We hosted our Mongolian friend, her husband and two other couples for a Tsagaan Sar party this past Saturday night. Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and the name means “White Moon”. In Mongolia, it’s about three days of visiting, gift-giving and lots of food and drink. As I was thinking about what to post today, I realized that I haven’t written about the food and, when I poked around my photos, found that I’ve ended up with quite a few images (I take pictures of everything). So, here’s an “album” of Mongolian food, with commentary. My apologies in advance for any homesickness this may cause my Mongolian readers.
One of our stops when I was in western Mongolia in 2006 was this huge salt deposit. And, yes, we drove right out over that “bridge”. If you’ve ever played the game “Civilization”, then you can understand how this resonated with me. For how many thousands of years have people been coming here to get salt?
There happened to be two men doing exactly that. Some of our party had to give it a try. At the end of the handle is a scoop with holes in it to let the liquid run out. It seemed to be trickier to do than it looked, so the local guys were pretty amused.
The brown meat in the bowl is goat. The “Mongolian BBQ” that we get in the US is a Chinese invention and has nothing to do with how real Mongols eat. Their diet has traditionally been meat and dairy, diary and meat. Sheep and goats are slaughtered by cutting a slit in the stomach area, inserting a finger, hooking and pulling a vein (Thank you, Narantsogt, for the correction from what I had previously written. He has more info in the comments section) . Pretty humane and it keeps blood from going all over in a country where there isn’t extra water for cleanup.
Here’s the meat in the pot after the foal branding at Arburd Sands. We were invited, but it was getting dark and it looked like the guys were settling in for a very convivial evening that was going to run very late.
Sometimes the goat is simply butchered and hung up in the ger for use. I was told that this much goat meat would feed 3-4 Mongols for about two weeks. The humidity in Mongolia hovers around 10% max., so meat will keep in the dry air. On the other hand, the Mongols have been eating this way for centuries and have defenses against whatever might get into the meat. Westerners don’t, so we have to be careful what we eat. The head will be on the menu too. Nothing is wasted.
We stopped in a soum center (county seat) in western Mongolia for lunch. While we were waiting for our food, I saw these three ladies with meat to sell. They saw me take the picture and I went over and managed to tell them that I was from California. More smiles. Hope they sold out.
Maybe the most beloved item of Mongolian cuisine. Families make thousands of them for Tsaagan Sar. Generally the filling is mutton. I asked if I could take pictures and, from their expressions, their reaction was along the lines of, “Well, if you want to photograph something sooo ordinary, be our guest….What will those visitors think of next?” I guess the equivalent here would be taking pictures of a McDonald’s. I ate four. I practically had mutton fat running down my arm. They were one of the best things I’ve ever had when traveling. I can’t possibly miss them as much of the Mongols, but I’m really looking forward to my next trip.
There’s a recipe for buuz here. We’ve done them now with lamb and on Saturday we used ground beef. We are going to try to find mutton later this year.
On to dairy:
Aruul is essentially dried milk. Mare’s milk is heated up on the ger stove and separated. The solids (which Narantsogt says he remembers as cheese and yogurt) are mixed with water and flour and formed into a variety of shapes and put out in the sun to dry, usually on the top of the ger. It tastes kind of like an slightly acidic yogurt and is an acquired taste, I would think, for most westerners. It took me about three bites. Careful bites, with my molars, because this stuff is hard. But it’s the perfect snack food in the field. Pure protein.
We were visiting a ger adjacent to Hustai National Park and, instead of aruul, I was offered this: pure cream to spread on the bread. Oh my goodness. I really had to get a grip on my manners, because I could easily have eaten all of it. But one has to remember that the Mongols will give you the last of what they have and do without in order to meet their obligations as hosts and many live pretty close to the edge.
Then they handed me a glass, which I assumed at first was the usual milk tea. After a few sips it dawned on me that it had to be the legendary airag (or kumiss, fermented mare’s milk). This was in September, so it was very late in the airag season. It can be “problematical” for western digestive systems and the feedback loop is very, very short. I decided to throw caution to the winds and drank about 4-5 oz. No problem. Whew.
Last year, at Arburd Sands, we were hosted by a local horse trainer and his family, who have 300+ horses. So there was LOTS of airag. This vessel was full to the brim. Fortunately, we weren’t expected to drink the entire contents of those rather large bowls. I think the idea was more for the host to be able to demonstrate the household’s generosity by offering brimming cups. The vodka was Chinggis Khan Gold, I think, which was excellent. The little cubes behind it were a soft cheese. Also delicious.
Finally, a menu item that I have not had the opportunity to try yet, but which is probably as near and dear to as many Mongol’s hearts as buuz. That would be….marmot.
The Mongols who like marmot, REALLY like marmot. When speaking of it, they get this kind of far away look as if remembering every bite they’ve ever had and are savoring it all over again. I’ll leave the hunting details to another time. If any Mongols reading this want to send me an accurate description and/or account, I’ll gladly post it. The traditional preparation involves gutting the animal and removing the fur with a, wait for it, blowtorch. Then it’s cooked over a fire. On a cultural note, it turns out marmots living in Mongolia are the original disease vector for the bubonic plague (Black Death) that hit Europe in the late 1340s.
When you’ve come in from the countryside, there are lots of good restaurants in UB, including…a Chinese-style Mongolian BBQ, which has proved to be very popular with the actual Mongolians.
If you are going to Mongolia, get the Lonely Planet guide.
For more on Tsagaan Sar and things Mongolian, I HIGHLY recommend the Asian Gypsy blog.