Food of the Nomads – Your introduction to Mongolian cuisine!

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Mongolian food typically has a bad reputation – it’s all boiled mutton and not a vegetable in sight. Well….

Being Vegetarian in Mongolia

It makes sense that as Mongolia was a country of nomads following a traditional herding lifestyle so their diet focused on meat and dairy. Understandable. When it’s -35 and you’re working outside, a fresh advocado salad is just not going to provide the required amount of energy to keep you warm.

However, being a vegetarian in Mongolia no longer proves that much of a challenge – a wide variety of fruit and vegetables are available in Mongolia – obviously in Ulaanbaatar but also in the more rural areas….although you will still come across the odd rural shop that has just the one onion on the shelf. 

(According to a  report, Mongolia’s 2014 harvest yielded approximately 102.5 thousand tons of vegetables (not including potatoes and not including the statistics for the smaller market gardeners that grow items such as cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.)

True, as a visitor, although there probably will always be just that little bit more mutton than we’re used to, Mongolia’s cuisine is delicious – where simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods, and combined with vegetables and hand made noodles and other flour products for fresh homemade delights. 

Vegetable dumplings – one specialiy made by Gaya in Kharkhorin. If she has the time, she likes to collect and dry nettles from the grounds of Erdene Zuu Monastery to add to the ingredients.

So. I thought I would run a series of posts introducing you to the delights of a typical Mongolian table. Having spoken about how being vegetarian is no longer such a challenge in Mongolia I thought I would go to the opposite extreme for the first Food of the Nomads post and introduce, in my mind, the indisputable culinary highlight of Mongolia – khorkhog, or the Mongolian barbecue. Just to clear things up, this is not the foreign invention that you may have experienced in a restaurant which bears not the slightest resemblance to the ‘real’ Mongolian barbecue. 

(Also, don’t confuse this with bordog – that’s the barbecued marmot and a whole different blog post.)

Khorkhog – Mongolian Barbecue

Khorkhog is definitely a favourite for a celebration. There are two options – an entire goat, is cooked through with hot rocks. However, if you’re a little short on time then a few kilos of mutton or goat cut into convenient sizes – leaving the bone in. 

Turuu in charge of dinner

Collect your rocks and heat them in a fire – twenty or so rocks will be fine. Rocks the size of a small fist will do….no need to bring mountains. 

The rocks – obviously! These are the rocks once the khorkhog is ready so they’ve turned black from the heat and from the fat of the meat that they’ve absorbed.

Once hot, layer the cut (and seasoned) meat and the rocks into a chosen pot – milk urns are quite typical for this. Place carrots and potatoes (some people place cabbage but I’m still out on this) on the top adding any extra seasoning. You then add water to the pot until there is a sufficient quantity to create a ‘steam bubble’ inside the pot. 



Taking the rocks from the fire to add to the meat

Ready to put the lid on and let the rocks do their work!

You then close the lid making sure there are no gaps. If need be, place the pot back on the fire (embers not full blaze) and the heat of the stones and the steam will cook the meat inside the jug. 

It can take up to an hour or more to cook. How do you know when its done? The ‘cook’ listens to and smells the meal to judge when it is ready. It’s best to remove your watch, have a beer and relax!

When finished, the khorkhog is ready to eat. 

The (delicious) finished product!

The hot stones are said to have beneficial properties so are passed person to person each who toss them hand to hand. Naturally, khorkhog is eaten with your fingers – with shared knives to slice the meat of the bone. Diners usually eat khorkhog with their fingers, although one can use a knife to slice the meat off the bone.

And to finish, in the words of our guest Lynn McCaw (who took the images above during her June Mongolia small group tour Untamed Mongolia):

‘Khorhog is a party meal, to prepare and eat with friends and to be accompanied by much beer, vodka, laughter and jokes. We enjoyed a wonderful khorhog with our hosts at White Lake, overcoming the language barrier with ease after everyone’s vocal chords had been lubricated with vodka.’

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