The Lonely Planet warns that food is “more for survival than taste”
The authors of our guide books were not enthusiastic about the Mongolian food. Mutton, dairy products and nothing else. This might become boring when traveling for four weeks in Mongolia. Also, salted milk tea is something I cannot imagine to drink. Ursula and I decided to pack some crackers, some chocolate, some tea bags and some bouillon cubes to add a bit of variety to our diet. But… we did not need all this and we gave it away almost untouched, before returning home. We found the food not bad at all.
Yes – there IS a lot of mutton (and it is mutton, not lamb)
Mongolians love their animals though they eat a lot of meat. They try not to waste their lives and do not kill young lambs. They only slaughter older animals, and they do it very gently, as we could watch once. The man stroke the animal, cut into the abdominal wall (Bauchdecke) and then severed the artery to interrupt the blood supply to the brain. The mutton passed out within seconds (for a description in German see “wie ein Schaf in die Milchkanne kommt“).
The Mongolians prepare tasty meals with mutton like Khorkhog or various varieties of Ravioli
The most tasty mutton meal is Khorkhog. One of the two best Khorkhog meals was served to us at the Khövsgöl lake in the Deltur camp. The mutton simmered between hot stones in a metallic pot behind the house, while the gifted cooks prepared the side dishes on the small wooden oven in the kitchen.
The second great Khorkhog was served by the Hoyor Zagal camp – it was a luxury picknick in the Khögnö Khpaan mountains – a real surprise. We felt like Chinggis Khan (the name of the camp reminds of his two white horses – “the two white ones”).
Another tasty mutton meal are dumplings: Bansh and buuz are small and steamed (they are of different shape), while Khushuur are bigger and fried (we had them sometimes for our picknicks). See Mongolian recipes.
Besides mutton, we had beef (I believe, sometimes from Yak) and chicken (which is perhaps more a compromise for the tourists).
For four weeks, we had meat twice every day. After having returned to Switzerland, I did not eat any meat for about a week, and then I turned back to normal.
Dairy products are the second component of the Mongolian diet. We had yoghurt from Yak milk for breakfast and dessert. The nomadic families would always offer their cream and dried cheese made from Yak milk, when being visited.
Airag is fermented milk of the female horse. We were told that in summer the nomads almost exclusively live on Airag which contains vitamins. Some of us liked the fermented milk that we were offered by one of the nomadic families we visited. It is in the big white pot and has to be stirred regularly with the wooden muddler.
We also watched how the mares are milked: One person has to hold the foal back and the second person is milking the mare.
Breakfast with bortzig and salted milk tea
Breakfast was often a hot meal. Most of the tourist camps we stayed in served eggs which are not part of the traditional Mongolian diet. What we liked most was the mutton noodle soup (shölte khool) – it warmed us up after a chilly morning in the ger. The salted milk tea tasted much better than I expected, but we were thankful that we tourists also had the choice of black tea. The absolute breakfast hit were the bortzig. They are fried unleavened bread cookies and reminded us of our Schänggeli (a Swiss cooky).
Mushrooms and vegetables are not for human beings
At the start of each meal, our Mongolian guide Jacqui would walk around with the salad plate asking “who can help me.” He had grown up in a nomadic family that had to withstand minus 40 degrees centograde in their ger in winter. All beyond meat and dairy products is just not nourishing enough to be efficient in that situation. Salad or vegetables are served to animals or to tourists and they are now on the menus of the restaurants in Ulan Baator. But a nomad guy simply cannot waste any energy to eat vegetables – this is food for the animals.
On the Khövsgöl lake my eyes would flow over from all the mushrooms there – I had to be careful not to step on to them. I could have collected mushrooms without having to search for them. It was the first time in my life that I saw the boletus with the red hat – and of course many more boletus. I could have cooked a tasty Risotto for an army every day. But the Mongolians do not bother to eat mushrooms. Not enough nutritive value. They dry some of them as a medicine for animals.
Well, once I saw Pudje frown at a white mushroom on a meadow. And he was right. It was a death cap with the white lamellas. The Mongolians know their mushrooms, but they do not eat them.
So, meat (above all mutton) and dairy products, this is the diet of the Mongolians. And it made them very agile fighters, when gathered by Chinggis Khan to conquer the world around 1200. They had the dried meat under their saddles and the mares’ milk was also with them. They had the basic food with them to nourish themselves while conquering the world. A mobile solution. The big baggage could follow later.
Experience gastronomy in Ulan Baator
Ulan Baator is becoming a world city with a lively restaurant culture.
Matthias and Jacqui took us into a castle in Ulan Baator’s small Disney Land, where we could dream of princesses and princes.
And for lunch they selected this restaurant full of activity, where the guests have to select the ingredients and then watch, how the cooks prepare them on the cookig stove – acting a real performance.
Yes, Mongolia is changing quickly. Already half of the population is no longer agile nomads, but people living in cities.