Mongolian Food: Meat, milk and Mongolia:
Misunderstood and often maligned, the
Mongolian diet does make sense
By N. Oyunbayar
see also recipes
A stroll down any Mongolian residential street is usually
the first introduction to a visitor of the savoury odours
of the traditional meals of this country. If you are invited
into somebody's ger (or traditional tent dwelling) or apartment,
you will probably have an opportunity of tasting buuz, khuushuur
and bansh. These Mongolian national meals are made with minced
meat seasoned with garlic or onion (it can be anything from
mutton to beef to camel to horse to gazelle) covered with
flour and steamed in boiling water, fried in oil and boiled
in water. For many visitors to the country the vast quantities
of meat consumed can at first be surprising. But it is not
long before a visitor finds their favourite Mongolian food,
be it buuz, khuushur or a number of other treats. A Canadian
living in Ulaanbaatar once told me, "the Mongolian national
food contains a lot of meat, but I like the buuz."
The hierarchy of foods in the Mongolian diet
The meat-dependent diet arises from the need for hearty food
to stave off the cold and long winters. Traditionally nomadic
herders, Mongolians have for centuries been dependent on mostly
animal products for their dietary staples. Now after over
nine years of transition, the traditional diet has been used
as a shield against hunger and for the wealthy, subject to
the influence of imported foreign foods and cuisine. When
the Russians pulled the plug on Mongolia's aid in 1991, the
economy went into a severe crisis. For many Mongolians it
was their first experience of serious hunger. The staple traditional
diet of meat, milk and flour saw many people through this
crisis, when food imports from the former Soviet Union dropped
Mongolians traditionally have turned to foods that are high
in protein and minerals, relying less on more seasonable foods
like vegetables and fruits. This means a diet heavy on meat
and dairy products, the latter when sour in the summer time
thought to clean the stomach. It isn't just about meat though.
Mongolians do also eat cereal, barley and natural fruits and
plants native to the country.
Out of necessity Mongolians have found creative and ingenious
ways to use the milk of all five of the domestic animals in
the country: sheep, cattle, goats, camels and horses. Orom
is the cream that forms on top of boiled milk; aaruul are
dried curds and can be seen baking in the sun on top of gers
in the summer; eetsgii is the dried cheese; airag is fermented
milk of mares (female horses); nermel, is the home-brewed
vodka that packs a punch; tarag, is the sour yogurt; shar
tos, melted butter from curds and orom, and tsagaan tos, boiled
orom mixed with sometimes flour, natural fruits or eesgii.
The method of drying the dairy products is common in preparing
them. The Mongolians prepare enough dairy products for the
long winter and spring.
The traditions of using, producing and preparing these foods
are stronger outside the main cities, where the population
is more reliant on the vast herds for food. B. Baljmaa (Mongolians
generally use their first names), a dietitian and nutritionist
at the National Nutrition Research Centre, says there is a
genetic compatability for the food.
"Before 1992 there wasn't much research in this area.
But now we know from our research that Mongolians are better
able to absorb foods with more acid. So, traditional food
should be kept in the country."
Since 1997 Mongolians have seen a substantial increase in
the variety and quantity of imported foods, many of which
were only thought of as exotic 10 years ago. Since the start
of 1999 the Soviet-style market stalls now compete against
western-style supermarkets, with trolleys and shelves proudly
saying "Made in Mongolia." In markets like Dalai
Eej, Dorvon Uul, Food Land and Mercury it is possible to buy
delicious prepared and canned foods, candies, biscuits, and
unknown and unused before by Mongolians, products like oranges,
bananas, plums and American chickens.
On top of the canteens and cafes serving Mongolian food,
there are now many restaurants, canteens, bakeries and tea
shops which serve meals from Russia, Italy, India, China,
Japan, Korea, England, France, Senegal and Turkey. Most of
these restaurants are located in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolians have taken to the new tastes. "I think Mongolians
like roasted chicken and fish when they go to the foreign
sit-down restaurants, and hot dogs and pizzas in the fast
foods shops," says I. Narantsetseg and her husband J.Battulga.
Both were dining in the Seoul restaurant, and are happy they
can go out for food: "it is a very good thing that there
are opening a lot of restaurants where friends and family
can go and enjoy food in comfort."
Isobe Hiroshi, manager of Seketei, a high-end Japanese restaurant,
told me "only 20 per cent of our customers are Mongolians.
The vast majority of our clients are foreign, especially Japanese
people who are working and traveling here. I think Mongolians
have still not grown used to sushi and sashimi, the raw fish
prepared in our restaurant. But I hope we will welcome more
and more Mongolians in the future."
The traditional diet in the cities is more changed, more
european. And with comes its own dangers for Mongolians says
the Nutrition Centre's Baljmaa:
"There is a big problem of importing poisonous foods
and food which probably will cause the nutrition-related diseases
common in more developed countries," she continues."While
the trend around the world amongst health-conscious people
is towards natural products for their food, some Mongolians
use some food which can cause troubles for their health. For
example, fast food made with more oil, salt and sugar are
considered the biggest dangers for human health. On the plus
side prices for these imported foods are higher and only the
wealthiest people can afford them; the poor people can't buy
and eat it no matter how much they desire. This means their
poverty is protecting their health. We should boost our efforts
to raise awareness on what foods protect your health."
Help in improving nutrition awareness a poster protraying
a ger details the food habits of Mongolians and the nutritional
value of common foods.
From ancient times, Mongolians use abundant and peculiar
methods of processing meat and preparing food.. One of the
more popular methods of processing the meat is to prepare
borts (dried meat) for use in winter. Borts is made from the
meat of cows, goats and camels. Here is a recipe for camel
borts presented by Dr. Sh. Tserenpuntsag who engages in the
research of the meat.
- Separate the meat from its layer of fat, as fat will
spoil in drying.
- Cut meat into strips about 20-30 centimeters long and
two to five centimeters thick.
- Hang to dry in a well-ventilated room.
- Leave for four to five months.
- Cut into small strips for use in any dish you like.
If soaked in water, the meat will expand up to two and half
times in size. It should then be cooked for 18 minutes.
The main method of cooking the meals of the Mongolians is
boiling and steaming, considered the most healthy method in
cooking by researchers the world over. Here is a recipe for
buuz from the Nutrition Centre. It is considered one of the
national meals of the Mongolians and is cooked by steaming
and is a good fast food.
- Prepare the stuffing from meat of any animals wanted
by you and flavor with necessary seasonings.
- Prepare the dough.
- Cut the dough into small part of 17 grams and roll them.
- Pinch 30 grams of stuffing in a rolled dough.
- Put them in the steam trays and in the boiled water.
- Steam for 10 to 20 minutes.
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