Summer is here and I thought I’d present a photo essay on one of the most beloved foods in Mongolia….marmot. Say “tarvaga” to the average Mongolian and watch their eyes light up.
Unfortunately, the native Siberian marmots have gone from occupying the steppes in the millions to Endangered in just ten years, having experienced a 70% population drop. The major contributor to this decline was a demand for the pelts by….the Chinese.
Hunting is still allowed during August and September, depending on population numbers, according the species listing in the IUCN Red List. Hunting can also be shut down if bubonic plague flairs up. It turns out that marmots in Mongolia are the source vector for the bubonic plague that hit Europe in the 1340s. The Mongols know that if they see a marmot behaving strangely, then it is likely that plague is present.
The cooking traditions surrounding marmot in Mongolia is the stuff of visitor legend. A number of the travel accounts I’ve read have an account of the preparation of marmot, always with a “and you won’t believe this, but….” tone.
I finally had my chance to try it last year. Since this was a personal extension of hospitality to me because they knew I liked Mongol food, I will allow my hosts to remain anonymous.
(Important note: if you are squeamish or think that meat starts out wrapped in cellophane, you may want to stop reading here. This photo essay will show the whole process from beginning to end.)
Any Mongols reading this are invited to add comments, stories, corrections in the comment section. This is accurate to the best of my knowledge, based on what I saw and was told.
I think that in order to communicate with some immediacy one single day that had enough incident for three, I’m going to simply quote my journal entry for July 15, adding images as needed.
“What an amazing day. Went south-west with Orog Nuur as our goal. Khatnaa knew there was the Taatsin Gol to cross, so stopped at a petrol station to ask about it. Also there were two van loads of Mongols from Togrog who were heading west to mine for gold. Usual Mongol socializing and information exchange ensued.
A third van showed up and all headed towards the river, which was flooded due to rains in the Hangai Mountains.
We got across one stream, but were stopped by a broad ribbon of streams and mud. The main channel was moving fast and pulsing with even more water.
Went back up to the bluff overlooking the river and had lunch, watching the three van loads of Mongols look for a way across and mess around in the water.
Went back down to the river. Khatnaa walked a long way to see if he could find a crossing point, but came back and told us that the last stream of water was the worst of all. So we were faced with going north 100 km to the closest bridge. Such is travel in Mongolia.
Suddenly, there was action with one of the vans. A bunch of guys had formed a line across one point of the main channel and the van charged into the water, started to stall, but the guys all got behind it and pushed it on through!
Well, if a van could make it, our big Land Cruiser certainly could and did, without even needing a push. We did end up with an extra passenger, a little eej (mother) who wasn’t about to miss her chance to ride in our big car.
We got out on the other side and I photographed the other two vans making the crossing. Then said our good-byes.
We followed one van up a soft sand slope. It promptly got stuck so we rolled back down and went around it and on up the hill.
The entire “adventure” of the river crossing was a perfect example of Mongol practicality, improvisational skills and good humor. No one at any point got angry, showed frustration or swore. When it looked like things had stalled out, the guys took a break and goofed around in the water. Or so it seemed. They were clearly having fun but they were, in retrospect, also searching for a crossing point.
The spot they found was one where the channel wasn’t too wide or deep and where they felt the bottom was solid enough for a vehicle to get across with a minimal chance of getting stuck.
Without winches, cables or even rope, they simply used the same solution they always do – push.”
Once across, we were really able to roll for awhile on good earth roads.
At this point we knew that the lake, Orog Nuur, was 2/3 full and that the river flowing into it was impassible due to run-off from the mountains. But we had also been told that there was a road on the opposite side of the lake.
Khatnaa spotted a ger and drove over to it. I usually just stay in the car while he asks directions, but his time he gestured me to get out and said “Let’s visit.”
We ended up spending around two hours with Batsuuri and his family.
When we entered their large, comfortable ger, the first thing I noticed was two boys sitting on the floor watching Star Wars:The Phantom Menace on a small flat screen tv. Batsuuri was sitting on the floor, a couple of older girls were going in and out and Javhlan, his wife, was just starting, I found out later, to make suutai tsai (milk tea). I’ve drunk a fair amount of it by this time, but had never seen it made before.
A bowl of small squares of fried bread and sugar cubes was placed in front of us. The movie ended and the two boys, both Mongol but one had blond hair, started playing with a bunch of nails they had pulled out of a bag. I watched them happily amuse themselves for over half an hour, arranging the nails in various patterns and finally using a closely lined up row of them as a little hammered dulcimer.
At one point a wrestling competition came on the tv and I knew that we were going to be staying for awhile because Khatnaa is a BIG wrestling fan.
Javhlan asked if we would like to try camel milk airag. We all said yes. It was delicious, of course.
As we sat, and Khatnaa and Soyoloo chatted with our hosts (Besides camels, they have about 300 other animals. They lost 10-15 in the zud, nothing, really.), Javhlan made a meal of rice with meat in it and we ended up having dinner with the family.
Then it was time for her to milk the camels. They have 40 camels, seven of which had babies. So I found myself with another amazing photo opportunity.
I was wearing one of (local Humboldt County artist) Bekki Scotto’s hand-dyed rayon t-shirts and had Khatnaa take some pictures of me standing in front of the camels. I think Bekki will like that.
Once the milking was over it was time to leave, but it turned out that there is more than one road around the lake. Batsuuri offered to take us part of the way on his motorbike. Khatnaa provided petrol from a jerry can he had in the car. They had almost finished syphoning when who should pull up but one of the three vans! They had taken the main road to the river, found it flooded and had come back to the only ger for miles to find out if there was an alternate route, so Batsuuri showed them the way also. Once he’d gotten us to the correct road, we waved goodbye and drove on into a large saxaul forest, much of which was in light, almost white, sand. Many stops for pictures. And berries!
Finally we could see the lake, Orog Nuur, in the distance. The passing clouds were creating gorgeous spotlite areas on the mountain range to our left.
We made one more quick stop at a herder’s ger and then found a track down to the lake. We parked, got out, walked down to the shore and Khatnaa announced that we had arrived at “bird heaven”. Indeed. The shoreline had birds from one end to the other. The lake edge had even more mosquitos. I observed that it looked like we had also arrived at “mosquito heaven”, which Khatnaa thought was pretty funny.
But we sure weren’t going to be able to camp there. So we moved away far enough to be out of the worst of it, put on insect repellent that Soyoloo had handy and set up camp.
It ended up being cook’s night off since we were all pretty full from the meal at Batsuuri’s. Lunch had been a delicious white fish from Khovsgol Nuur. We all had some leftover fish with rice and a few cookies and we were fine.
In the meantime, the mosquitos were getting pretty annoying. We had no netting, so , once again, Mongol ingenuity rode to the rescue. Khatnaa went out and gathered a small bag of animal dung which he piled up and set smoking with a small blowtorch. We put our chairs in its path. Problem solved. Until the breeze kept changing direction. Soyoloo came up with a brilliant solution. She turned a metal flat-bottomed bowl upside down and had Khatnaa got a small dung fire burning on it, which meant that instead of moving our chairs to stay in the smoke, we simply moved the smoke. We dubbed it our “nomadic dung fire”.
We sat until dark, watching a lightning storm across the lake from us, a spectacular sunset to the north and listening to the Javhlan CD I’d brought from UB, finishing off the last of the bottle of Chinggis Gold vodka and chatting about all kinds of things. A perfect ending to a perfect day.”
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.