Hearty Food of Mongolian Winter

parks may21 womentent postnew.jpg

Photo by Brandt Miller

PHOTO 1 OF 14 VIEW SLIDESHOW>>

In the Bradt travel guide on Mongolia, there's a section about food, and in that section there's a text box titled "In Defense of Mongolian Food." It's a very, very small box. And, as it turns out, it's not so much a defense of Mongolian food as an assurance it's possible to find other things to eat.

No one, it seems, has much nice to say about Mongolian cuisine. Still, I was curious. Mongolia could be called the world's original all organic country--though that doesn't translate to heirloom tomatoes. One percent of the land is arable. Many people still live as nomadic herders. The staples here derive from the milk or meat of Mongolia's "five snouts": horses, camels, sheep, goats, and cattle/yaks--plus the occasional blow-torched marmot.

"Cautionary Note!" reads another Bradt box. "This is not the place to come if you're a vegan."

In February, two friends and I left the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for a journey to Mongolia's far north. Along the way we planned to stop for Tsaagan Tsar--a national feast celebrating the end of another bitter winter. Far removed from the milk-rich days of summer, winter in Mongolia means meat, and, in the days before the holiday, people everywhere were complaining about spending all their time making buuz, or steamed mutton dumplings. How many have you made, I would ask.

VIEW SLIDESHOW>> parks may21 ribs postnew.jpg

Photo by Michael A. Parks

"1,500," said an exasperated teenager. "I was up until five last night!"

"About 3,000," said the matriarch of a large family.

"I hope you like mutton," said my language teacher, ominously, the day before we departed.

Our first stop was a ger (traditional nomad dwelling) in the town of Moren. Inside the round felt structure a half-dozen children, parents, and friends looked on as a woman ladled suutei tsai (salted milk tea) out of a pot set atop the wood-burning stove.

Just behind the stove, the Tsaagan Tsar food was laid out: boov (cookies fried in beef tallow), candy, aaruul (dried curds), homemade butter, the back and tail of a sheep, and the better part of a boiled goat--head included--cut up in a bowl. After tea was served, a man cut me a chunk of fat from the sheep rump. To my surprise, it was good, like a piece of grainy, smoked butter. I realized then that the taste of Mongolian food is proportional to how cold you were before eating it. Outside, it was fifteen below. Sheep fat and salty tea hit a spot I didn't know I had.

Still, the buuz were lurking. When they came out, my initial reaction was that they, too, were tasty. But we made a tactical error. We ate quickly. In Mongolia, where hospitality for wayfarers can be a matter of life and death, a guests' bowl never stays empty long. Soon we were on our tenth buuz, with no end in sight.

Presented by

Michael A. Parks is a freelance writer living in Texas. More

Michael A. Parks is a freelance writer living in Texas. He spent 2009 as a Fulbright Fellow in Mongolia.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In