Mutton. It’s What’s For Dinner!

Simple ingredients
Simple ingredients

On my trip to Mongolia last year, I learned that out in the west the drivers are also the cooks. When it came time to head out into the countryside I went with him and my guide to the local Nomin Market in Hovd and helped with the shopping. It was really fun. And I learned what ingredients one can find for real Mongol food in a grocery store. I’d had the traditional noodle soup with mutton in it, but either made from scratch or served to me already done. This time I found out very useful information such as that boortz, the dried meat strips, which I’d only seen before hanging on a string tied between the roof poles of a ger, could be purchased dried, chopped up and packed in a bag ready to use! The driver also bought a few bags of dried noodles. Ah ha! Then during the trip I watched him make the soup and knew I could do it at home.

Last year, before I went to Mongolia, we had bought a ram and ended up with 108 lbs. of mutton in the freezer. In the top photo is what’s left over from the last shoulder roast we had. And a bag of noodles, half-used because I’ve made this soup once already. I knew that dishes like the soups and tsuivan (noodles with bits of mutton, mutton fat and vegies) were a way of using every last bit of meat. I set aside the big pieces for a second dinner and used the smallest pieces that were surrounded with fat. And there was plenty of it, as you can see on the left in the photo below. On the right is the leaner meat.


I’ve divided the mutton into the fat, the leftovers for the next dinner and, at the bottom, the meat and fat that will go in the soup.


Here’s the small stock pot I used with the water heating up on our gas cooktop.


This is a very simple soup: water, mutton, mutton fat, salt and I added some onion flakes, although a Mongol cook would go out and snip some wild onion. But the salt I used is from Mongolia, lake salt from Uvs Aimag, out in the northwest. I bought a couple of boxes of it at the market a couple of years ago. I had stayed in an apartment with the mother of an acquaintance that same year and saw her kitchen. Next to the stove was a lovely little birch bark container that she kept her salt in. I loved it! And later on during the trip had the great good fortune to find the container below in an Ulaanbaatar antique shop for only $15. I swear I would have paid fifty for it since it even still had its handmade wooden lid.


I happily brought it and my boxes of salt home. My host had put her salt directly into the container. But since, as far I knew, mine would be irreplaceable, I lined it with a small plastic bag. You can see the salt, which is large-grained, crumbly and very tasty.


I let all the ingredients simmer for about 30 minutes and, voila!, a pretty authentic Mongol noodle soup. It’s delicious!


Mongolia Monday (More from “Among the Mongols”)- Hospitality

Ger near Arburd Sands, Sept. 2008

One of the interesting and, to a lot of Westerners, amazing things about traveling in Mongolia is that the thousand-plus year old traditions of hospitality out in the countryside are still practiced. It feels very odd to walk up to someone’s ger (assuming there are no dogs in sight), open the door and walk right in without knocking. After four trips, I still get a twinge doing it.

I found myself very intimidated the first time. There are no windows in a ger and the door is solid wood so, even with a guide, you are walking into someone’s home without any idea of what to expect. Fortunately, the Mongols are patient and understanding, like my first time, when I turned to the right instead of the left and circumnavigated the ger to get to the stool that I was to sit on.

At least I remembered not to step on the threshold or walk between the upright supports.

The older gentleman approved of the fact that I was wearing Mongol boots. He said to me, through my guide “I see Mongol boots and I look up and see… a western face”. It was spring, which means really cold and windy, and they were the warmest footwear I had with me, having purchased them at the State Department Store in UB. They worked, of course. I asked if he would be willing to have his picture taken with a westerner wearing Mongol boots and he immediately sat up, buttoned his del and made room for me to sit beside him on the bed.

First-ever ger visit; ok, I'm hooked; near Hustai National Park, May 2005

Those thermoses keep water hot, hot, hot for over 24 hours. I want one. I just have to figure out how to carry it home.

Ger interior; the Gobi near Bayanzag, Sept. 2006

Now ger visits are one of the things I MOST look forward to when I go to Mongolia. A ger, maybe because of the quality of space that the round shape creates, is one of the most pleasant and peaceful places that I’ve ever been in. I just happily sit sipping milk tea or airag and nibbling aruul as conversations that I don’t understand a word of go back and forth between my guide and our hosts.

Mutton almost ready; my driver really tucked in; I passed; western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
Boortz soup; Yum!! Mutton I can believe in (and eat safely); Baga Gazriin Chuluu, July 2009;
Aruul; an acquired taste that I had acquired after about three (careful, 'cause it was rock hard) bites; western Mongolia, Sept. 2006
Mongol-style clotted cream; to die for- near Hustai National Park, Sept. 2006

Gilmour seems to have relished ger visits also and provided a good description of the customs:

“As for entering tents on the plain, there need be no bashfullness. Any traveler is at perfect liberty to alight at any village he may wish and demand admittance; and any Mongol who refuses admittance, or gives a cold welcome even, is at once stigmatised not a man but a dog. Any host who did not offer tea, without money and without price, would soon earn the same reputation, the reason being, I suppose, that Mongolia has no inn, and all travelers are dependent on private houses for shelter and refreshment. At first sight it seems rather exacting to leap off your horse at the door of a perfect stranger, and expect to find tea prepared and offered to you free; but probably the master of the tent where you refresh yourself is at the same time sitting likewise refreshing himself in some other man’s tent some hundred miles away; and thus the thing balances itself. The hospitality received by Mongols in travelling compensates for the hospitality shown to travelers.”

Young hostess; near Hustai National Park, Sept. 2009 (the ger with the CREAM)