Mongolia remains one of the largest areas of contiguous common grazing land in the world, with approximately 73% of its landmass classified as grassland (World Bank 2018). That’s one reason why the raising and herding of livestock remain the predominant use of the land. And, if you have approximately 70 million head of livestock you can see why the herders of Mongolia sustain their lives primarily with the products of their domestic livestock – meat and milk. The milk is also used to turn into Tsagaan Idee (White Food) – traditional Mongolian dairy products.
Summer is when Mongolia traditionally receives a majority of its rainfall and the summer rains bring fresh grass growth to the steppe. Mongolia’s herders move their livestock to the rich summer pasture so their animals can fatten, enabling them to survive the harsh winter. But, summer is also known as the White Season due to the processing of the livestock’s milk into other dairy products.
There are regional varieties, but Mongolian dairy products can be broadly classified as fat or protein-based or fermented and range from sun-dried curds known as aaruul to the infamous airag, the fermented mare’s milk. When the quantity of milk or by-products is too small to process, it is accumulated over some days, allowed to sour naturally and then treated.
As travellers to Mongolia will tell you, many of Mongolia’s Tsagaan Idee products are unique! Here are a few of our favourites…
Orom – Clotted Cream
This is the perfect ingredient for afternoon tea. One of the best dairy products out there. Ever. No contest. This is when milk is boiled to separate the cream. Yak milk (or camel milk if you’re in the Gobi) is considered best because of the high-fat content. It is at its most delicious with jam (short on jam? just add a sprinkling of sugar) on a thick slice of bread.
If orum is one of the best dairy products out there then khailmag is the best (if you’re reading this Ross then I can see you nodding your head in agreement). What is it? It’s basically caramelised clotted cream. The cream is heated in a pan and sugar and flour (and sometimes raisins) are combined into the mix (once any liquid fat has been scooped away).
Aaruul – Hard curds
To make the curds, yoghurt is strained. The resulting solids are pressed between heavy stones or wooden boards and then cut into different shapes. They are then left on the roof of the ger to dry in the sun and the wind. Typically the taste is a combination of sour and sweet. It is especially important in winter and spring when there is little or no fresh milk.
Tarag – Yoghurt
With the amount of milk available, it is not surprising that yoghurt is a popular and staple dairy product in Mongolia. In the countryside, everyone makes their own yoghurt by warming up the milk – bringing it to the boil – and adding a small amount of yoghurt. Families let it stand overnight in a warm place, and it’s ready.
Airag – Fermented Mare’s Milk
As described by one of our guests, ‘it smells like yak.’ Shimiin arkhi is the traditional vodka of Mongolia and you’ll be surprised how many herding families own their own still! It’s made by heating milk, yeast and yoghurt culture then using an open vat on top of a large cooking pot with a second pot acting as a lid but holding cold water. When heated, this will create condensation which will drip down to the collecting bowl in the centre. This distillation process produces ‘milk vodka’ and the alcohol content can be between 10 to 20%.
Whatever you choose to eat on your trip to Mongolia, be sure to try some of Mongolia’s infamous vodka (usually made with Mongolian wheat/barley). Toast your travelling companions, toast your Mongolian team and make sure to toast the spectacular country that is Mongolia. Toktoi!
For more on Mongolia’s traditional cuisine follow this link to another EL blog post – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/traditional-mongolian-cuisine/
If you’re inspired by our informal blog posts, why not consider exploring our Mongolia with us? Here’s a link to our range and style of tour experiences – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/mongolia-tours/ including our 13-day Food Of The Nomads tailor made experience.