolian canteen, which is commonly found in towns and beside roads, and serves cheap food for workers. Breakfast and lunch are the most important meals of the day, and they serve the usual collection of national staples.
If the meat diet isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of vegetarian markets and restaurants you can visit, such as Luna Blanca, a small family owned business serving Mongolian cuisine that is vegan- friendly and gluten-free.
Mongolia Street Connection
A list of popular Mongolian recipes, so you can create such delights as Mutton soup in your own home
By Guilia Vincenzi