Mongolian cuisine is very much defined by the limitations of nomadic living. As a nomad, you can only really eat things that can travel easily with you. Think cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses. You have a limited ability to grow crops as a nomad, and not a lot of space in your Ger (tent) or on your carriage to be lugging around elaborate spice racks. So what’s left is diet rich in meat and dairy, without a lot of fresh veggies, and generally quite basic flavour profiles. That said, within these limitations the Mongolians have devised a very creative diet, particularly when it comes to dairy. Our guide, Ashley, told us that Mongolians have very white teeth because they eat so much dairy. Although I’m yet to verify this causal relationship, it is true that Mongolians do seem to have white teeth and they definitely love their dairy.
Our closest encounters to traditional Mongolian cuisine, and the omnipresence of dairy, came on the few occasions when Christine and I had a chance to visit nomad families inside their Gers. On arrival, we were met with an almost identical ritual each time: milk tea was poured out of a tall furnace into small ceramic bowls; homemade bread was pulled out of a tin and cut into slices; and from underneath a table came out a very large bowl of whipped butter cream and a basket of curd chips. All of these were gently offered to us, and following Mongolian custom, we accepted each item graciously.
The milk tea seemed to be simply milk infused with a tiny bit of black tea and it tasted quite good. The whipped butter cream, which is meant to go with the homemade bread, tasted like the stuff I’ve made when I accidentally whipped cream for too long and it became butter-like. So in this case, the taste was quite familiar. That said, I was taken aback when I saw how much butter they typically spread on: “You like a bit of bread with your butter?” However, the curd chips tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. I was told that they are made from skimming the curd off the top of yogurt, and leaving it out to dry out in the sun. The chips come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some are round with a small hole in the middle, kind of like a big button. Some look like big potato chips. Others are small, odd shaped pieces that kind of look like popcorn. Despite the variation in appearances, they all kind of have the same funky, sour taste of “off yogurt”. The first one I was offered, I obligingly ate it all. In the next Ger camp when I was offered it, my stomach could only manage to eat half of it before I quietly placed the remainder in my pocket. The times after that, I politely accepted the chip, pretended to take a bite and then subtlety placed the whole chip in my pocket.
Yet these were the tamer side of our dairy discoveries in Mongolia. On the more exotic side was fermented horse milk (airag), which is popular in Mongolia and believed to have medicinal properties. The thought of drinking the milk of a horse initially sounded off putting, although Christine and I were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too bad.
However, the prize for our most interesting dairy discovery goes to yogurt vodka. Yes, that’s right. Vodka made from distilling yogurt. Once upon a time I liked tequila until I had a really big night on it when I was 18-years old, and ever since then the smell of it or the tiniest sip will make me squirm. That’s pretty much the immediate reaction I had when I tasted yogurt vodka.
While I won’t be rushing to my local supermarket to seek out any of these new “delights”, I have a huge appreciation and admiration for the Mongolian people in their adaptation of foods to their environment. Mongolians have created a truly unique food culture.
Oh, and on the topic of food in Mongolia, here’s a video of me swallowing a live fish we caught in a river: