I read somewhere that “no one comes to Mongolia for the food.” That’s a really harsh and insensitive statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. Meaning, unfortunately, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have a craving for the cultural cuisine. Much of the Mongolian food is very labor intensive. It is not uncommon for a meal to take 1-2 hours to prepare. (Which, actually, now that I think of it, might be standard but remember I didn’t really cook before I came here.) For anything involving dough, that is made from scratch.
The main courses:
Buuz – (pronounced “boats”) round, meat-filled dumpling. These can be eaten as is or made mini (“bansh”) and added to soup, which also contains meat.
Giddis – literally translates to “stomach” but refers to any of the animal innards. I did it. Once. A bite of intestines. The taste is tolerable, but the texture… slimy… It took everything I had to swallow it, and then everything I had left to keep it down. Once was enough. Thankfully, I have seldom been offered it at site.
Goat head – (I guess the Mongolian is close to yamaanii tolgoi) now that’s exactly what you think it is. During PST we had a culture day where many traditional foods were awaiting us so that we could be prepared when we entered our communities. The goat head is boiled and there isn’t much flavor. And, yes, I did it. I ate a bite of goat face. It tasted like boiled meat and the texture was meat texture.
Horhokh – this is very popular on outings in the hudoo. The meat is cooked with big chunks of root vegetables (never enough for my liking) and because it is cooked in a sealed container, it is very juicy and tasty. Everyone eats with their hands (and maybe a knife) from a large communal bowl. And there’s a jar of pickles with it!
Horokh – not to be confused with horhokh above (I can’t spell with these non-Cyrillic letters!!) Horokh is a stir-fry. Another presentation of the same root vegetables…
Huushuur – flat, meat-filled pancake. Deep fried. Now, this I actually like because, rule number one, everything tastes better fried. If you can add soy sauce, or ketchup, it’s that much better. During PST, my Mongol mom asked what I wanted for dinner and I asked for “makh-gui huushuur” (literally “meat-without huushuur”). Turns out that is called “tomis-tai huushuur” (literally “potatoes-with huushuur), but they also added carrots and turnips. That was really yummy comfort food with surely no nutritional value. I didn’t care.
Ohkh – fat. I’ve said it before, Mongolians eat the fat. It could be mixed in with the meat (like in sausage), but I’ve also seen it served, fried, as a side item on a plate. All of these dishes here include fat. Recently, I’ve started to see it as not so crazy. We eat bacon, which has a lot of fat. Don’t get me started on the pork rinds… so, still crazy, but not so crazy.
Shol – soup. With meat, vegetables, noodles, rice… It’s soup. Don’t be fooled though, even nogoo-tai shol (literally vegetables-with soup) has meat in it. And, fat, of course.
Tsuivan – home-made noodles, mixed into a stir-fry. This can be great with lots of root veggies mixed in and a packet of “tsuivan seasoning” or it can be noodles and meat and fat… It’s generally a large portion, either way.
The various dairy products:
Ahruul– yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth so all the liquid runs out, and it becomes hard as a rock and is kind of fermented. The shelf-life of ahruul is infinite, which makes it ideal for nomadic people since the dairy product needs no refrigeration. Ahruul, the centerpiece of every holiday, takes many shapes and forms. I can, and sometimes do, eat the “chikher-tai ahruul” because it is a bit sweet, and usually bite-sized. The regular ahruul is too hard for my teeth.
Ahrtz – sour, kind of crumbly. There’s an ahrtz popsicle which I mistakenly bought one day. I ate it, but now that I know, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Tarag – yogurt. My Mongol mom and I once sat at the kitchen table and had a refreshing snack of yogurt; I added honey to mine. That evening, she turned the precious tarag into ahruul!!!
Uurim – the cream off the top off milk (maybe); this is thick. You can spread it on bread and add a bit ’o sugar.
The drinks: even in the heat of summer, we would have hot drinks. During PST, on a sweltering day, as a site-mate neighbor and I were heading inside to have lunch, we talked about the reason for this. I had chalked it up to being a custom; he thought it was the way to make the water safe. So, maybe that is how the custom got started.
Suutai-tsai – milk-tea (more milk than tea), sometimes with butter and/or salt. The tea used for this comes in a large block (like a 5 pound chocolate bar I was once given).
Tsai – tea. This is usually regular old tea bags. At my host family’s, it wasn’t uncommon for several people to reuse the same tea bag. You can get Lipton, which costs more, or Akbar is another popular brand and that one comes in a variety of flavors (lemon, berry). Then there’s green tea from Korea. I’ve really developed a taste for green tea since coming here.
Booze – So, I guess here is where I talk about the prevalence of vodka in Mongolia. It’s pretty much a guarantee at most functions. And, there aren’t really mixed drinks here, so it’s all shots all the time. You can sip it and pass it back, that’s what I do. Be careful, though, because that shot glass keeps coming round til the bottle’s empty. Or, if you really want to abstain, you can dip your right ring finger in and flick three times in three different directions. I’ve tried that because some people can be a bit aggressive in their offering, but sometimes they don’t like me flicking… not sure if it’s because I’m a foreigner or because they’re intolerant of teetotalers. There’s also beer, wine, and a bottled sangria that are often done in shots. Alcoholism is a concern in Mongolia (there is high unemployment and vodka is super cheap = bad combination); the last two years the president has toasted the New Year with traditional milk-tea.
I’ve saved the best for last…
Airag – the famous fermented mare’s milk: sour and thin like water, rather than thick like milk. I’ve seen them milking horses, but so far as I know, no one drinks the horse milk unless it’s been turned into airag.
This is popular during each of the two biggest holidays, Naadam and Tsagaan Sar. Now, you can also get camel airag, which I had at last year’s Tsagaan sar and actually enjoyed. It’s a bit creamier than the original. And my hosts added a bit of sugar to it, which made it more palatable for me.
Tsagaan Sar is just a few weeks away! Fingers crossed for timeenii (camel) airag!