You may have eaten at, or heard about, Mongolian Barbeque, or Mongolian stir fries that are made in flaming pans right in front of you, sizzling with spicy vegetables and beef. This, however, is not authentic Mongolian cuisine; it’s more akin to Japanese or other regional Chinese options. Mongolian food is much different. It is very heavily influenced by Mongolia’s geographical location and the types of ingredients that are readily available. So, while you won’t find barbeque or spice, you will find tradition and custom. That, and a lot of mutton!
Mongolian food blends Chinese and Russian culinary styles and relies heavily on meat and dairy. Vegetables do not as often make it to the table. Why? The short growing season is one reason; the long, cold winters are another. Traditionally, Mongolians wanted hearty, filling foods to endure, and they turned to their herds of cattle, goat, sheep, horse, and camel. Meat is rich in protein and minerals, which staved off hunger and provided sufficient nutrition. Traditional cuisine does use native fruits and plants, but meat and dairy are certainly the stars of the show.
One of the most popular and common dishes is the simple buuz. Dough pockets are filled with minced beef or mutton with a flavoring of garlic and onion. Some people prefer to add mashed potato or cabbage. Very similar to a pierogie, the buuz is steamed. Khuushuur, another Mongolian favorite, is essentially prepared the same way and then fried.
Dairy products are used to make cheese, curds, creams, sour creams, butter, sour yogurt, and even vodka. It is common for Mongolians to consume tsagaan idee, or white food, in the summer to “clean the stomach.” A popular drink is airag, fermented mare’s milk. Another favorite is milk tea. Salted water with a sprinkling of tea leaves is brought to a boil and a heavy dose of milk is added. The tea is agitated with a ladle so it foams and froths, and it may be mixed with rice, flour, cream, or even meat for a heartier drink.
During the “white season,” dairy products are preserved for use in the winter, as is meat. Often, the meat will be cut into strips with fat removed and hung to dry for months. In the winter, it can be reconstituted with a good soak in water for use in soups, stews, and, of course, buuz and Khuushuur.
Mongolian food may not incorporate spices or a rainbow of vegetables, but it does incorporate history, culture, pragmatism, nutrients, and hearty, filling taste.