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Traditional Mongolian Cuisine
“Mutton was in the air. If there had been a menu, mutton would have been on it. It was served at every meal: mutton and potatoes—gristly mutton and cold potatoes.” Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux
Traditional Mongolian cuisine might be well known for people’s negative reaction towards it, but try to put it into context. Why do they eat what they eat?
Firstly, the culture. Mongolia has 230,000 herding households that between them own 70 million head of livestock (sheep, goats, horses, cattle/yaks and camels). The livestock are essentially the herders’ insurance policy. Yes, they can be sold but they also provide families with meat, dairy products, skins, and wool. Yaks, horses, and cattle/yaks are also used for transport.
Secondly, the climate. When it’s -35 and you’re working outside, a fresh avocado salad just doesn’t provide the required energy and warmth. That’s why traditionally the Mongolian diet includes a significant proportion of animal fat. In addition, the country on average experiences between only 90-120 frost-free days per year. The presence of the Gobi Desert and the mountain forest steppe also naturally limit the size of agricultural land available.
However, try to ignore the ‘it’s all mutton’ myth. Simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods and combined with vegetables and other flour products such as dumplings and pancakes.
Here’s our quick introduction to traditional Mongolian cuisine. If you’re vegetarian and considering visiting Mongolia, here’s our separate guide to being vegetarian in Mongolia – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/vegetarian-options-in-mongolia/.
- Taking Mongolian tea is a time-honoured tradition – at the root of all nomadic hospitality and as old as the history of nomads on the steppe. The everyday beverage is salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai), which may be turned into a hearty soup by adding rice, meat, or dumplings (bansh). Tea is frequently served with boortsog – homemade biscuits cooked on the ger stove. Herders mainly use brick green tea – compressed tea leaves in the shape of a thin brick thus helping to eliminate bulk and being convenient to transport and store.
- Here’s to the ubiquitous steamed dumpling – delicious and filling! The traditional Mongolian version is a staple of the Mongolian diet and always at the centre of the Mongolian Lunar New Year celebration – Tsagaan Sar. (Tsagaan Sar is a time when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and the number of buuz prepared is a way of showing respect to the eldest members of the family. On bituun (New Year’s Eve), people eat to be full – it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year.)
- For a step by step recipe guide including pictures of each step, head to https://www.mongolfood.info/en/recipes/buuz.html
- Tsuivan is an uncomplicated noodle stir fry made with rough-cut fresh noodles with fried meat and vegetables. Tsuivan is the sort of meal you can rely on when you’re hungry. It tastes great, is cheap, and fills you up. It’s a staple dish that you will find anywhere throughout Mongolia and is straightforward to make. You can find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/tsuivan-mongolian-noodles/
- First, you have to battle with the spelling and pronunciation, but once you’ve won those two small challenges, all you have to do is eat this delicious Mongolian dish. Khuushuur is Mongolia’s version of a handheld meat pasty. It’s a circle of wheat flour dough folded in half around a filling of minced or ground mutton, sometimes beef, and deep-fried. The ingredients are typically seasoned with salt and with chopped onion. You can find out more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolian-khuushuur/
- After a night out in the bars of Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbataar or sharing (numerous bottles of) vodka with a herding family late into the night, bantan is the sought-after hangover food. This creamy textured soup consisting of meat and dough crumbs is said to be the antidote from drinking too much Chinggis Vodka.
- Accept no restaurant imitations when it comes to the traditional Mongolian barbecue. Known as khorkhog, Mongolia’s traditional barbecue is a Mongolian favourite for a celebration. There are two options, the main one being an entire goat is cooked through with hot rocks. However, if you’re a little short on time then the second version works equally as well – a few kilos of mutton or goat cut into convenient sizes (leaving the bone in) and cooked with hot rocks in a pot. Learn more here – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/traditional-mongolian-barbecue/